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Loving Dad

We weren't prepared. Neither was Dad. But he taught us about dying with dignity—and a sense of humor.

En español | So fast. So hard. So terribly unexpected.

A long weekend in Phoenix to escape Inauguration craziness and spend time with my parents turned into a deathwatch for my father.

As Barack Obama took the oath of office, becoming the nation's first African American president, I took an oath, too: Mine was to care for Dad.

Surrounded by hospital beds and patients, my brother Len and I stared at the wall-mounted television as a black-suited Obama placed his hand on a Bible. But it was on our pale-blue-gowned Dad—undergoing a liver biopsy—where our fearful hearts were focused. Later, as his fog of anesthesia slowly lifted, we sat beside our father, caressed his face, and prayed.

The diagnosis arrived a few days later: Stage IV pancreatic cancer. Tired of being poked, scanned, and sliced—and two months shy of 87—our dad, Joseph D. Bencomo, chose hospice. We eight siblings chose to help Mom care for him at home.

<p>&quot;When you're watching your father die, does it really matter if there are 24 hours in a day?&quot; <br> </p>

When I'd arrived on Saturday, Dad was walking with a cane, his bum knee acting up again. Three days later, at the hospital, he was using the walker we'd just bought. By Friday, Dad was in a wheelchair. How could the strong, vibrant man who'd always made us laugh, taught us well, and loved us unconditionally become so weak so fast?

I stayed in Phoenix and became the de facto primary caregiver. But within days, my five brothers, two sisters, all the grandkids and great-grandkids travelled a few blocks to thousands of miles to be with Dad.

Time. When you're watching your father die, does it really matter if there are 24 hours in a day? Day or night, I just wanted to soak in his loving warmth, see his silly grin, and give him every ounce of myself.

All of us took turns beside him as he slept, held his hand, kept pillows plumped under his head and legs, and gently placed droplets of painkilling morphine under his tongue. We went sleepless, ate when we could, answered endless calls from extended family, and tried our best to share every remaining minute of Dad's life.

Unlike his physical strength, Dad's strength of will never waned. And he showed us what it is to face death with dignity—and a sense of humor. Like the time he solemnly sent for my brother Lou. We all held our breath as they talked behind closed doors. Could he be making a last request? Yes, he was. He wanted to make sure Lou would be prepared the next morning to head to Denny's and bring him a Grand Slam.

Or the morning he looked up at me and, straight-faced, told me he'd been struggling all night with a decision: In his dreams, he'd had to choose between an Egg McMuffin and a Jack-in-the-Box breakfast sandwich. Now awake, he still wasn't sure which to choose. Of course, he got both.

Kids, cats, and yard work always made Dad happy. That didn't change at the end. Days before his death, his energy sapped by cancer, Dad let his will take over. Wheelchair-bound, he declared he'd walk around the backyard. Incredulous, we wheeled him outside. My brother Martin and I gently lifted him to his feet.

"I want to touch the wall," he said. Slowly, very slowly, we walked the six feet and he placed his hand on the block fence. But he wasn't finished. He wanted to feel the rough bark of the enormous silk oak on the far side of the yard and walk through the grass he'd so carefully tended. He did. Then, exhausted, he sat down—and was promptly rewarded with a "roly-poly bug" by granddaughter Lina, then four. No one smiled wider than Grandpa.

These daily vignettes were far more than that, explained Pam, our hospice nurse. I say "our" because she truly took care of us all. Dad, she said, was saying goodbye to the things he loved. One last touch, one last step, one last savoring of a syrup-covered pancake and crisscross-cut fried eggs.

We laughed. We cried. We were exhausted.

Those three weeks of caregiving took a toll far beyond the emotional turmoil of losing a parent. I lost eight pounds and still have a bottle of cough syrup with codeine bearing the date of my father's death: February 10, 2009. There'd been no time to visit the doctor. One of my brothers took me early that morning, before we knew Dad would leave us that afternoon.

Still, I'm one of the lucky ones. My time was Dad's. Work wasn't the major issue it is for most caregivers. My employer, AARP, supported my caregiving decision, and my colleagues assumed my workload as I plowed through sick and vacation leave.

At the end, Mom and all eight of us—including, our youngest sister who lives in Egypt with her husband and daughter Lina—were at his side. A little while later, seeing the door to Dad's room open, I peeked inside.

Lina stood silently beside the bed where my father still lay. "I brought flowers for Grandpa," she said, pointing to a small bouquet gathered from one of Dad's many flowerbeds.

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