My father loved food. He loved sitting at the table with his family and celebrating life. Our big fat Italian family loved to sit around the table and “break bread.” Sundays were meant for one thing. Gathering the family for a big dish of pasta.
This all changed seven years ago. It seemed so innocent, my father was enjoying an eggplant parmigiana sandwich on crusty Italian bread the day after Christmas. Isn’t that what we all do? Dig into those delicious leftovers the day after a holiday?
He took a bite and within minutes blood began to pour out of his mouth. So much blood my mother frantically called 911. It looked like a crime scene from Law & Order. After extensive tests doctors found a mass at the base of my father’s tongue. The crusty Italian bread somehow scratched the mass causing a massive amount of blood. A few days later we were informed that mass was Stage IV base of the tongue cancer.
“Everything can change in an instant. Everything. And then there is only before and after.” Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
It has been four years since I had the pleasure of sitting in a restaurant with my Dad. Four years since I could visit him and surprise him with his favorite treat. Four years since he could come to my house, sit at the table and EAT with the family. My one wish the past four years has been for God and the medical community to restore my father’s ability to eat again, to take away the severe debilitating dysphagia caused by his intense radiation treatments that he endured seven years ago.
Its been four months since I heard my father’s voice. Four months since I held his hand. Four very long months since my father wrapped his comforting arms around me and hugged me.
That wasn’t a typo. My father died four months ago, but he spend the last four years of his life unable to eat or drink orally. Not a sip of water, not a morsel of food, nothing for four long years.
When my father died this past January rage filled my veins. I spent years praying to God for mercy, praying that my father would not die unable to eat. Towards the end of his life I went from praying to begging. Offering time off my life just so my father could enjoy one last meal. It seemed so logical at the time. Even a hard core criminal on death row gets one last meal before being put to death. I had a difficult time understanding why my father died unable to eat or drink. I’m still struggling with this.
Let me quickly take you back to the night before my father died. We were in the ER due to an issue with my father’s feeding tube. I was alone in the room with my father while the rest of the family was in the family room across the hall. I was terrified. My father’s brown eyes were now a cloudy grey, he had a distant look on his face. The man who raised me was not in the room, this was someone else. Someone tired and in a distant place. I kept trying to speak to my father and he would smile and nod his head. He could barely speak, I stood there paralyzed with fear.
Why was this happening?
I then did what any rational daughter would do, I grabbed my father’s hand and began sobbing begging him to not go. For that brief moment my father’s eyes returned to his normal brown, he smiled and said, “I’m right here, where am I going? No one is dying tonight.”
Then he asked me for his bottled water. Since my father was unable to drink, it was not uncommon for him to swish and spit to clear his mouth. I smiled and told him to hang on while I looked for something for him to spit in. I was frantically searching for a plastic cup or something for my father to spit into.
With tears in his eyes he grabbed my hand and said, “No Lisa honey I want to drink it. Please give me a drink of water.” Fear took over a for a brief second and I froze. Please understand my father had severe dysphagia, anything he ate or drank would have gone to his lungs giving him aspiration pneumonia. I yelled, “No you can’t have water, please Dad no.” With the eyes of a child my father simply looked down and said, “Ok.”
Instantly I felt sick to my stomach. My father, my best friend in the entire world was dying and I yelled at him. I quickly grabbed his hand and said, “I’m sorry Dad, it’s just that I love you too much…..” A lump began to form in my throat and I couldn’t even finish my sentence. The room began to spin and I was positive I was going to pass out.
I quickly waived for my mother to come into the room and excused myself. I made my way outside and cried. I cried so much I pulled a Meredith Grey from Grey’s Anatomy and vomited in the shrubs. My rational brain knew my father was dying and I denied my hero a simple sip of water. How can life be so cruel? I have played this moment over in my head hundreds of times since my father’s death.
I cannot forget how my father lived for so many years, unable to eat or drink.
The next day my father passed peacefully surrounded by his family.
The days following my father’s death are a blur. I was exhausted, sick to my stomach and overwhelmed with sadness. I have vivid memories of friends and family bringing food, pleading with me to eat. I would eat only to end up sick. Eventually everything I put in my mouth tasted like battery acid. It’s not like I had an eating disorder, I was just angry at food. I was angry that my father died unable to eat or drink orally. I was angry that my father suffered for so many years and died without his last meal. My father’s cancer which resulted in his severe dysphagia was a cruel punishment for a man who lived his life honoring God and adoring his family.
Immediately following my father’s death he began communicating with me. It was just two days after his burial and I recall laying in bed staring at the wall. I felt as if weights were tied on my arms and legs. My entire body was consumed with grief and anger. My only thought in my head was “Why did my father die unable to eat? Why my father?” And suddenly one of my all time favorite childhood memories popped into my head:
It was a hot summer day and my father took me to Carvel for ice cream. I was 5 years old and my father was my entire world. We were standing in line holding hands. I ordered my usual. Chocolate ice cream and chocolate sprinkles. As I was ordering my father said, “Lisa honey didn’t you know chocolate sprinkles are really chocolate covered ants?” I quickly changed my order to chocolate ice cream with rainbow sprinkles. Despite my father’s best efforts to tell me he was teasing, 35 years later and I still have yet to enjoy chocolate sprinkles again.
As that memory became to fade, I slowly I began to recover my appetite. I began to feel that by enjoying my meals I was memorializing my father. I believe that somehow my father encouraged me to remember the chocolate ice cream memory and was telling me to appreciate and be thankful for my ability to eat.
I will always love my father. I will always wonder why he had to suffer and die unable to eat. I yearn for the day that I can come to peace with this. Right now it’s too soon, my wounds are still too fresh.
This Father’s Day I’m heading to the Dairy Queen across from the cemetery and buying two chocolate ice cream cones with chocolate sprinkles. I’ll leave one on my father’s grave and eat the other as I thank my father for a lifetime of beautiful memories.