The Real Death Bed Experience

The past four months have been a whirlwind of turmoil in my life. In mid-February, my dad had an unexpected heart attack. He was driven by ambulance from Bozeman to Billings for a triple bypass surgery. At the age of 85, it was risky. But so was letting it go untreated.

We were able to go see him after the surgery, and he looked so small! He had tubes and wires hooked up everywhere. But his vitals looked good, and his color had already improved.

The surgery went well, he recovered well, and when he was discharged, he stayed in Billings for an additional week. My brother wanted my folks to stay with him and his wife, and I thought he would take care of them. Unfortunately, there was constant chaos in the house. There was no atmosphere conducive to healing, a fact I didn’t know until later.

A week after the surgery, the day before I was going to pick my folks up and drive them home, he had a massive stroke. He was flown to Denver, where most of the clot was removed from his brain. He had some lingering effects: a slight facial droop, some paralysis on his left side, slurred speech.

I flew to Denver the morning following the stroke, and when I saw him, I was relieved that he looked as good as he did. Mom was a wreck, as expected, but my best friend from high school had taken time away from her life to be with Mom until I could get there. She shuttled me, and my kids, to and from the airport. She offered us a place to stay, although she understood that she lived too far from the hospital for us to take her up on that.

Over the next few days, we hit every high and low imaginable. Dad rallied. Then he got pneumonia. He was put on oxygen. Then he was down to just a nose tube. They discovered a DVT in his left calf, so that eliminated physical therapy. They were planning on getting him out of ICU, then he was back on oxygen. More than once, I expected a late night phone call, telling me that he had passed on.

The short version: he fought with everything he had to make it home to Montana. His body just couldn’t overcome all the ailments and trauma that was inflicted on it. He died on March 15, 2020, with Mom and myself present.

I had never watched a person die before. It isn’t like the movies. There wasn’t a big death bed confession. There wasn’t an end-of-life speech. There wasn’t a revelation or catharsis. Once the cannula was removed from his nose, and morphine administered, his organs slowly shut down. It wasn’t an immediate death. It took about two hours for him to pass. But I don’t think he had any pain.

And to be honest, I don’t think his mind was present for any of it. I think he had started dying several days previously, and this was the final stage of it. When my mom stepped out to make a phone call, I told Dad that I would watch over her, make sure she was safe. I would have her move in with us and make sure she ate and paid the bills.

I thanked him for being a good dad and a good grandpa for my boys. I told him he could rest now. His job on earth was done. He didn’t respond. I only hope he heard me. On some level understood what I was telling him. I hope it brought him some peace in his passing.

At the end, it was my mom and me holding his hands as he breathed his last breath. His eyes were cloudy already, his skin muted and gray. The body left in the bed was not my dad. He was gone. Then began the process of getting him back to Montana.

My dad was not a religious person. He didn’t attend church or pray. But he had his own form of spirituality, mostly found on the backs of horses he had loved in his life. Whatever a person believes in, I have to think he is in heaven now, finding those horses he loved, and looking down to make sure we are all okay.

Garris just competed at the high school state finals. He had a so-so year, and honestly, I didn’t expect him to perform at his normal level. He hasn’t practiced or ridden his horses since fall. Most of the spring rodeos were cancelled. And his heart just didn’t seem to be in competition. But somehow, he qualified for Nationals. He roped all six calves, between the Wednesday night jackpot and the three gos of the rodeo.

I have a feeling my dad was sitting in the saddle with him, helping that rope go where it needed to and making sure Garris’ feet stepped down sure and strong. I’d like to think he was in the mix. It makes me feel closer to my dad to believe that he is still a part of our lives, and still helping the boys achieve their goals.

I only wish he could have been spared the pain and indignity of what he went through the last month of his life. My solace is that at the end of his life, he knew I loved him. I didn’t leave anything unsaid with my dad, and for that, I am grateful.

Because of this experience, I have made a more concerted effort to find the good in each day, work toward my goals, and to avoid fights with my youngest son. It is surreal to think I can’t call my dad to ask his advice on things or just chat about horses. I’ve reached for my phone multiple times since his passing.

Mom has moved in with us, and although we are all adjusting, it was the only solution for her. She couldn’t live alone. She went from her parents’ home to her married home. She has never lived by herself. She has never paid the bills or balanced a check book. She has never gassed up her own vehicle. And losing Dad was the hardest experience she has lived through.

Moving in with us was the only way she would be able to continue living her life, as close to what she’s used to. She still rides horses, and at 81, she still plans to show this summer in reined cow horse events. I have the space and the room for her. All three of my boys want her here, even though two are out of the house. My youngest has one year of high school left.

As we maneuver through the maze of moving boxes, we laugh about things Dad did or said, and we are finding a way to have closure through this. She will never fully be ‘over’ his death, and I don’t expect her to. But right now, she is broken hearted and hurting. Hopefully, she can start to heal a little bit. And realize that Dad is still with us, living on in our thoughts and hearts.

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