Rebecca Bryant reflects on the amazing man, husband, father, and grandfather her dad was.
Growing up in the 1970’s, most girls had their moms to care for them. Not in my case. My dad was the one who diapered me, clothed me, rocked me, sang to me, and consoled me. He was injured at work after falling off of a 12 foot ladder onto a concrete floor. He ended up breaking his back and suffered a head injury that would later cause him to have seizures. He was the lucky parent who got the chore of raising me while my mom worked outside the home to make ends meet due to his disability. I bonded with my father in a way most babies bond with their mothers.
I remember the days when he would be cooking in the kitchen and I would harass him until he just stopped everything, put on some music, and danced with me standing on his feet. He swept me around the room like a princess, twirling me in circles. I can still hear my giggles as he would swoop me up and fly me through the air. Was I spoiled? Yes, probably a lot. Over the years, my father was the one who was there for me to kiss my boo-boos, wipe my tears, tell me silly princess stories, and tuck me in at night.
My brother, my side kick, who was 8 years older than me was always there to make sure daddy was doing everything just right. I have to say I really was a little princess (who liked to play in the mud). I had my two men – my two heroes, my dad and my brother.
I won’t say everything was perfect because it wasn’t and after a while the pain from eight back surgeries overtook my dad. He became addicted to opiates thanks to a doctor who seemed to hand them out like candy. For a few years things got truly rough and I depended on my brother a lot. Even through the hard times I still loved my dad and he loved me. I think we all know that life is not perfect and we all make some terrible mistakes. For a few years, all I remember is slurred speech and a lot of sleeping. I missed him and our times together. His seizures worsened and he was having them pretty much every other day. I was terrified. As a child it is hard to understand what is going on and why your parent is acting in a way which isn’t normal.
We found out my brother had leukemia when I was twelve. This was such a huge blow to our entire family. My brother was just 19 years old and it shook us to the core. My dad quit taking pain medications cold turkey and focused his entire being on my brother. I watched him go on and on day after day fighting the pain he was experiencing. I saw my dad cry for the very first time and it broke my heart. Over the next three years I saw my dad’s bravery as he cared for my brother with every ounce of love in his body. I watched as my dad sat by my brother’s bed and stroked his hair while tears rolled off of his cheek.
The day my brother died, a huge part of my dad died with him. He was never the same. He still smiled, laughed, and even enjoyed life, but it wasn’t the same. The day I graduated he reminded me how proud my brother would have been. The day he walked me down the aisle he reminded me how proud my brother would have been. The day I had my first son he gleamed with pride when I named my son “Christopher” after my brother.
He began to spend his days at the cemetery. He volunteered there so he could be near my brother. He began a veteran’s memorial and had flag poles placed at every veteran’s grave site. He had a wall erected in memory of all those who served. He spent hours at the cemetery cutting grass, planting trees, and caring for people’s grave sites, even though he did not know them.
It was at the cemetery that he had his first heart attack, marking the beginning of the end. He had grieved himself into bad health. I will never forget being called to the hospital and learning my dad was going to have a quadruple bypass. I was terrified. I went in to see him before they took him in to surgery and he looked so helpless. He had a smile even through all the pain. He told me how much he loved me and that he would see me in a little bit.
Over the next 10 years my dad would suffer 8 more heart attacks and fight an agonizing battle with COPD. Even with all the health problems he still continued to care for the cemetery and he also volunteered to work at the local funeral home. I think in a way death consumed him. He became so desolate, but pushed through and poured what love he had left into my children. They became his reason for living. He watched and cared for my children while I worked and would even call me on my days off and ask me to bring them to see him. He would light up in those moments. The smile on his face was so wondrous.
I soon saw his health take a huge plunge and he was in and out of the hospital at least once a month. He was air lifted to hospitals three times that year after suffering massive heart attacks and each time we were told he wouldn’t pull through. I knew he would though, because he promised me he would.
I walked in my parent’s home one day after work and my dad was lying on the couch. I could tell he was not doing well. I asked him to let me call the ambulance and he exclaimed, “No, I have something I need to do!” I knew he meant what he said, so I sat with him and held his hand. The next morning I got a phone call from my mom who advised me she was calling an ambulance. Dad had fallen in the kitchen and my mother couldn’t help him up. I rushed to the hospital.
When I walked in I immediately noticed dad’s skin color and being a nurse I just knew. His ears and the tips of his fingers were purplish/blue. He reached his hand out to me and took it in mine and pulled it to my chest. A tear ran out of his eye and he said, “I love you, but this is it.” I knew in that moment that I would never see him out of a hospital again. He looked up at me and he said “you better take care of your mom for me.” I shook my head as the tears streamed down my face. I couldn’t say anything. I opened my mouth but no sound would come out. I started shaking uncontrollably but when I felt him tighten up on my hand I knew he wanted me to stop.
The doctor came in and asked to talk to me. My mom was mostly in shock and didn’t know what to say or do. He told me that my dad had suffered a massive heart attack that had blown out the back wall of his heart. He told me he had no idea how he was still breathing. He said they were going to airlift him to Nashville to see specialists, but they did not expect him to survive the trip.
I was numb. Mom and I drove the worst drive ever to the hospital an hour and a half away. When we arrived, a doctor met us in the waiting room. She told us that he had become unresponsive on the trip and was placed on a ventilator. She told us there was absolutely nothing they could do and that once he was removed from the machine he would not make it. His heart was only functioning at 5% and was unable to maintain life. My dad had signed a DNR and had told me multiple times that if he was ever put on a machine and there was no chance for life sustainability to make sure he was not left that way.
I was faced with one of the most painful choices I ever to make. I talked with my mom and ultimately we respected my dad’s decisions. I gave the OK to take my father off life support. The doctor led us to his room and advised us we could stay with him until he passed. Walking into that room I felt feelings that I have never experienced before. I was helpless. I couldn’t do a damn thing to help him. The man who had spent his entire life caring for me and making sure I never went without was lying there and there was nothing I could do to help him. This man who had comforted me in my times of heart break, who had protected me at all costs, who had helped raise my children was leaving me.
I sat there on his bed holding his hand and just like being in a theater I watched the movie of his life, and of my life. I remembered the day he held my first born in his arms and the joy that crossed his face. I remembered the times when as a single mom I had no food in the house and he would pull up with a car full of groceries. I remembered the times I was so sick I couldn’t hold my head up and he would drive out and take care of my kids so I could sleep. I looked at this man who gave his life to care for me and my children, the one I always relied on – and he was leaving me! My safety net was gone.
I laid my head on his chest and I listened to the weak, irregular heartbeat. I felt his chest rise and fall. As the moments in between got longer and longer, I began to sob. I whispered in his ear “It’s okay Daddy. You can go. I will be okay. The kids will be okay. Mom will be okay. Go find peace. Daddy, I love you.” I laid my head back down on his chest. I laid there until the last breath left his body. With that last breath a piece of my heart and soul left my body as well. I cried uncontrollably. I sobbed so loudly and I shook so hard my body ached. I sat there with him for hours after he passed waiting on family to arrive to drive us home, as I was in no shape to drive. I missed him so much even in the minutes afterward.
To this day the hardest thing I have ever had to do was cover him with his favorite blanket before they closed his casket. There is nothing harder in this world than closing the casket for the very last time knowing that you will never see a loved one’s face again. You won’t hear them speak or see them enjoy life anymore. It is over. It is done. You are left with nothing but memories.
This is why I realize we should always make happy, lasting memories! Don’t sweat the small stuff! It is nothing in the whole scheme of life. Don’t argue over the silly stuff. Don’t ever leave without saying “I love you” and never leave with anger in your heart. Appreciate those close to you and hold them near. Life is too short, even when you live 69 years!
I miss my dad every single day and sometimes the pain is so deep and so sharp that I can’t breathe. My dad was a good man who loved without limits. He cared for those he didn’t even know. I see this every time I go to the cemetery and see those flags flying high in the air in memory of veterans who gave their life for our freedom. I see it when I see those beautiful trees that he planted for the families he never even met. I see it in the eyes of my children whom he taught kindness, bravery, and love. I see it in the face of his friends when they speak of him. My dad was so special and he taught me to be the person I am today. I am so proud that I had a dad who taught me to be kind and compassionate, to be a strong, independent woman, and to be determined to finish what I start.
As I sit here watching my two-year-old daughter and my infant grandson, I am saddened by the fact that they will never get to know him. He would have worshiped them and spoiled them rotten. It is a loss for them, but I will make sure they know all about him. I will keep him alive in their hearts by sharing stories and pictures. I love you, daddy. I miss you terribly! I hope you are resting in paradise with Bubby! I know you are pain free both emotionally and physically. Thank you for being such a Super-dad!
Photo: Courtesy of the Author
Originally appeared on The Madness of Mommyhood. Reprinted with permission.