It started with a phone call. It was a Wednesday afternoon. My sister Debbie was letting us know that dad had taken a nasty fall. As in, backwards, hitting his head in the bedroom on the corner of an end table.
Now, in recent years, the annual call from Debbie had become a tradition. Dad would fall and the result was a broken something which would usually require a 6-month stay at a rehabilitation facility.
But this time was different. My 91-year-old father, John Hunter, had really done it this time. The ambulance came and took him to Harbor UCLA, where he was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit. There were stitches and staples and they put the skin on the back of his head together…but it was what was happening inside that didn’t bode well.
For all he had been through in recent years, dad was tired. He had lost interest in the jigsaw puzzles that occupied hours of his time. His hearing was mostly gone, although as many times as he’d say “What?” he’d surprise you with a comment on a topic that had been discussed near him earlier.
The first CAT scan showed internal bleeding. The doctors tried giving him platelets to stop the bleeding. The next CAT scan showed more blood pooling in his head. The bleeding just wasn’t stopping. After coming back to the room, dad’s speech was garbled, as if he had a stroke. By the third CAT scan that showed even more blood, he had been reduced to a breathing body.
I was still in Seattle, getting texts, dozing off, getting a phone call, talking half-awake and soon, it was morning. We finally had to admit that this was going to be it. The day you dreaded, but knew it would happen someday. We booked a flight Thursday morning, arriving at Harbor UCLA in the afternoon.
I walked into the ICU and reality hit. I don’t need to detail everything that happened, but the next step was for us to agree to “Comfort Care.” It’s when the patient is moved to a private room where family can gather around until he or she passes.
The next thing you know, mom, my sister Debbie, my wife Victoria and I were up in a hospital room on the 6th floor. My sister Terri and her husband Darrell were on the way from Arkansas, while my daughter Christina was flying in from Olympia. Since they all arrived at the airport around the same time, they were able to car pool together, arriving at the hospital around 9 o’clock.
We talked about dad. We prayed together. Our reunion was something special, but unfortunately for the wrong reason. My mom and sister were exhausted. The rest of us weren’t doing well, either, but I volunteered to spend the night with dad in the room, watching for any signs of ‘the end.’ If something happened, I’d call everybody so they could rush over and say their goodbyes.
Everyone left and I pulled up a chair next to dad. As the bleeding continued, it squeezed his brain causing portions of his body to shut down. They say that hearing is one of the last things to go, so I was going to make the most of it. For the next two hours, I relived every story imaginable that involved dad. I half expected him at some point to sit up and tell me to shut up so he could get some sleep. Around 1am, I figured I better get some sleep so I could be more useful the next day. However, since I had sentry duty and might need to alert the troops, I set my alarm to go off every hour to check on dad and see if he was showing any of the final stage symptoms.
By 7am, I told dad I needed to do my daily writing job for Radio Online, so I fired up the laptop and took care of business, taking occasional breaks to tell him about what was going on in the world. Then I realized I had the technology to have some of his favorite music playing while he laid there. He often told me how much he like the Mills Brothers, so I placed my phone over by him and used the iHeartMedia app to stream some Mills Brothers tunes.
A doctor stopped by and we chatted about dad’s situation. He had said these things could take hours….days…..or longer. We even talked about hospice care if this continued and he said he’d ask the social work to drop by some possibilities.
I wrapped up my writing as family members began to arrive. Life-long friends of my parents, Steve and Valera Braun, and their daughter Julie, had also stopped by. We were chatting about dad, his days at United Airlines with Steve, and generally just hanging out when Mom strolled over to dad and noticed something. “He’s not breathing.”
In my mind, I’m thinking about how the nurse said towards the end he might stop and then start again. We waited, but nothing happened. We called in a nurse, who found a doctor and he was pronounced dead.
Really! That’s it? You find yourself torn between not knowing that he was going right then and there…but then, to know comes with gasping or convulsing or ugly body sounds. Dad just slipped away. He was listening to favorite songs. I was done talking his ear off about all of the things I remembered about him. He heard family and friends laughing and chatting in the background.
My sister Debbie missed dad’s departure by minutes and felt bad. But I let her know, WE missed it, too! We were right there in the room with him and that soft-spoken boy from Scotland who was so proud of his family just slipped away. My beliefs say he’s finally at peace, with his savior. It helps.
We stayed in the room for a couple of hours, hanging with our father one last time. Kissing his forehead, telling him we loved him and then finally, leaving him to begin the process of mourning.
What happened after that you will not believe. I’ll share that next week.
In the meantime, enjoy this video I put together with just a few of the moments in that incredible life. With music, of course, from the Mills Brothers.
God’s peace, dad.