fathers and sons

No, we weren’t eaten by rabid prairie dogs in Wyoming nor abducted by aliens as we drove through Nevada, but arrived safely in California on Father’s Day, Sunday, June 18. Since then we’ve been busy settling in, and we haven’t had Internet access at home until yesterday, when our DSL service finally started. Later I’ll have more to say about the experience of moving, the five-day cross-country drive, living in Daly City, and my new job at UCSF, but there’s an event that has recently and suddenly overtaken our lives and overshadowed all these other issues. Tragically, Jeff’s father died yesterday.

As Jeff notes, his father had been ill only a short time, beginning with flu-like symptoms in late May that eventually led to an interim (albeit wrong) diagnosis of pneumonia. My first day of work at UCSF he entered the hospital, where his rapid deterioration and a battery of tests led finally to a conclusive diagnosis–only three days ago, on July 4th–of very advanced lung cancer. The prognosis was grim, with the doctors suggesting that he would live no more than a few days with no intervention, and not much longer even with treatment.

By that same evening, his condition had worsened sufficiently to require–at his request–that he be placed on a ventilator. By the next day it was clear that even this stopgap measure had come too late, and he and his family made the agonizing decision to have the ventilator removed on Thursday.

I only met Jeff’s father for the first time in October 2004, and on that occasion he was polite but very reserved. I didn’t see him again until May of this year, when Jeff and I came out here for my interview with UCSF. On that trip, though, I felt that he and I really connected, due at least partly to my appreciation of and interest in the architectural and structural details of the house he would be renting us–he’s an architect, and though he hadn’t designed or built the house, he’d put a lot of himself into it. It seemed to surprise and please him that I was interested in it, and ready to help maintain it.

And our connection was never stronger or clearer than over these past several days. He welcomed me fully into his hospital room as part of his family and took my hand, even despite having just learned that he was dying. Tuesday evening, when we weren’t sure he’d live through the night, Jeff and I stood vigil over him together. On Wednesday, though he wasn’t able to talk, he was again conscious and could gesture. I arrived late that day, and when I was finally able to see him in the ICU, he waved frantically to bring me over to him whereupon he grasped my hand and held it a long while; I told him I’d take care of Jeff and Jeff’s mother, and he nodded his head.

Yesterday I left work early to be with Jeff and his family when the life support systems were turned off. I arrived just a few moments before the respiratory specialist, and joined Jeff in his father’s room. Together we watched while his father was sedated and made comfortable, and while the ventilator was removed, and together we held his hand and stroked his brow while he peacefully and quickly passed from life to death.

It’s been a heartbreaking experience, and I’ve found myself grieving not just for the loss of Jeff’s father, but to some degree reliving my own father’s death from just three years ago. And along with the grief I find myself angry at the unfairness of Jeff losing his father so suddenly and so young, but angry too that I won’t now have the chance to get to know him better, or be able to call him “Dad.”

Irreligious as I am, and my inner cynic notwithstanding, I can’t help but have moments of suspicion that somehow we truly were meant to be here now; as my boss noted, there’s almost something about life in California–or San Francisco, more specifically–that can make almost anyone start to feel that way. So many things fell into place so quickly and so readily to bring us to this place at this point in time, where we were able to visit with Jeff’s father in the few short weeks before his death, and to support his mother and aunts through this difficult period. At other times I know I’ve railed about the unfairness of coincidence and circumstance–the terrible misunderstanding that kept my mother and sister from my father’s bedside at his time of death, for example–but for now there’s almost something comforting about feeling that some greater purpose was served by the timing of our move to California.

4 thoughts on “fathers and sons

  1. When Jeff first broke the news the other day on his blog, I found myself wanting to say something but couldn’t. I was all at once realizing that I had no frame of reference to offer comfort or advice — and at the same time, thinking of my own father and wondering how I would deal with this situation when it came.
    The only thing I can really do is ask you to give him — and his mom — a big hug for me and know that I am thinking of them.

  2. My greatest sympathies to you both. I am glad you were able to be there and make him feel loved in his final moments. *hugs*

  3. Hi Thom,
    Please let me know if there’s *anything* I can do to help you and Jeff–if you need some (albeit bad) cooking, an extra pair of hands, or someone to listen. My cellphone’s always on, and you can call me *anytime*.

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