This is a guest post by Modern Husbands Advisory Board Member Dan Kadlec. Dan is an author and was a journalist for decades with USA Today and then TIME and MONEY.
This post originally appeared on Medium, where you can subscribe to follow more posts from Dan.
"How Mom got dad “straight into heaven” and ignited my decade-long search for a connection I didn’t understand."
The first thing I did after touching down in St. Louis was call my sister, who had agreed to give me a ride. She was running late, which annoyed me. I mean, my flight was on time and the whole point of this trip was to see my dad before his condition worsened.
I occasionally ask a lot of the universe. I can be special that way. People have things to do that don’t revolve around me. My sister was doing the favor, fetching me at the airport and sparing me another Uber ride with my knees buckled to my chin in the filthy back seat of a Prius with Metallica turned up. But would it have killed her to be on time?
“I’ll be waiting in the usual place,” I said. We had done this before.
“I just got in the car,” she said. “See you in 20.”
I rolled my carry-on to our well-established meeting point with a thousand thoughts clouding my head. I now had 20 minutes more to obsess in solitude over the events that had brought me here.
Dad was just 79. I wouldn’t call him fit. He was overweight and a former smoker; he drank too much and ate red meat like T. rex. But he wasn’t categorically unhealthy, and no one saw his setback coming. What happened? He went in for a knee replacement. A perfect storm of medical complications landed him in a coma. It was like stopping at the gas station to put air in your tires and somehow ending up with a blown engine.
“Mom is going to pull the plug. Tonight.”
I had phoned his room the evening after surgery. He picked up, no problem. Now, waiting for my sister Uber, the brief exchange we had that night offered plenty to chew on.
“How are you feeling, Dad?” I had asked.
“Well, I could use a drink,” he said, sounding a bit off his game, which, following two hours of general anesthetic and the liberal employment of a bone saw on his leg, seemed reasonable. Surgery patients always wake up thirsty. Of course, Dad was not talking about water, and that I well knew.
Needing a drink was common language in our household. It was not to be taken literally. It simply meant something, be it serious or silly, was amiss. The taxman is going to audit me? I need a drink. Tuna noodle casserole for dinner again? I need a drink. It was code. That’s all. We didn’t really need a cocktail even though half the time we got one anyway.
So, when Dad said from his post-op bed that he needed a stiff one, even off his game, I took it as code. Figuratively, he was simply saying, “This sucks.” Oh, Dad. He was fine.
Then something weird happened. His voice trailed off and he fumbled the phone to the floor. Did he slur? Maybe just a bit. I sensed incoherence.
I was 1,000 miles away and convinced myself not to worry. A doctor or nurse had probably burst into the room, as they do in any hospital at any hour without any regard for rest or privacy. Medical staff perform heroic services. But I have long wondered what hospitals have against sleep, which you can pretty much forget about until discharged.
I went to bed that night feeling uneasy. Should I have called someone? Two things stopped me. First, the hour was late, and I didn’t want to sound an unnecessary alarm from a great distance when it would fall to my family with boots on the ground to respond. Second, I was certain that hospital staff had entered the room. Who hung up the phone? If there was a problem, they were already on it. Weeks later it occurred to me that I probably was the last person to hear Dad speak.
The morning after, Mom called to say something had in fact gone terribly wrong. Dad had aspirated fluid into his lungs and was on life support. He was unconscious but stable. They expected him to come out of it but couldn’t put a time on his recovery.
I suppose that assessment — it will be okay — is what kept me from hopping on the next flight. I’m busy. The holidays were coming. My wife, Kim, and I had demanding jobs and three young children. No, I would wait for Dad to awaken, as he surely would, and fly to St. Louis when he was lucid.
Nearly two weeks passed. Daily check-ins yielded no special urgency. I was by then planning to go to St. Louis no matter what. I just wasn’t sure when. I was still thinking about my busy life, certain that there was nothing I could do to help even if I flew out for a visit.
This regrettable self-interest ended on the parking lot of a Dunkin’ Donuts in the northern suburbs of New York City. Kim and I had gone for coffee near our house and had just got back into the car when my phone rang. It was Mom, or at least it was her phone.
“Hello,” I said.
I heard what sounded like group shuffling and praying. I put the phone on speaker, and we sat in the car for several minutes, mystified.
We heard a barely audible group chant that we couldn’t understand. The phone went silent. “What the fuck was that?” I asked.
“Is your dad dying?” Kim asked. “Maybe Mom couldn’t speak but wanted to patch you in.”
“Or maybe they were just praying, as they like to do, and she butt dialed me,” I said.
“Either way, you should get out there right away,” Kim said. “I’ll get the kids together and follow later.”
The next day I was on the flight that brought me to the curbside where presently I was waiting for my sister Uber. She pulled up on schedule, her schedule, and without getting out of the car popped open the trunk. I was thinking three stars max.
“Get in,” she said. “I just came from the hospital, and we are going straight there.”
I had been planning to dump my luggage at Mom and Dad’s house, the one where I had grown up and they had grown old. I wanted to grab a bite and steel myself for who knows how many hours in the ICU. Straight to the hospital was troublesome language on multiple levels.
“What gives?” I asked, dropping into the front passenger seat.
“Mom is going to pull the plug. Tonight.”
I’ve been working on this essay for a decade, needing time to process my dad’s passing, which came on New Year’s Eve. In subsequent years, I was more readily able to deal with the passing of my mom and brother — possibly because they were more a part of my everyday life and as such our relationships were better defined. I knew what I had, and what I had lost. With Dad it was different. I wasn’t exactly sure of what I had lost.
Men of his generation weren’t cuddly and nurturing, at least not in my experience. They went to war. They brought home the bacon. They drank beer at the bowling alley and went to Vegas with their buddies. They were disciplinarians on the home front, meting out penance for poor report cards and skipping church. Mom handled the emotional stuff, though Dad had his moments — like the time I physically defended a friend on the street and got the shit kicked out of me.
“I know it hurts,” Dad said, having witnessed the mugging. “But I could not be prouder.”
There were enough of those interludes. Still, I too rarely felt an authentic connection. Even as I came of age, Dad seldom let me into his world when he was letting down his guard. I never got to know him. I listened in palpable disbelief the time a cousin told me of times he had heard Dad cuss up a blue streak. I never once heard the man swear.
That cousin had played poker and gone to lunch with Dad’s group. He had been let in for the human moments any son would want to experience. I’d seen Dad and his group get lit at a party at our house and roll dice against the fireplace hearth clutching fistfuls of dollars. Man, that looked like fun. But I was never part of it. By the time I imagine he was willing, it was too late. I was in another city living my life.
I arrived at the hospital disheveled from traveling and dazed by the decision to end life support that night. This wasn’t my call to make. But there had been no talk that included me about taking the final step. I was unprepared.
My sister and I entered the room, where close family greeted us from Dad’s bedside. They had circled the wagons and were praying in the manner that I heard on the parking lot of Dunkin’ Donuts. I didn’t know it until then. But my arrival was the final piece. Mom wasted little time directing traffic. Each of us would get a few minutes alone with Dad, and then she would turn off the ventilator.
When my turn came, it was the most difficult few minutes of my life. This wasn’t a proper goodbye. He couldn’t speak or hear. At least I don’t think he could hear. It’s possible that in whatever fog he now existed something was getting through — a vibration or perhaps a lighter shade of dark. No one knew. He might have heard words that he was unable to acknowledge.
The details of my farewell are too personal for even a personal essay. But I’ll say this: There is no doubt that I screwed it up horribly. I was speechless, and for all the years since I have imagined how disappointed Dad must have been — had he any sense of my presence. It was just so awful looking at his pale and failing body, propped, and stuffed with tubes. This man once stood 6’4” and went an athletic 250 pounds. He had a million varsity letters in high school, where they knew him as “Big Ed.”
Those last few minutes alone with him had been thrust on me mere minutes after the wheels hit the tarmac. How could I have had anything meaningful to say then; it’s taken me a decade hence to sort out our bond?
When our individual goodbyes were finished the family surrounded Dad for his final breaths. Clutching her rosary, Mom commanded us to pray on every bead.
“We are going to get him straight into heaven,” she declared. No one doubted she meant business.
I hadn’t recited the Apostles’ Creed since my altar boy days in the third grade, and so I mostly mumbled the prayer. The holiest among us knew every word and prayed the loudest. That’s how Catholics roll. We then moved dutifully through 53 Hail Marys, six Our Fathers, and five Glory Bes. The words to each of these were, at best, fuzzy.
Yet as we prayed, the religious rituals drummed into me as a child raised in faith and educated for 16 years under the wings of various Catholic orders, oozed forward from some long-ignored corner of my temporal lobe. Heck, I had thousands of lifetime Hail Marys on my résumé. Of course the words came back, and with my siblings and their spouses and offspring, my mom and our closest aunts and uncles, and a cousin or two, in this somber moment, I began to pray, loudly — and it felt good.
Having had little to say alone with Dad, maybe this was the best I could do. Maybe this was the language he understood. Maybe… I didn’t screw it up, after all. When we finished, Mom asked the nurse to turn off the ventilator. We stood numb.
Dad was a small-town banker, and he always kept his finances tidy. He stored hard copies of all his documents in a file cabinet beneath his desk and left a running hand-written note as to where his personal effects should go. Computers were something IBM built to land a man on the moon; Apple was a fruit.
Even in my grief, I found improbable comfort in that his exit from life came just hours before the start of a new tax year that would have dragged out certain estate affairs for another 12 months. He would have wanted it that way. He left us long before any hints of dementia or serious immobility that would have become a burden to his loved ones. Not his choice. He was just saintly that way.
More people than I have even met loved my dad. I long suspected something like that was the case. His bank funded small business startups in a period when gutsy, confident lenders were free to consider more than a business plan and balance sheet. It sounds like a cliché, but Dad really did make loans based on character. He seeded bootstrappers who became friends and eventually millionaires. Many of them were at his funeral.
I know of only one time that his trusting approach to lending hurt him. When the loan went bad, he paid the money back out of pocket because the loan was simply indefensible on the numbers. What really hurt, though, was that the bad debt cost him his friend, who stopped coming around after defaulting on Dad’s certainty that he was good for it.
When I consider Dad’s years now, I see that he was hugely forgiving and inviting. He was a favorite uncle with gentle advice. He was a valued arbiter when things got testy. He was in so many other ways a worthy North Star. How could it be that too seldom did I feel genuine intimacy? One answer is that maybe it was me who wouldn’t let him in. Like most kids, I portioned off a part of my life. Maybe he wanted more too.
One thing I do know is that the church was full the day we buried him. That told me everything, even if it took years to absorb.