I never imagined that I would be a 44-year-old woman, imparting words of comfort and wisdom to my 85-year-old father. Today I called him in Argentina to ask questions about my mom’s final days. If you knew my dad 10+ years ago, you would know that he was always a strong, stoic man who kept his emotions in check. In the last 10 years though, I have seen my father become gentler, softer, more vulnerable, and more willing to express his feelings and emotions. I believe there is nothing braver than being vulnerable. (Something I learned from my idol, Brene Brown.) Opening ourselves up, letting things out, exposing our wounds...THAT takes courage. Today my dad demonstrated so much courage in talking about my mom’s illness and reliving the painful memories he had tucked away so long ago. He would have to pause during our conversation to regain his composure and he would hand the phone to my step-mom. But instead of just cutting off the conversation, he would get back on the phone and pick up where we left off. I felt bad for putting him through it but at the same time I felt so proud of him for having the courage to embrace his emotions and not run away from them.
I recently watched Dr. Shefali Tsabary (a psychologist and parenting expert) on Super Soul Sunday with Oprah. I remember she said something along the lines that we are not here to raise our children. In reality, our children are called forth to help raise us. At the moment, I only thought of it in terms of my relationship with my kids. I wondered what my children are here to teach me. What do I still need to learn about myself through them? But today, after I hung up with my dad, I realized that I am also a daughter who is here to help raise my dad. I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging or tooting my own horn but I believe that one of the reasons my dad has evolved and changed in the last 10 years is because of our conversations and his willingness to open his heart to me and take in what I have to say.
My dad and I have a different kind of relationship than he has with my brother and sister. We have deep conversations about parenting, adoption, family, marriage, religion, politics, sexuality, life views, etc. So, our conversation today was not unusual for us. I have asked him about things from my childhood many times. This was not the first time I’ve asked him to tell me more about my mom’s illness but what I’ve noticed in the last five or so years is that he lets his emotions show more now than ever before. Maybe it has to do with his age; maybe it has to do with his awareness of his mortality; or maybe he feels safe being vulnerable with me because he knows I won’t judge or shame him. Instead, I show him support, encouragement, warmth, and love. Today, as he wept on the phone and continually apologized for it, I reassured him that there is absolutely nothing wrong with letting his feelings out. I told him that crying is good for the soul. It’s therapeutic to release what we aren’t even aware we’ve been holding in because holding things in is toxic. I told him that even though it’s painful to remember, it’s also healing to see how far we’ve come. He listened to me and said all he ever tried was to do his best.
As I mentioned, today wasn’t the first time I’ve asked my dad about my mom’s illness and her final months in Argentina, but each time I manage to learn something new. This is what my dad told me today:
My mom was diagnosed with Cirrhosis in approximately 1984 during one of her hospital stays. She never received a diagnosis of hepatitis NANB (or hepatitis C as it is now known). That is something that my dad later figured out on his own because there was no other explanation for the Cirrhosis. (My mom was not an alcoholic.) He figured it had to come from a contaminated blood transfusion. Anyway, her health started deteriorating from that point on. She started having intestinal problems and other health issues related to the Cirrhosis. He doesn’t know for sure if my mom knew her diagnosis. He does believe though that she did know she had little time left. He said that they never really talked about her illness and prognosis. Only on a few occasions when they were alone in the bedroom, during that trip to Argentina, she made some comments about how unjust it seemed that just as they were making plans for their future, this had to happen (A year prior they had purchased an apartment in Argentina for our vacations there.) My dad told me, as he cried, that my mom just accepted this was what she had been dealt and allowed doctors to do whatever they needed to do to try to help her. My dad wept as he remembered how my mom never complained about any of the poking and prodding the doctors put her through. He said she suffered a lot but remained quiet about it; she just accepted whatever was happening to her. He told me about how much she adored me and how I was her treasure and her life. He said there weren’t words to explain the amount of adoration and love she felt for me. He said there isn’t a name for what she felt for me.
We talked about her doctor visits in Argentina. My dad said that he and my cousin used to have to carry my mom up and down the three flights of stairs of the apartment building where we stayed because my mom had become too weak to walk. I don’t have any memory of this (thankfully) but I’m sure I saw it because I was with my parents 24/7. My dad said that we were taking my mom to weekly appointments to be injected with radioactive chemicals. He didn’t remember exactly. He knew that the doctors were tracking the chemicals and monitoring her for any change. Something like that. His memory is rusty on what exactly they were doing to her. Another doctor my mom would see weekly was a pulmonologist. He would aspirate the fluid that was accumulating in her lungs with a big needle. Again, my dad reiterated that my mom just took it all, never complaining. He also said that she was not all there mentally. He said that the Cirrhosis had started affecting her brain too so her lucidity wasn't always 100%. He feels that sometimes she wasn’t fully aware of what was going on and what was being done to her. During the last visit to the pulmonologist, the doctor aspirated an entire bucket of fluid from my mom’s lungs. The doctor told my dad that there was no end to the fluid and that it was time to admit her to the hospital. My dad knew the end was near. He said that he wanted her to die just to stop the suffering she was enduring.
On August 27, 1986, I wrote in my journal: “Tomorrow early in the morning my mom is going to the hospital. Damn it! Why does she have to suffer so much? Why God? What did she ever do to deserve so much suffering? Please God, take care of her cuz I need her more than anyone else in the world. Please God, keep her safe at your side and don’t let her get any worse. Make her better, for me, please!”
On August 28, my dad and my cousin carried my mom down to the car for the last time to take her to the hospital. She spent the whole morning and afternoon in the Emergency Room because they couldn’t find a room for her. A relative brought me home early from the hospital because my dad wasn’t sure if my mom was going to be admitted. My dad came home around 8:30pm or 9:00pm without my mom. He said they had finally gotten her a room.
The next day, August 29, my dad left early in the morning for the hospital. He left me sleeping at my aunt’s apartment. At 11:00AM, my aunt woke me up and told me to hurry and get dressed because we had to rush to the hospital. She said my mom was in grave condition. In my bleary-eyed haze, I asked “What does that mean? What is grave?” My aunt sternly screamed “She’s GRAVE! She’s GRAVE.” I quickly gathered from her tone that grave meant something very, very bad. I began to cry as I hurried to get ready to see my mom.
In the meantime, my cousin called my brother and my sister in the U.S. to tell them to get to Buenos Aires as soon as possible. When I heard that my siblings were coming, I knew it had to be pretty bad. But despite knowing all this, I still didn’t realize just how bad my mom was until I walked into the hospital room and saw my dad crying. THAT told me a lot. Up until that point, I had only ever seen my dad cry one other time. When I walked over to the hospital bed, I kissed my mom hello. She didn’t really recognize me though. I started crying. I walked out of the room. I thought to myself “She didn’t know it was me! She didn’t know it was me! How could she not recognize her baby?” I was so upset and hurt by this. I, the person who mattered the most to her, was not who she was asking for. Instead, she was asking for her sisters and her mom. She was talking about her childhood and naming people unfamiliar to us. My grandma died in 1971 so it was confusing to me that my mom was asking for her. My aunt (my mom’s sister) was by her side, holding her hand, stroking her hair, while going along with my mom's conversation about childhood.
That same day, she was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). The ICU had very strict visiting rules, which only allowed us to have one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening to be with my mom AND only one visitor at a time! I get so angry just thinking about it again. It infuriated me then and it infuriates me now that my poor mother had to lie in a strange bed, in a strange place, with strangers around and not her loved ones for the great majority of her days there. The nurses were all “bitches and witches” as I referred to them in my diary. I hated them. They were rude, unkind, uncompassionate, cold, and just disgusting to me. It was apparent that they didn’t give a shit about my mom or any of their patients.
The next morning, on August 30, I went to the airport with my cousin to pick up my brother and sister. Despite their reason for coming to Buenos Aires, I was happy and excited to see them after more than two months apart. We drove straight from the airport to the hospital. My sister was the first one to go in at visiting time. When she came out just a few minutes later, she had a severe breakdown. She began screaming, crying, shouting things like “That’s not mom! What did they do with mom? Where’s mom?” Seeing my sister fall apart, caused me to fall apart. I started wailing and punched a window with my fist as I screamed at the top of my lungs. My mom’s best friend was with us. She slapped me hard across the face to snap me out of it. My lip swelled. I didn’t care. I just wanted this all to be a really bad dream.
After I calmed down, I worked up the courage to go in by myself (as we were forced to only go in one at a time). This is what I wrote in my journal about it: “I almost fainted when I saw her. That person lying there didn’t look like half of what my mom had looked like a week or two before and even less than what my brother and sister had last seen of her. Mom couldn’t talk and she could barely nod her head or squeeze my hand. When I came out of the room, I broke down and cried. It was a horrible night of a lot of crying and suffering but it was only the beginning.”
After I hung up with my dad today, and I remembered Dr. Shefali Tsabary’s comment about children raising their parents, I decided to Google her, hoping to come across something inspiring in relation to the conversation I had just had with my dad. I found a piece where she was talking about transforming pain into wisdom. She wrote: “We run from pain little realizing that it’s shadow will eventually run us over. We believe pain will break us down little realizing it actually breaks us open. Pain is the ultimate portal to higher consciousness.” My dad doesn’t it realize it, but today while facing the painful memories of my mom's illness, he took steps toward reaching his higher-self and I am proud to have helped raise him along the way.