Chapter Six – Goodbye
My dad lived for about four years after the stroke that caused his car accident, just as his first doctor had predicted.
As a sixteen-year-old junior, I wanted to participate in the traditional powderpuff football game. As an underclassman, I had anticipated the day when I could sign up for the festivities. During this game, the junior and senior girls played each other in football, while the junior and senior guys did the cheerleading on the sidelines for their respective teams. There were a few practices beforehand to prepare for the main event. I was already on the swim team, and any chance to be away from Helga’s house was very attractive.
It was a Thursday afternoon when I arrived home from practice to the phone ringing. It was a call from the convalescent hospital where my dad lived.
“I think you should get here right away” said the concerned doctor on the other end of the line.
“Why?” I asked. “What’s going on?”
“It seems as though your father has developed a bleeding ulcer. He’s being transported to the emergency room at Vaca Valley Hospital now.”
“A bleeding ulcer?” I was still confused. “Is that very serious?”
“Ma’am, I think you should get here as soon as possible.”
This time the tone of his voice told me what I needed to know.
Although typically Helga’s house was well populated, on this particular afternoon no one else was home. There was no one to turn to. I called Gabe, the boy I was dating at the time, and he gave me a ride to the convalescent hospital. I met the ambulance at the front doors of the convalescent home. I got into the ambulance briefly, “daddy I love you.”
“I love you too” he answered me, and seemed alert and oriented, so I stepped back outside and asked the EMT “is my dad was going to be alright?”
The young man just shook his head and said “if only we had gotten to him sooner.” He closed the ambulance doors and walked briskly away from me.
In hindsight, I should have been panicking right then, but I wasn’t. I kept the panic at bay by telling myself how my dad seemed fine, and how he was going to be alright.
Gabe and I got back into his car, and followed the ambulance the few blocks to the hospital emergency room. I went into the ER and took my dad’s hand to hold it.
“Can I have a cigarette?” he asked.
A wave of frustration washed over me, and I quickly fought it back. “No dad, you can’t smoke in here.”
“Then take me outside” he said, his voice close to demanding.
“No dad, not right now” I told him. My heart felt sick. Here my dad was, lying on a gurney, fighting for his life, his mind occupied with smoking another cigarette.
Just then, I was called away by a nurse to fill out some insurance paperwork. As I started to walk away, my dad grabbed my hand, pulled me back toward him, and whispered “I love you.”
“I love you too dad.” Those were the last words I ever spoke to my father.
I finished the paperwork and was escorted to the waiting room. A few minutes later, a nurse came in and told me my dad had died and they had performed CPR to resuscitate him. One of my dad’s nurses summoned me from the ER waiting area back to the treatment area to say my final goodbyes. By the time I got to the doors of the emergency room two other nurses stood, blocking my path. One of them said “I’m sorry, he’s gone.”
In shock, I vaguely remember being led back to a small private room, sobbing. Gabe waited there, as did his father, who was a pastor at the church we attended. Gabe had stayed in the ER waiting area, and his dad had been called by the hospital to give my father last rights.
I was awash with grief. No amount of role playing came close to preparing me for the feelings I felt in that moment. There was no way to imagine how lost, alone, and abandoned I would feel. My daddy was gone. Nothing would ever be the same.
Helga arrived at some point. She offered little emotional support. She took me to gather my father’s things from the convalescent hospital. I held his blue suitcase in one hand and a large rainbow kite in the other. The kite represented my life with my father before he got sick. I remember the joy of flying kites with him in the summer sun. Walking out of the convalescent hospital, a nurse stopped me and asked “is your dad going home?"
I wanted to scream at her. I wanted to unleash all the pain and anger inside and feel justified in doing so. Instead, I paused, thought for a moment, and simply responded “Yes, my dad is going home.”
The weeks following my dad’s passing were almost unbearable. As I was grieving the death of my father, one of Helga’s foster kids asked me if I thought my dad had gone to heaven or hell. Floored, I looked at the child and told her this wasn’t an appropriate question to ask someone who’s loved one has just died. The child answered immediately, saying her mom had told her she could ask me whatever she wanted about my dad. This was one of the few times I defied Helga outright. I looked at the child squarely and said “I really don’t care what your mom says, don’t ask me that again.”
Later, a review of my father’s medical record and interviews with the staff at the convalescent hospital would reveal he had a bleeding ulcer for some time before it took his life. There were symptoms which were overlooked during medical rounds and routine bathroom trips which could have saved him.
Helga was the catalyst for a wrongful death lawsuit which was brought against the convalescent hospital where my dad had lived. The owners of the place settled out of court for a minimal amount. The lawyer involved took the money and set up an annuity in my name so Helga never saw a penny of it.