by Marie Griffith (originally published in Shattered Magazine on June 26, 2017
None of us knew it would be the last time Mom and Dad were together.
Mom had been sick for years. Dad was her sole caretaker, still working his full-time job out of the home office, when he started feeling abnormally tired.
Mom hadn’t been out of the house for months, but she mustered up enough energy to visit Dad in the intensive care unit. Her visit was a surprise, and the oxygen mask couldn’t hide Dad’s big smile. They reached for each other, squeezed and patted each other’s hands and told each other, “I love you.”
We all felt the sacredness of that moment. I think they knew it was the last time they’d hold hands.
The next evening, my sisters and I tried to get comfortable in the cold, dark room. But a hospital floor isn’t made for sleeping—even with extra blankets and pillows. Neither is a small chair in the corner. The racket of the machines wouldn’t have let us rest anyway.
Our main concern was Daddy’s transition home from the hospital. Doctors told him there was nothing more they could do, so we waited there to be with him and help him with the move.
We don’t know why Daddy took off the BIPAP mask.
He’d tried to communicate with us several times earlier, but the mask distorted everything he said, and he was aggravated we couldn’t understand him. Maybe he was tired of the mask and the straps pressing into his face. Maybe he wanted to tell us something. Or maybe he knew he couldn’t handle the trip home.
We will never know.
The alarm shrilled as soon as the mask came off. We rushed to him, panicked, desperately and clumsily trying to pull the mask up to his face, calling for the nurses, yelling, “Daddy, Daddy!”
But he looked beyond us, holding the tube of the BIPAP machine tight in his hand. We couldn’t get the mask back up to his face. When we realized he was taking his last breaths, we rubbed his arms and face, held his hands, reassured him we were there, told him we loved him.
My sister sang a hymn.
We burst into tears when we realized he was gone. A nurse came in and verified he had no pulse. She told us to take as much time as we needed.
We kept looking at him. Crying. Wondering.
We called Mom first. Then the family.
It felt strange to leave him. We stalled—kissed him on the cheek, held his hands, told him we loved him. Then we left. Reluctantly. Silently. Missing Daddy already.
I was exhausted after the funeral. But family and friends were bringing dinner, and far-away friends were in town. I wanted to go home, sit alone in the dark and cry. But I couldn’t. There were more people to visit with. Talk with. And the house needed to be cleaned after everyone left.
And Mom. We had to make sure Mom was all right. We had to take care of her now.
The months prior to Dad’s death were some of the most exhausting days of my life. My husband and I were going through a rough season in our marriage. I’d just started a new job, while consulting at my previous one. Finding time for some much-needed, one-on-one discussion was nearly impossible with our jobs, three kids, my sick parents and other normal life happenings.
So we didn’t.
I tried to stay strong. The low-dose antidepressant my family doctor prescribed helped me put on the good face some days. I was coping the best I could but on the verge of tears constantly.
My heart was breaking.
Because of the growing distance between my husband and me. Because my kids needed me, and I couldn’t be there. Because my parents, who used to be strong and capable and always there, needed me to be strong and capable and always there. Because all Daddy wanted was to keep caring for Mom, but he was getting weaker and weaker. Because the new job I thought I always wanted wasn’t what I wanted.
Nothing was like it should be.
Then Daddy was gone. And I did the things you’re supposed to after someone dies. The phone calls and funeral arrangements. The telling of what happened over and over again because he was fine a few months ago.
An Unbearable Hurt
Mom had good days and bad days, but the bad ones were coming more often. When she couldn’t breathe, she wanted us there. All of us. By her side. Just there.
Everything hurt my heart. I felt raw. It hurt to be around people. and I wanted the pain to go away. For the first time in my life, I thought about drinking it away, but I knew it would only make things worse.
So I stuck to one glass of wine a few days a week. Sometimes two glasses. Sometimes more than a few days a week.
And I kept trying to be strong, but there was nothing left.
Seven months after Daddy died so did Mom.
She was tired of fighting for breath. Mom wasn’t scared of dying, only of suffocating.
We were standing around her bed at home when she ran out of breath. That’s what it was like. No gasping. No struggling. No fear. Her breathing slowed, a gradual peaceful stilling of her chest,. Then her breath was no more.
We sat in the same room at the same funeral home with the same young funeral director, and I thought about how nothing was how I thought it would be.
But I thought about it as if I were looking on, separated from all of it somehow. Everything was muted and kind of dulled. What I heard, what I said, what I saw, what I felt.
A Fade So Gradual
In between the deaths of my parents, my marriage took another hit. We had been struggling for a while, and it was already so fragile. I was really scared.
Maybe that was the last time I’d felt anything full-strength. Maybe a part of my heart shut down. Maybe the anti-depressant was doing what it was supposed to do.
As I sat there with my sisters around that table, choosing the hymns for Mom’s funeral service, I remembered comments Mom and Dad had made. Some of them to me. Some to others about me.
They had noticed my fading. My distance. I wasn’t myself, and they were worried. I had told them over and over that I was fine. I think I thought I was fine. I think I thought everything would be fine. But they saw what I couldn’t see.
The thing about fading is that it happens so slowly you don’t feel it or see it. It goes unnoticed at first. Then the heaviness gets heavier. The darkness gets a little darker. And you get used to walking around in the dark.
I kept doing what I knew to do. What I had to do. Because the world doesn’t stop when your marriage is crumbling or when your Dad gets sick and when you just need time to think about things and feel things and mourn things.
It grew heavier and darker, and I was tired—the kind of tired that went into my bones. I woke up ready for each day to be over.
But in the funeral home, as we reviewed the order of Mom’s service, the words of one of the hymns came to my mind:
O Lord, my God, when I in awesome wonder
Consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made;
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed
Then sings my soul, My Savior, God, to Thee
How great thou art, How great thou art
Then sings my soul, My Savior, God, to Thee
How great Thou art, How great Thou art!
And I wanted my soul to sing again. I wanted to wonder again at all that God has made.
I’d not lost all hope. There was still some in there.
After our parents were gone, my sisters and I began the process of going through their things—one dresser drawer, bookshelf, closet at a time. Trying to sort through your parents’ lives while grieving is difficult, but we gave ourselves time.
Coming out of the dark happened as gradually as going in. I didn’t notice at first. The year following Mom’s death I not only grieved and remembered, but I began some new things. Three months after Mom died, I ran my very first 5K sponsored by The Hospice of the Valley. They cared for Mom with such tenderness I wanted to help raise money to support them.
Grieving came in spurts, but it wasn’t only the loss of my parents I mourned. I grieved all the changes in my life. My marriage was still fragile, and we were working through the challenges. I grieved I wasn’t fully there for my kids during my darkest days. I grieved I hadn’t been there for Dad more when he was in the hospital. I was sad I hadn’t listened more intently to Mom’s stories in her last days.
My life wasn’t what I thought it would be, and I mourned that too.
Coming Out of the Darkness
While my parents were sick—and even during the grieving process—I was overwhelmed with sadness that I couldn’t be there the way I wanted to be there for anyone. I couldn’t be there enough for my husband or children, my parents or sisters, my friends, my employer, my church or small group. I didn’t have enough. Couldn’t give enough. Couldn’t be enough.
And I wasn’t the only one grieving and sorting through difficult changes. My husband and children went through it too. We gave each other permission to feel what we felt, to grieve in a personal way.
I let myself remember and feel things. I didn’t try to push the pain away—I felt it full force and cried a thousand tears. As I grieved, reminisced and began to embrace my new life I became aware of a lightness. I laughed more and had more energy. I was sleeping better too. I talked with my doctor about the antidepressant, and she told me I could stop taking it.
My husband and I will celebrate our 23rd wedding anniversary in August. We’re learning how to love each other better. I still run three days a week and run an occasional race. It no longer hurts to be with those who know me best. My friends are a vital part of my encouraging support.
There are still a few boxes in the attic, an antique adding machine in the loft of the barn, and a thousand photos in the sun room. And it’s okay. We’ll get to it.
I knew God was with me every moment during my depression. I just didn’t feel Him the way I wanted to. And it wasn’t because I didn’t ask. I cried out from the depths of my soul for Him to come and rescue me from the pain and darkness. I couldn’t understand, but I trusted Him.
I don’t know how this works, but all the pain and all the tears enlarged my heart. I have more room in there for stronger faith, sturdier hope and a deeper love. Now I see clearly the grace He gave.
I was never enough, but God was.