Thursday, November 5, 2020

What it's like when your dad is going to die that morning

My dad died in the wee hours of the morning on Monday. He'd been in the hospital for about three weeks fighting COVID-19. Up until Saturday, there was never a doubt in my mind he'd be walking out of there, even after he was intubated.

The day he died, I didn't know what to do with my feelings. The next day I wrote this and posted it to Facebook. It helped to write it and seeing the responses actually was healing.

I'm posting it here in honor of the man who supported me through everything it took to get me where I am, and who really deserved to be here when I finally made it. He was 73 and in otherwise great shape until this. I will never feel like I wasn't robbed of another decade with him.


You’ve just hung up from the call. The call you’ve dreaded since he took a turn for the worse yesterday.  The doctor told you a lot of explanations and reasons and jargon for how we arrived at this moment, but all you really need to understand is this: they’re moving to comfort care. Your dad is going to die that morning.

Your brother and your mother are with him, but you are not. You’re three thousand miles away. It’s 2:58am. You’re in the living room, waiting for the next call, the one that will come when your mother and your brother are actually by his side. They’ll hold up the phone so he can hear. “Can he really hear you?” you wonder. It will be the last time you talk to him. And then they will let him go. He’ll be comfortable, but he’ll be gone before the sun comes up where you are.

This is it, so you’ll have to make those words count. But you can’t wing it, because if you fall apart you’ll forget something. You’ll get it wrong and you’ll hate yourself for the rest of your life for getting it wrong. It has to be right. Even if he can’t hear you it has to be right.

The clock in the living room ticks each second as you try to gather your thoughts. Most of the time you don’t hear it, but the house is so still that the sound travels. It just turns up the pressure. How long will it take your mother and brother to put on their gowns? That’s how long you have to figure out what to say.

There’s no rewrites. No rainbow draft. They’re not even giving you blue pages. They’re shooting the white pages of this script and you have minutes to get them to set.

There’s so much to say. No, so much you COULD say. What do you NEED to say? Better, what does he NEED to hear? Focus, this is not about you. When you hang up it can be about you. This is about him.

You figure out what was unsaid. Oh god, when he was in the hospital, did you tell him you loved him? You check your texts with him, the messages that go right up to the night before he was intubated. The guilt comes back. They stopped voice calls a week before that to preserve his oxygen, but somewhere wires got crossed and you didn’t learn until almost a week later that he was still reading and responding to texts. When you realized, you sent him pics of your son to raise his spirits. You convinced yourself it was just a few days missed, that he’d be fine.

Now you wish you had those days back. But you see the last text you sent that he saw: “Love you too.” You breathe, and then you remember that you said that to him in at least two of your phone calls to him. You’re not sure if you did on that one. The one that freaked you out a little bit.

It is 3:20am. You think you’ve found the words. Why haven’t they called? What’s taking them so long? You find yourself impatient for a moment you dreaded, only because you’re afraid of losing it all.

It is 3:35am. The phone buzzes. This is it. Once you take the call it becomes real. You take that last second and put on your game face.

They put your brother’s phone to his ear. You think about how it’s easier to do this without having to see him and then immediately curse yourself for such selfishness. It’s not about YOU.

You start by reminding him of your call yesterday. Then one where you knew they wanted you to say goodbye. You’re terrible at goodbyes so you told him you weren’t going to say goodbye. Instead, you told him about your big show. You told him about the dreams coming true. The ones he’d helped nurture in you. 

And then you reminded him of a favorite movie quote – that moment in DUMB & DUMBER when Jim Carrey is told his chances with the girl are “one in a million” and his instant response was “so you’re saying there’s a chance!” Dad loved that quote. He used it all the time. You remember that time when your school was threatened with closure and the odds of stopping it were just as long. Dad was one of the people whose attitude was “So you’re saying there’s a chance.” You reminded him of this. You told him he had to believe it. You told him he had to believe it because YOU believed it.

But that was last night. Tonight you start by reminding him you said you weren’t going to say goodbye, but this is goodbye. God, this was so much easier in your head. Speaking it outloud, it becomes a incantation that summons all the feelings you’re not ready to deal with. You breathe.

You tell him not to worry. That you’ll be okay. Mom will be okay because she’ll have us. We’ll take care of each other, you promise him.

You tell him you were glad you got to talk when he was in the hospital. You say you enjoyed those talks. You know he’ll know what it means – the talk that freaked you out because you could feel him trying to tie up loose ends just in case. The one where he kept saying how much you impressed him and you just wanted him to stop because all you heard was the subtext “I need to say this in case I die.” The one where the only way to deal with it was to become modest and self-deprecating.

And then you tell him you’ve been thinking about his favorite movie, THE WIZARD OF OZ. Specifically, you’ve been thinking of the quote he used in your grandfather’s funeral 26 years earlier: “A heart is not judged by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others.” You tell him, “Dad, you are loved.” You tell him “I love you” and it hurts because you know it’s the last time he’ll hear you say it. 

You tell him goodbye.

You hear your brother say his goodbyes and the pain in his voice makes you wish you could do anything to comfort him. This is not how you imagined this moment ever going down.

You expect that your mother will be next, but you can’t hear anything. Is she whispering? Did she speak to him privately? You wonder what’s happening. Eventually you decide this is where they’re making him comfortable. Where your mother and brother will be with him. Should you be with them? Will it help? 

You can’t do this. You’re not there. You can’t see him. You’re a blind phantom, unable to touch or see anything, only hear the silence of a life slipping away. This is not helping. You tell them you have to go.

It is 3:50am. You go to bed. Your wife tries to offer comfort, but there’s no comfort to be found. This is going to hurt. You toss and turn. How can you not be tired this late? How are you not exhausted?

Why can’t you cry enough right now? You remember that insane cathartic cry you got watching that ER episode where Anthony Edwards died. The one where his daughter played “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” for him as he passed. Shit! Why didn’t you think of that an hour ago? Why didn’t YOU suggest playing that song for Dad? That would have been perfect. If you’d given it more thought during those fifteen minutes you were impatient, you might have come up with it.

You wonder if it’s too late to call and suggest it. You decide to let it go. 

Shit. That would have been so perfect. You kick yourself again.

It is later. You are still trying to sleep. Suddenly, with your eyes closed you see something that looks like golden starbursts. They’re not afterimages. You know what afterimages look like. This is different. And as they pulse you feel the slightest tapping on your eyelids. It’s not normal. But it has to be normal because you don’t believe in this stuff. You’re not Mulder, you’re Scully. You’re not spiritual.

But you check the clock anyway, just in case. It is 4:46am. If you don’t believe, then why did you check? Was it him?

You don’t remember falling asleep, but you must have because now you’re being awakened by the email alert on your phone. It’s Mom. A mass email to spread the word. It says he died this morning at about 8:00am, meaning 5:00am where you are. 

Later you’ll tell your brother about the experience. You’ll feel stupid and silly. You think he’ll see you as a drama queen trying to make it about you, or boasting that “Dad reached out to me!” It’s neither, you just have to know. He tells you Dad died at about five minutes before eight, but that 4:45 was about when they stopped the ventilator. He'll later tell you that was the minute he felt like he saw the spirit leaving his body, even mentioning that to your mother.

Was it him? Was he telling you he knew what you said? That he knew that you loved him? You think about this until you realize of course he knew you loved him. He’s your dad.

No, the past tense hits you, he WAS your dad.

No, you realize, he will ALWAYS be your dad.

And you will always love him.


  1. I am *gutted* just by reading this: I cannot imagine what it must’ve been like to *live* through it, but you’ve done an excellent job conveying the experience in words. My sincere condolences to you and your family.

  2. This is profoundly moving. I'm sorry. And thank you for writing it.

  3. This was beautifully done. I've very sorry for your loss. Its one of the hardest things we all go through.

    I was particularly struck by one thing, when your dad said how much you impressed him. I don't think parents say that to children very often. They say they love them and are proud of them, but not often that they are impressed by them.

    I'm sure your dad was impressed with your talent. But if I had to guess, I'd imagine he was even more impressed by your determination and perseverance. You had a dream and a goal and you wouldn't let go of it. You figured out a way to survive until you could get where you wanted to be. And you didn't just survive, but built a life and started a family. I'm sure he was quite impressed by that.

    I think you and your brother are your father's best legacies. And he left you an example to follow in helping your son and any other children be your best legacies. You will always have that example to follow, another way in which he will always be your dad.

  4. Sorrowful writing, but well done and heartfelt. Sorry for your loss.