An Attempt at Processing the End of a Story
I plan on writing a memorial for my dad on here at a later date, but ever since he passed away a few weeks ago I’ve felt the need to get the actual experience down in writing. For those of you who get frightened or confused by my serious side, I’ve included the tag “serious-face” to warn you. This could actually include something important.
A little over a month ago my dad, Ed Adkins II, died in a rest home from ALS, also referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The entire trip played out like a coming of age film- somewhere between Garden State and Fear and Loathing. While the entire thing offers much for me to write about, it’s the actual moment of his death that enters into my head (sometimes once a day, sometimes a few) and my dreams.
Arrival, The Build-up and Contemplating Regret
Heidi, Paige and I were the last to have arrived to the rest home. The drive there had been actually peaceful- we had made good time from Baltimore to rural Delaware since it was after midnight by the time we had headed from the airport in our rental. Only having been to Delaware maybe 5-7 times in the last 14 years, it always has a mythical feel for me- somewhere between nostalgia and lack of familiarity. Like an old friend who’s changed significantly over the years.
When we got out of the car we greeted my step brothers, who led us back into the facility where my dad had been the last couple months. My sister had told me over the phone to prepare myself for seeing my dad. I’m pretty sure I was holding Paige- she had been amazingly behaved through the last minute flights- she turned 4 on the plane and spent both flights thoroughly entertaining anyone around us. At this point she had slept very little but was awake and had a very mature handle on how serious everything was.
Walking through rest homes provides a very clear sense of detached despair. It’s not too dissimilar from passing jail cells- you get these tiny snapshots of people who no longer have the freedom you do, as you pretend not to look. So we arrived- the room. I hadn’t been calling my dad very much the last few years. I knew he had been slowly deteriorating from PLS, the slower cousin of ALS, and then how a few months back he’d been diagnosed with ALS and given about 6 months to live. My neglect, which had always seemed somewhat reasonable to me for reasons I won’t put into this post, had me questioning whether I’d let myself feel guilty over it. What would seeing him bring up for me?
It was your usual bare-bones rest home. Two hospital beds, a couple TVs mounted on the walls, a couple closets a bathroom and curtains that could be drawn around each bed for privacy when being changed. This place was pretty nice- I hadn’t smelled that much of the urine/ammonia smell that usually characterizes these facilities. I give it a 7.5 out of 10.
My dad was laying in one bed, and the other had been made empty to accommodate the family while we kept watch. My family had been there for a day already but everyone was happy to be reunited and pretty alert for 3am. We all caught up a bit. My family told me my father’s condition, and that he wasn’t expected to make it through the night. Everyone had thought he was holding on until we arrived.
He laid there, propped up on the bed at a little less than 45 degree angle, sort of sitting and laying at once. His head hung to the side, and his chest raising over and over to take in labored, raspy gasps. His eyes, though slightly open, only revealed grayish eyes that seemed asleep.
The nurse let me know that they had kept his morphine level down so that he’d be able to greet me when I arrived. She gave him some morphine from a dropper, then gently took ahold of his head to get his attention and raised her voice to tell him I was there. Though his face was fixed in a way that betrayed little, his eyes became more aware. I leaned over him and let him know that Heidi, Paige and I were there. Paige was a little too unsure of it all to give him a hug but she came close. I smiled a lot to reassure him and we kept our gazes on each other- then tears started to drip from his eyes- that’s the extent of our communication in those last hours.
Were they tears of joy? Were they frustration over his lack of speech? Regrets? They had to be enough, because no one could translate them. They’re mine to interpret.
Waiting for the End
The next day and a half were the same. If you did a time-lapse of the room you’d see us taking turns sitting at his bed recounting the countless insane Adkins stories that we know he loved. Sometimes someone would get a 30 minute nap. The occasional exit for a cigarette or to stretch, and lots of Paige climbing in people’s laps to comfort them or ask questions about what was happening. She picks up so much. There was also lots of crying.
Then it happened. After so many pleas for him to finally let go, his body was showing the obvious signs that it was shutting down forever. I had been nodding off, so they called me over. Everyone had a hand on him and were reassuring him that we were there and that we loved him. This process had seemed so long- he held on a day or two longer than expected and the whole time we had thought it was the very end. Our hearts had been given a lot of time to rehearse.
The very last moment was what stays with me. I had been holding onto my dad’s hand earlier, and studying his forearm. It was almost the same as when I was a kid and I’d climb into bed with him first thing on Saturday morning. I’d lay there and we’d talk and his dark hand with his college ring would be either gesturing what he was talking about, or arm wrestling me or occasionally playing the part of “the claw.” His hands are bigger than mine- a lot stronger. He was a football player and a manly man. I’ve got skinny hands that I’d always thought would grow into his, but they didn’t. This was the arm of the patriarch. It still looked like and even smelled like smelled like strength and Saturday mornings. All my senses seemed like they were trying to take a picture.
Then I was snapped to attention- my dad actually raised his head up. The color returned to his eyes and everyone was quiet. My sister continued to reassure him and he looked right into her eyes. It could have been the strain of hold his head up, but his eyes looked kind of amazed. Heidi has wondered if he was seeing something we weren’t. He then panned the room and with his eyes still wide, locked eyes with each one of us, one at a time. Then, with his eyes still open he let all of his air from his lungs.
What Comes out of This
At this point we all pretty much broke down- not necessarily crying, we just didn’t have anything else to do. As people started to choose a task, packing his clothes or shutting his eyes, I sat down on the other bed and started crying. Paige came over and was amazingly comforting.
“Why are you crying, Daddy?”
“My father just died.”
“But Daddy you don’t have to be sad. People get old and they die. How old was he, Dad?”
“Daddy, that’s really old. It’s ok. You don’t have to be sad. You can be happy!”
Heidi came over and explained to page that it’s OK to be sad sometimes, but she was convinced that just by deciding to be happy I could turn it around. It was such an amazing moment that I actually did. I love my daughter so much- I’m convinced she’s here to save the world.
That last moment, where he looked at us, that stays with me. It shows up when I’m not thinking of anything, when I see someone die in a movie or in the occasional dream. I’m not unaccustomed to thinking about death- I’m constantly aware that someday all of this will be over and I want to make the most of it. But, I’m seeing it different now.
Maybe it’s because I’m the last Edward Sterling Adkins. Maybe it’s because I gave the Eulogy for the two others who came before me. I haven’t processed what this means to me fully, but I see people’s deaths differently now. I see my own differently, too. More importantly, I see my life a little differently, and while figuring out what that means is for a different post, I’m intensely grateful for it.