I brought our daughter with us to the last nursing home. Both her grandmothers were there to help me figure out the next step on our path. She was only five and we’ve been in these type of situations since she was three and her father was diagnosed with a Stage Four brain tumor. We were all horrified by the rotting smell and industrial hallways. Clearly, this wasn’t the way to go.
“I think it’s time to bring him home.” my mother-in-law whispered.
The anvil melted away from my heart. My deep sigh contained a trace of the tears that spilled from my eyes.
Savannah looked confused.
I squatted to her level and explained in a somewhat steady voice, “We’ll bring Daddy home and this time he won’t go back to the hospital. No more emergency room, no more doctor appointments. We’ll just wait and take care of him……until he dies.”
“When does he die?” She needs specifics.
“When his body is ready.”
We didn’t sweeten the tea in our family. The truth was as unforgiving as our journey.
We told her about his tumor right before he went in for his first surgery. We were at the neurosurgeon’s office and she was entranced by all the graphic medical posters on the walls. She could see the scan on the board showing the grey grapefruit that was his tumor.
“Is that the cancer?”, she said, putting her finger on the scan. It was the first time she reached out toward his diseased body.
After Wade’s eight-hour craniotomy I was tentative about bringing Savannah to his bedside. He had been in intensive care for two days, yet his face was still extremely swollen and the enormous gauze bandage wrapped around his head was bloody in some areas. I played it cool and she didn’t appear concerned or afraid, just happy to see her daddy again. On the way home she asked if she could get a white coat.
“A coat? You already have that fluffy one that you never wear.”
“No, a long white coat, like the doctor. And some tape. And some of that white stuff on Daddy’s head.”
I was her surgical nurse and stuffed animals became her patients, all of them wearing gauze turbans with blood drawn on from red paint.
She needed to constantly touch her daddy’s head. First the bandage, then the staples, then the scar. Bringing his cancer journey into her life meant letting her be present for everything that mattered. She even enjoyed helping me to separate his weekly pills and was fascinated with his vomit, watching enthralled while he dry-heaved.
After a brutal episode of severe constipation, Wade was on the toilet moaning, sweating and squeezing my hand. Savannah stayed with us for most of that time, quietly reading her own books on her mini toilet. I had to take a break and soon heard a cry of triumph from the bathroom. Savannah came running out to pronounce, “Mommy! There is a forest of poop!!”
After the surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy there would be hours of bed snuggling and movie watching with her daddy. She even sat next to him when he went back to the piano for the first time. Always close to him, touching in small and big ways.
Two years after the initial prognosis of three months, Wade’s cancer came back and with it a plethora of diabolical medical complications. We were basically living at the hospital and mom would bring Savannah to us after school. Sometimes she would climb into bed with him, but not as much anymore. She knew his body was fragile now and she was more careful.
When we brought him home to die her favorite part was riding in his lap to and from school while I pushed the wheelchair. She would hand me wipes as I cleaned him up from numerous “potty” accidents. Nothing in the care of his body was repulsive to her. This was simply her daddy and this was the type of care required.
She was at a sleepover the night her father died. When I called to have her brought home she tentatively entered the house, recognizing the silence to be thick all around her.
“Come here sunshine.” I patted my lap and she climbed aboard staring intently into my eyes.
“Daddy died this morning in my arms…it was peaceful.”
She watched for clues as to how she should respond. I started to cry silently and she followed suit.
“Do you want to see him? He’s still in bed.”
She nodded solemnly and took my hand. We walked over to his body and she stared at his face, which held a quiet smile. She reached out and touched his bald head and a quizzical look followed. She raced out of the room and I let her go. I heard the freezer open and close with Savannah returning to the room. Her left hand was holding a piece of ice. She placed her right hand on her daddy’s head for the last time and pronounced, “Yep, Daddy’s head is colder.”
Kehaunani Hubbard is a single mother and writer living in Nashville, Tennessee. Her recent literary magazine publications include WritersAdive and Ink Monkey.