Tuesday afternoon, around 4:45 pm, Carmen, my father’s nurse starts shutting down the various machines currently keeping him alive. My sister N and I stand together in his room in the Intensive Care Unit at Staten Island University Hospital. My other sister, my stepmother and my stepbrother sit in the waiting room, unable to bear to witness to the final moments of my father’s life.
Bawling, N and I embrace, anticipating my father’s final breath, crushed by the weight of a moment you hope to only read about in books and see in the movies or on television.
Carmen lets us know that it can sometimes take a few days, other times minutes for a patient who is being terminally weaned from life-supporting machines to pass. She believes it will only be a few minutes for my father and lets us know as much. We take her word, as she’s been intently watching my father’s progress and vitals – her only job at the moment, as each ICU patient has their own dedicated nurse monitoring them at all times.
The ventilator, dialysis machine and external pacemaker are turned off. A steady flow of morphine is turned up and courses through my father’s body. My sister and I stand, embracing each other, unable to control the endless river of tears streaming down our faces.
“It looks like he’s trying to say something,” I tell Naomi as his mouth seems to be moving intently, with vigor, while the ventilator is still inserted. “We’re going to need you guys to leave for a few minutes so that we can remove the machines” Carmen informs us. My sister and I step outside the curtain. In a few minutes we’re told we can go back in and there sits my father, looking more alert and conscious than he did at any point when the machines were still attached and performing the duties that his organs were no longer capable of on their own.
“Am I dead?” asks my father, who, since I’d arrived on Sunday had seemed anything but lucid.
“No daddy, you’re not dead.” my sister tells him, tears continuing to flow.
“Am I dying?”
“Daddy, you’re very sick” N manages to say.
“Pop, it’s Matthew and N. Your son and daughter. Do you know who we are?” I ask.
“Of course, I know who you are” he replies, a hint of contempt in his voice, balking at the absurdity of not knowing who we are.
My relationship with my father had been somewhat estranged for well over a decade. The more I pulled away, the more it allowed him to craft our interactions to meet his own emotional needs. The relationship eventually became this – him calling me more often than I’d like(once a week, a few times a week, once every few weeks), those phone calls inducing high levels anxiety within me, that anxiety leading me letting the call go to my voicemail, resulting in him leaving me a 2 minute long message in which he would include every minute detail he could cram in before the call ended. I’d always eventually call him back. Sometimes it was soon – I needed just a few minutes to compose myself to a state where I could let him talk at me from anywhere from 10 minutes to a half an hour, other times it would take me days to muster the energy. Those times he would deem “too long” were often defined by a phone call from my stepmother – she only ever called me after he’d been complaining to her incessantly and/or taking it out on her in some way.
The calls from her always started with something like “Hi Matthew, I was thinking about you. Everything good by you?” which would immediately jump to “Hold on a second and let me get your father”, and at which point I’d suck it up and let him talk at me so that she, just like I, could be off the hook for being responsible for his emotional needs for at least a brief moment.
Talk at me – that’s literally what it was from my perspective. He would go on in excruciating detail about everything that had happened to him since the last time I’d called him back – details such as what drinks and foods ordered at which meals, what his friends’ kids(who I’d never met) were doing, every activity he’d done and currently had planned – all while never accepting any comments or questions I’d try to pose, thus inhibiting our interactions from becoming what I would define as a mutual dialogue or actual conversation. Finally, when he realized he needed to get off the phone, or if I’d made a move to end the call “Pop, I’ve got to get going, I just got to <insert made up destination> “ or “I’ve got to <insert fabricated responsibility pulling me away from the conversation>” he’d say something like “You and E are good?”
And after years of realizing that even if I decided to try and open up, to let him in on what was going on in my life, who I was as a person or what my thoughts were on any particular subject – he’d remain similarly disinterested in my response. I’d finally figured out that all I had to say was “We’re both doing good, nothing much going on here…”
He’d reply “Well, that’s good” and just like that, he’d let it be – no probing or genuine interest shown. I’d finally be able to get off the phone, free until the cycle started itself over again when he’d start calling me again in a few days or weeks.