I just came from breakfast with my brother.
Let me sit on that….
I just had breakfast with my big brother. My brother and I are ten years apart, we love one another dearly, but have had minimal one on one time together in our adult lives. We decided to meet at Elmer’s, a place of tradition, average quality food, burnt coffee, and priceless memories.
I remember three years ago, when I asked my dad to meet me for breakfast. Elmer’s was his suggestion and I can still hear his voice in my head as he went on one of his excited rants about the future. “It’ll be great one day to be able to send you a text to meet at ‘our spot’ and you’ll know exactly where that is. I love you, Gus.”
My Dad passed away eight months ago. It feels like at sixty years old it’s too young to be “taken”. I don’t think there could ever be a right time to lose a parent, but alas, it happened. My brother, Josh, and I had breakfast in the same spot that my dad and I had established as “our place” and for me, emotions ran high. With no specifics or agenda of what to talk about, we grabbed a seat. Dad always liked to sit in the spot that watched the door, and he taught me the same. This actually put us in a pickle once in a while, but he took priority because he was the protector. I gladly gave the seat to my brother. It was so natural to sit there with him and my heart overflowed with joy. Respect, admiration, and love. Just a few ways I look at my big bro.
Eight months ago I got a call that my father, Keith Richards, as he would inform you, “The real Keith Richards,” not the rock star from The Rolling Stones, was in the ICU. His body was failing him and his children rushed to his bedside.
I come from a world where I serve patient’s. I’m an administrator in the medical field and I help women who are going to embark on the miracle of motherhood. With that, I see people who are excited, fearful, hurting, recovering from previous loss, and confusion. I have been trained to be a translator from doctor to patient and vise versa. See the expression, the body language, the discomfort, the need and articulate it to the other party.
We became the patient’s. My dad was the patient, my brother was the family member. I became the translator for my family to our physicians. It’s funny how life, how God works. I’m so thankful that I was empowered to be that person, but indeed, it was painful.
There are moments in the history of my relationship with my father that stand out to me. Some joyful, some sad, some “scary”, some precious. I can remember all the way back to when I was three years old, I stood in between my mom and dad, crying as they kissed. It was foreign because most often it was them fighting, kissing seemed wrong. I remember my dad’s house, a barn converted into a cabin. I remember him teaching me a sense of direction and encouraging me to lead us back home through our wooded acreage after spinning me in circles with my eyes closed. We would talk the whole way back and sometimes it would take hours. I remember every gift he ever gave me. A hot pink backpack, my first pocketknife, a kitten, a box of chocolates and flowers on Valentine’s Day. The list goes on, but I do remember every single one of them. The mark of a father on his daughter is unspeakable. No matter how tattered certain moments of our relationship were, they were and are forever cherished.
My father was an artist. He was eccentric, passionate, when he was happy his laugh would billow, and his pipe was never more than a short reach away. Our relationship had different seasons. Times of awkwardness, years of silence between us, and the last three years of his life were healing and more precious than I could explain. I’m confident in saying that the last week of his life taught me a closeness to my family that I never imagined possible.
I remember sitting next to his side as he rested, and an oxygen machine forced him to breathe. I was nervous to reach out and grab his hand, and I observed as my sister-in-law without hesitation began to rub his feet. I was disheartened by the discomfort and awkwardness I felt in serving my dad. We were not close, we did not hug often, we didn’t have the ideal “daddy/daughter” relationship. I met with a counselor that afternoon, a woman who was a long time friend of my mom and I. I confessed the anxiety I felt at the thought that I was afraid to hold my dad’s hand, and tears overcame me as I realized I was even more afraid to miss the opportunity to serve him. What if this was “it?” His final days.
I prayed. I prayed for healing. I prayed for the Lord’s will to be done, I prayed for peace and I prayed that I would have a place in that room. As nurse after nurse started and ended their shifts, I became more comfortable in the uncomfortable ICU room. These rooms are made for saving lives, not for hosting families, but I pulled up a plastic chair and sat. I wrote letters to my dad of everything that was happening; The names of the nurses, the medication and dosage they prescribed, the hallucinations he had and the friends who came to visit him. I wrote so he would remember. I was sure that he would read them when he was healed and out of this room, back home in his lush garden that he tended for so lovingly.
I know he’s in a beautiful garden somewhere, laughing and barefoot, or maybe in his cowboy boots. I believe he’s found his place and I found my place too, in that room.
Still afraid to reach out and hold his hand, I sat and he mumbled to me. He asked me if I would rub his feet again like yesterday, and I realized he thought I had been the one at the foot of his bed bringing him comfort. My sister-in-law is a woman who loves deeply and serves without hesitation. I followed by her example and I did not hesitate when he asked.
Shortly after, he realized it had been Christina the day before rubbing his feet and he said to me, “Gus you don’t have to do that if you don’t want to.” It was like he knew I had been afraid to hold his hand, or perhaps it was odd for him too.
I assured him, “No, I want to dad, just rest.” He gave a shrug and happily, he closed his eyes.
I was so thankful that his confusion broke down the barrier and I was empowered to help him, serve him, comfort him. I wrote letters, I rubbed his feet, and I comforted. As the days went on and his health was worsening, we began to talk about “comfort measures”. Confusion in the communication from physician to the family, my thoughts sharpened, my emotions took a back seat, and I became a liaison for both family, and the doctors.
I can honestly say, that it was in those moments that I felt he was the most proud of his daughter. His little girl was wise and professional, compassionate and generous, he saw me as a strong woman and he looked at me with a smirk and stamp of approval. I can almost hear him say, “Well shit Gus, you’re alright.”
My cheeks pull at my lips with the thought of that. Joy. My dad was not healed in that room, he did not leave that room in his physical body, but peace washed over him, washed over his children and we all became stronger and more in love with our family. He led us into song as he began, “I can’t see me loving nobody but you for all my life,” we joined in, “so happy togetherrrrr”. The 1967 classic by The Turtles.
The last night of his life was rough for him, unable to find a comfortable position, the gates of heaven opening and loved ones that had passed before him beckoned from the other side. With just him and I in that room, we looked at the television with nothing playing on it, and he asked me to put my head next to his and lean back to see what he saw. In slurred confused he said, “Do you see it?” He proclaimed, “The Christ of Cross, Gus, the Christ of Cross.” The poison that his liver failed to filter had his words backwards, but his confidence in what he saw caused me to see it too. That was a beautiful moment for me, and peace washed into my soul.
My dad was not a religious man, a Christian man, nor one who was interested in seeking these things. But he was indeed, a deeply spiritual man. A few months before this moment of laying back with him looking at the holy view he had hallucinated on the television screen, he had an encounter at a memorial for one of his friends. He called me when he got home from the service and said, “Well shit, Gus, I think I just got saved. How many times do I gotta raise my hand like that and get prayed over?”, I laughed and tears poured effortlessly from my eyes, “Just the one Dad, I think just the one.” He knew faith was important to me, and we didn’t see eye to eye but he yearned to share it with me. So much so that he raised his hand at an altar call and as he put it, “A bunch of hippies prayed over me, for my sins to be removed and shit.”
I love this man.
I didn’t know what was in store for my dad, but I did know that whatever it was, I was not in control, and that my father was deeply loved. By his family and by the Creator of the universe. He would be taken care of and it his was time.
In the hours to come we decided to move forward with the decision we had made the day prior, with the help of my Dad, Brother, Mom, and the doctor. We gave the green light to switch to comfort measures and sit by his side while he passed without pain. The machines reflecting his vitals that we had been watching so closely for five days were turned off. The BIPAP machine that he hated was removed and he ate pudding, the first thing in a day or two. My brother sat on his left side, I sat on his right, each holding a hand. My sister-in-law said her goodbye’s and headed home to her babies, and my brother and I sat across from one another, as our dad comfortably began to drift away between us.
We told him we would take care of one another, and after a week of encouraging him to breathe, we assured him he was breathing well enough and could take his last sip of earthly air whenever he wanted to. My brother silently moved his lips and told me he loved me. Our old man took his time, and Josh and I chuckled because it was always like dad to make us wait in anticipation. One year he made us wait six hours before we could go to grandma’s house right next door to see the gifts Santa had brought us. Dad’s mischievous laugh in my memory was almost audible in that silent room.
My dad, like I mentioned, the REAL Keith Richards, never wanted a funeral, but ironically always claimed that if he did have a funeral he wanted, “Paint it black” by The Rolling Stones to be played. My brother was my Dad’s best friend and vise versa, and sure enough, he knew exactly what to do. Josh played the song on his phone, and after one minute of The Rolling Stones playing in room 209 of the ICU, my dad took his final breath. We listened to the last couple minutes of the song and continued to hold his hands as Keith Richards left the building.
It’s been eight months.
I just came from breakfast with my big brother. We sat across from one another, much like that day, my dad’s last day on this earth. We were stronger from our experience, our hearts filled with more compassion, love and understanding than ever before. I was gifted with something from my experience in the ICU. I was gifted with an undeniable bond to my family, my brother, God, and I was gifted with a divine peace that what is meant to be will be, and the knowledge that every day, ever experience has something to offer. Joy through the pain. Strength through the heartbreak.
I am still healing, but we heal together. I will forever be grateful for this season. One of my dad’s last instructions to my brother was, “Take care of your sister”. As we finished our meal together and wrapped up our conversations about dad, my brothers kids, what legacy means to us and what we were doing with the rest of our day, we got up, and my big brother bought my breakfast, just like my daddy always did. I have no doubt that my brother and I will carry on the tradition of meeting for breakfast at Elmer’s where we will consume average quality food, burnt coffee and continue to create priceless memories.
I will not take any of them for granted.
Oh, how sweet life is.