Had I known then what I know now, I would not have left, but I have no regrets, if that makes any sense.
Dad had been in the hospital since Wednesday, when he'd finally gone in to see why he had been feeling so weak and had such odd bruising on his legs. On Friday, they confirmed that Dad did, indeed, have acute myeloid leukemia. (It was just like my Dad to be 78, still working part-time, and walking around with cancer like it was indigestion, not even knowing that he had seen his last Christmas. Those farm boys don't go down easy.)
Dr. Lacey had suggested that Dad might make it another six weeks without treatment. We had discussed it as a family (with Dad) and determined that the treatment would probably kill him and wouldn't be worth it. Hospice was called, and they were planning to go to the house in a few days to help Mom care for Dad.
Ever since the bone biopsy on Thursday, Dad just seemed to be having trouble pulling himself out of a ditch of unconsciousness he had fallen into. I had spent the day at the hospital overnight on Saturday. All day Sunday, Dad basically "slept," though it seemed like he was more in a coma of some kind. Six of my eight siblings and I camped out in that small hospital room with Mom and Dad that night, wrapped up in hospital blankets on makeshift chair "beds," overflowing into the hallway.
Every now and then, Dad would open his eyes and say something to whoever was standing near the bed.
"Well, hey there, Mary! How're you doing?" he called out cheerfully to my sister (and then drifted back to sleep.)
To me, "You're an angel," (referring to my holding his hand on Friday) ...and back to sleep.
At some point, Dad began breathing a very heavy, labored breathing that Mom insisted he "always" did when he slept, but it was odd to me--so loud, so forceful. It seemed exhausting to me. This went on for hours.
Confused (I had no experience with terminal illness) at one point, I asked a nurse, "Is he dying?" She replied "No one ever knows." (I wish she had been more direct.)
In the wee hours of the morning, my younger sister, Judy, arrived. She had been in an airport when she heard the news and just wanted to come right away, instead of continuing home to Memphis. When she arrived, Dad opened his eyes, smiled, and said hello to her (as if he'd been expecting her) and fell back to sleep.
By Monday morning (9am or so, I think), I was deliriously, shakily exhausted and in bad need of a shower. I just needed to go home for an hour or two. I weighed the consequence of being gone if he passed when I wasn't there and decided that I wouldn't have any regrets; I felt like we had already said everything that needed to be said. (Having had no direct experience with death at that point, I didn't realize there might be another reason to stay.) Besides, I hadn't really accepted that he was dying; honestly, I thought he was just having a really hard time coming out of medication he'd been on for pain or something. I went home, took a nap, and had just gotten out of the shower when my brother Dennis called and suggested strongly that I hurry back.
I wasn't there when he passed, but in a way, I feel like I was, having been told the details when I returned...
Suddenly, after hours and hours of labored breathing, Dad's breathing calmed dramatically, and he opened his eyes. Mom was at his side, holding his hand. He stared at her with the eyes of a little boy, for several minutes. She sang to him, and when the song was over, she told him, "Jim, I've taken care of you for 50 years. Go be with your mother now; she'll take care of you."
...and he quietly closed his eyes and breathed his last breath.
I don't regret leaving, but I do feel like I missed out on something very powerful and beautiful; a human being passing from this world to the other side. That experience was a gift, and while I didn't receive it directly, six of my siblings did, and I know that Dad would have been proud of doing that for us (passing away within days of his diagnosis) rather than going through the whole Hospice thing and dragging it out. He would have been so happy that Mom didn't have to go through that, and after all we'd been through growing up, he kind of owed us a favor.