I have been thinking a fair amount about what I could possibly say today. It is now almost exactly one year—to the minute, nearly, though that wasn't on purpose—since ML's father died. I had gone with B to the chaplain; we were wondering what kinds of support there might be for ML, and we really just wanted to talk to someone about what we all knew was going to happen. ML and her mother had signed a DNR that Monday (last year, February 10th was a Wednesday), after almost a year and a half of his illness following a stroke that occurred during/shortly after surgery.
I had gotten an email that Monday saying that ML had gone home; I assumed that that meant he had passed away. But she came back to school the next morning; I don't remember what exactly happened, but basically the doctors had said that there wasn't really anything they could do. He had been in the hospital for weeks after his stroke, and had gradually gotten worse and worse; he had been in and out of nursing homes, and had even spent a few months at home with an in-house nurse to care for him. Now, after a year and a half, the doctors had finally decided that they could do little to keep him alive.
It was Wednesday, and after ML and her mother signed the DNR, it was pretty clear that we were counting down the hours. For so long, it had already seemed like we were waiting for the email, the call, the something—and to be honest, the waiting was the worst. We never knew when exactly it was going to happen, but we felt every day that it would be soon; and the fact that it took a year and a half only meant that we spent a year and a half waiting, anxiously wondering, hoping, praying even, that it wouldn't be today; or, at the same time, that it would be soon, so that the wait would end. I don't mean to say that this waiting was a bad thing; after all, this way ML got a chance to say goodbye to her father. She's quite religious and spiritual, so this was particularly important to her; and knowing that she got that chance is comforting, I suppose.
I am not sure whether it would have been better or worse if he had died in, say, a car crash—then the interminable waiting would never have happened, and she might have been better able to go from shock to grief to recovery. This way, instead, there was a strange sort of inversion of what I would have expected. After his stroke, there was the fear that he would die, or that he wouldn't recover. In those first few weeks, it's impossible to tell what exactly is going to happen—some people recover fully, or nearly fully, while others never do. In the first weeks, it's impossible to tell who is going to recover and who isn't. By the end of winter break, though—about eight weeks after his stroke, on October 15, 2008—he had still not improved significantly. I was still hopeful, but I didn't dare say to ML what I was really thinking—that after that long a time, with little improvement, it was unlikely that he would ever be the same again. The thought terrified me; I couldn't imagine what it would have been like from ML to hear that from a friend.
I don't remember exactly when, but even by the end of ML's freshman year, it seemed like she and her mom had some hope left that he might recover. But I remember coming back to school in September, at the beginning of my junior year and her sophomore year, and noticing the difference: now, it was mostly a matter of "what can we do" and "we have to do X, Y, and Z" rather than "He remembered who I was today!" or "He wasn't confused about what day it is!" Instead, ML would hand us her cell phone with a message recorded from her father, talking about March, when it was October; or, he would sound so tired that it was a wonder he hadn't fallen asleep.
There came to be this ritual—B and I would ask how ML's mom was doing, what was going on at home, but the elephant in the room, that her father would never recover and that he would most likely die soon whether it was a day away, a week away, a month away, a year away ... that elephant was always there, whenever I saw her, thought about her, emailed her. We started to avoid conversations that we thought would be awkward. I don't know if she realized it; sometimes I felt like I was more sensitive to the issue than she was. I'm sure that wasn't true, but her ability to smile and reply "I'm good!" or "I'm fine!" or "I'm doing well!" when someone asked her how she was always astounded me. It was probably easier for her to put on that mask than to let herself be overwhelmed every time someone talked about their father, or asked her what her parents did, or any of those questions that come up over and over again in college.
B and I were in the chaplain's, and ML called. I didn't pick up; I didn't even hear my phone go off. but she was calling to tell us that he had just died. I got the message about half an hour later, and do this day I wish I had put my phone on noise instead of vibrate, though it probably didn't matter. I remember seeing her in the hallway of my dorm—she was with K, who had skipped physics after getting ML's call, and B and I were returning from the chaplain's. She just said, "My father just passed away!" and there was this sort of strange I-can't-believe-I'm-finally-saying-this expression on her face. No tears, no ... nothing, as far as I could tell. It was surreal. We had been waiting for so long, that it had finally happened ... It was relieving, to be perfectly honest: the wait was unbearable, to never know what was going to go wrong that day, or what would happen. Just to have the continuity of knowing, I think, was a huge relief.
I remember this strange sort of half smile that I felt the urge to give, when she said that her father had just died. It wasn't happiness; it was just some strange instinct, some reaction to the excitement. I don't mean that it was exciting, in any way; but rather there was a rush of adrenaline, a sort of heady burst of energy, that in me, at least, resulted in a smile. (For the record, I suppressed it quite effectively.) Life had changed so completely in that one moment; no longer were we waiting, we were now dealing, and we were planning, and we were organizing, and calling people, and sending out emails, and figuring out what do about ML's classes ... it was sort of similar to what happened that time water started pouring through the window of our basement: for one instance, my mind just went "Oh my God," and then I started to think, to figure out how to solve the problem. I think perhaps just the release of the tension, the worry, the waiting that had been going on for sixteen months was energizing; now, all of a sudden, there was something I could do.
The worst part, I think, was when we all gathered for a study party that night in my room. ML wasn't going to fly back home until Friday; she had been there over the weekend, and she wanted to finish out the week so she could only miss classes the following week. She kept asking whether it was strange for her to not fly home right away, whether people would think that she was insensitive, or strange, or something; my only reply was that it didn't matter they thought, because they had never been in her situation. Perhaps a few people out there had, but most people in college don't suffer the protracted illness of a parent in the same way that ML did. It's impossible to predict what you would do in her situation, so anyone who thought she was callous for not going home could stuff it, as far as I was concerned.
It was me, B, K, C, and ML that night. We were in my room, I don't know why. ML kept getting calls from relatives—her aunt, her uncle, and then her brother. Her brother is sixteen years older than she is, I think; her father's son by his previous wife. That means he was around 35 or 36 years old when his father died, which makes a world of difference between him and ML. She was still in college, still dependent on her parents; she hadn't yet left the nest, so to speak. But he was married, I think, or at least had his own job, his own house, his own life; ML's life was still entwined in that of her parents. ML thought her brother was being insensitive, uncaring, etc., because he wasn't as closely connected as she was. But what I really wanted to say was that when he called, they talked for some time, and then at one point, ML said, "Well, as far as I'm concerned, he died on October 15, 2008."
It was a chilling thought. I think it explains, though, why ML seemed to go through a sort of inverted grief process—despairing, depressed, and grieving before her father actually died, while they were stuck in this sort of limbo; and then relief, happiness even, after he died, because now he was no longer suffering, and they could move on. I found it unnerving; I expected her to be a wreck, but instead she kept on with her homework, she kept on doing all her activities. I remember there were times when I felt the urge to provoke her to talk about it—I felt like she must want to, deep down, and yet she didn't. But I gradually realized that a large part of it was because she was learning to move on; she had long ago accepted that she wouldn't see her father again, and so it was now time to remember what to do without all this hanging over her head. Yes, there were times when she got sad; and on May 10, the 3-month mark, we were eating together and she said, "I almost forgot it was May 10."; and yes, there were times when she cried, but mostly it was a matter of getting through the day, the week, the semester, without getting overwhelmed, and then figuring out how to fill—partially, at any rate—the hole that had been left by the months and months of worrying about her father.
I have only one more memory I want to write down, while it is still in my mind. The day ML's father died, ML, K, and I went to the library to study. We didn't get anything done; it was more of a gesture toward normalcy than any attempt at doing homework. I went off to the bathroom, and when I got back ML was no longer there. K explained that she went into the stairwell to talk to her mom on the phone; I went and just stood there, next to her, not really sure what to do. At one point, her mom must have asked where I was, because ML said, "Yes, she's right next to me." It was awkward, it was sad, it was hard; but at the very least, I hope ML always felt like I was right next to her, willing to help and do whatever I could. I don't mean that in a sappy way; only that, having seen her go through what she did, I hope I made the burden a little lighter, and I hope that someone else makes the burden lighter for me.