Maritza's Story

I feel I have no one that understands where I'm at.  I was the one at the very end of my dad's illness who spent day and night with him while he was dying.  My mother tried, but it was too much for her. I decided for myself and my family I needed to do this. But let me backtrack and tell you about what happened.

My father and mother were married 39 years, and as far as I recall they never even disagreed. My friends used to envy my family.  My parents were strong, yet giving, and let my brother Alan (who I love very much) and I grow up with every advantage possible. My dad was a brilliant man, a reactor physicist, mathematics major and a civil engineer.

Twenty five years ago, my Dad had a black mole on his back, I barely remember it, but my mum told me about it later. She said he was so private about it that she didn't know about it until he had it removed. We thought nothing of it. The procedure was done because it looked pre-cancerous, so he took the precaution.

My Dad wasn't a sunbather, he didn't drink or smoke. He ran all the time, and swam in the ocean almost every day for the last 7-8 years. He was so healthy I was envious; and I am 34 years his junior.

In July of 1998 I had to let my parents take care of my beloved cat Max, as I had moved and my landlords were unsure about having him at the new residence. During his stay, Max bonded with my dad. One day after being on my dad's lap, he was startled and jumped off my dad's lap and scratched him on the shoulder. It was about the same time the Financial Post wrote an article about cat scratch fever. My mum saw a lump, and immediately took my dad to the doctor.  They did a biopsy, and found he had an advance stage cancer and some tumors of an unknown kind. It took months for them to find out what it was, and by that time he had undergone such invasive tests it was almost unbearable.  Finally, they found 3-4 cells that were malignant in his stomach. They actually didn't tell my Dad how sick he was, but they told my mother and me.

She asked me to go to Portland with her for support. It was horrible, sitting there in this waiting room, having a clinical explanation from a doctor who seemed like he was trying to prepare us for the worst. He basically said that my dad had 3 weeks or so, and to make the best of it. What were we to do? We were in shock. Was there no hope? Weren't we going to fight this with him? We loved him. Were we just supposed to let him go?

We decided to talk about the options as a family and it all started from there.  Most of it was done between my mother and father, and mum would clue us in on the details of "his decision". He tried everything for 7 months from chemo to brain radiation, but it made him so sick, and after the brain radiation he just wasn't the same.  After the brain radiation treatments,  he stayed in bed almost all the time until I went out at my mum's request and found him a light weight walker with wheels. I think he felt humiliated, and he didn't ever want to talk about his demise.

I remember lying on his bed. Not talking, just looking at him. We held hands. I thought that was enough. It wasn't.  It was so hard for my mother taking care of the man she once knew as strong and healthy. She stayed so strong, she was there at all times for him, and loved him with every inch of her being. She is a angel to us, to me.

One day in February of 1999, my dad collapsed after what seemed like a normal day. My mom was panic stricken and called an ambulance. They put him in palliative care by mistake not understanding the wishes of my mother. I have to tell you I practically strangled a doctor until he put my Dad on a wait list for the intensive care unit. OH MY GOD, it took 3 1/2 hours, not a half hour like they said, and he just went sooooo downhill. He needed to have special care, and tests etc. but by that time he had gone so far downhill.

My dad's condition was bad but it made me sick that the people in the hospital said he was a vegetable, and they left him to die. The doctor asked in front of my dad, "Maritza, in the event of emergency, should they just let him go." I said in a low and angry tone that my father could understand, and not to say those things in front of him. The doctor dismissed me, and as he left, my father opened his eyes and looked at me. I know that comment upset him, I think it made him so upset that he took that turn for the worse. He hadn't really made any physical effort to do anything up until then really, he was almost in a coma.  He reached forward, moving in his bed for the first time in a few hours and tried to grab my hand. In a raspy voice he asked if I had signed "the papers".  I said "No Dad, there are going to be no papers signed; don't you dare think that. Don't you dare."

This is where my real grief kicked in, and sunk my heart like a thousand pound anchor to the depths of the unknown.

After the doctor left, a minute or two later my father bolted forward in a spasm, blood clots coming out of his nose, I grabbed him and he vomited fluids and coffee-like grounds all over me. He reached out for me, and looked to me in desperation, I tried to turn him over so he wouldn't choke.  I didn't know what to do. I laid him back, and struggled to find that stupid, stupid alarm. It wasn't around. I ran outside into the hall. There was not a nurse to be found.   By that time he was so sick they were ready to write him off. I ran down the hall and begged a nurse to come and help but she was too busy.  They were way too understaffed. It wasn't her fault. I had to scream like a crazy woman that he was dying, and that I couldn't help him. I YELLED that he would choke to death and to come help me.

Here is where I get a tiny bit of peace... I believe that he was with me every step of the way.  He was in the intensive care unit, and it was about 3 in the morning and I was going for coffee, and I said, "I'm letting go of your hand; I'll be right back".   I let go of his hand and he opened one eye and  he spoke. He said, "Where is your hand?" and then went back to the special place in his mind. I barely heard him speak, but I saw his look. He knew I was there for him.

It was very upsetting in the end. He was restless, moving his arm over his head as if to cover his eyes. He was fretting, maybe struggling to not let go while I was there. He tried so hard. It hurt me so much.  I have a feeling he was waiting for me to go; he knew I didn't want him to die.

I told him I was coming back soon, after a shower & a quick bite to eat. I went home for a shower and to rest.  There had been no changes. I was on my way back to the hospital and about 10 minutes before I got back to the hospital, I burst into uncontrollable tears, and I just knew he had gone. I went to the emergency waiting room, and this other family that I had been conversing with for the last 3 days all looked at me, and they were so silent. One even had tears welling up in her eyes. They knew, and I knew.

This really nice nurse asked me to step into a private room. She told me my father had died.  My father was alone when he passed away. I had no one to turn to for comfort. I vomited. I started having an asthma attack. I was so angry at myself for not being there when he passed away. Why did he wait until I left? I wanted to comfort him until the end. He was too proud, too private. The nurse had already called my mum & brother so they managed to get there about 20 minutes later. They came in and we talked and hugged.

I went to see him by myself. His body was cold, it was like a shell. I felt like his soul was gone. It had left his body and it wasn't really him any more.  I couldn't stay.  I hugged him and told him how much I loved him, and then I left. His cheek was cold.

My mum and brother went in and said their good-byes, and asked if I wanted to do it with them. I can't remember whether I did or not.  I still can't let go of this day.  I don't know if I ever will.  Where did he go?

It's been awhile now and I'm okay some days but miserable others.  My mother is having a bad 2nd year. Last year was a blur; she was in denial. She says she's much more sensitive to being in social situations, and things set her off a little more now than they did before. But...she is strong for me. It makes me sad that when I hurt, it hurts her. I don't have anyone else to talk to, and I feel so bad bothering her with my sadness. My brother-well, you'd have to ask him, since we never speak about the things that happened.  It isn't really discussed between us. We just reminisce.

copyright 2000 Susan Peticolas Lahti