2017 Creative Writing Winning Entry - Dr. Szymanski

"Death of my Father"

By Irma Szymanski, MD

I came to the USA in 1959 to advance my medical studies.  Although I had planned to stay only for a maximum of two years, I kept extending my stay until it was more urgent to stay in this country than go back.  That is: my life had changed: I was married with a child. But my parents had no intention of making such a big move; therefore they remained in their beloved homeland, Finland.  I visited them as often as I could.

All was well with my parents until a particular morning in 1983 when my mother found my father unresponsive.   He was admitted to a hospital.  She telephoned me every day and told that his condition, a stroke, was not serious, and that my flight to Helsinki was not necessary.  However, after a few days my father developed severe abdominal pains and was operated on.  The whole outlook changed when his bowel was found to be necrotic. I flew immediately to Helsinki. During the flight I was in constant fear that I would not arrive on time. I also felt guilty that doctors might try to keep him alive and prolong his suffering for my sake.

My arrival in Helsinki was ominous then.  This country, from which I am part of and which I love so much, had changed somehow.  The slim fir trees looked unusually dark and the powdery snow on the ground symbolized death for me. Nobody was meeting me at the airport.  That is: my father was not there.  I remembered this frail man, who walked “funny” due to a knee injury and who was so skinny to hold, but always had a friendly, all-loving and all-forgiving smile.  He had always met me at the airport, having driven there in his Citroen. This time Finland did not seem to be completely mine any more.

I met my mother at our house.  She was crying, but that was not unusual. She always cried when she saw me after a long absence or when I left her. The taxi waited while I dropped my bags at home and then we continued to the hospital.  We did not speak much during the ride, a sign that things were not OK. In the luxurious new hospital, nicknamed “Hilton”, we went to my father’s room on the 11th floor.  Two other patients were in the room.  My father’s bed was closest to the window, from which one could see part of the city.  I was apprehensive seeing my father so ill; I knew that the most difficult experiences of my life were now ahead of me.  However, I was determined to go through them no matter what.  Here he was, my handsome father, lying in bed, his slender body suddenly mutilated by disease and treatments.  His face was beautiful, quite unlined, with a rosy color.  I noticed the lovely bone structure of his face and a high forehead.  His eyes were closed.  His hair was brown with some grey in it.  His beard had grown to stubble.  A tube went through his nose to his stomach and it was connected on the bedside to a plastic bag full of foul-smelling, dark brown liquid.  He had been intubated and a small respirator was connected to a tube that came out of his mouth. He was also connected to a cardiac monitor, which showed a fibrillating rhythm, around 100 beats per minute.  In addition, the urine output was being monitored and a transparent bandage was covering the operating wound on the abdomen.

I knew that my trip had been a race against Death.  I had used airplanes and doctors had used modern medical instrumentation on my behalf, but Death had used devious ways.  Who had beaten whom?

I stroked my father, kissed him and I told him that I was with him and that I loved him. He opened his eyes, but I don’t know if he understood me.  I also told him that my son Ari wanted to be there too but couldn’t.  At that point he made a grimace; he might have been in pain.  The doctor told me later that earlier on that day my father had been conscious.  He was then told that his daughter was on her way to see him. At that point he had opened his eyes and tears came out. Then I believed that he must have heard me when I talked.  Everything could not be dead yet. 

My mother and I stayed a couple of hours with him until the doctor, who cared for him, came.  He was a young blond man with a handsome cherubic face.  His manner was a little bit like that of a funeral director, nice with a certain insincere touch.  We discussed the present treatment. Should my father be on a respirator?  I felt that it was not necessary, but that he should receive his antibiotics and a pain medication.  After the surgery he was not receiving anticoagulants any more.  Then the doctor removed the respirator and my father continued to breathe on his own while receiving oxygen.  His breathing was labored.  The doctor said that he was hyperventilating in an effort to correct the metabolic acidosis caused by the necrotic bowel.   At that time the doctor was able to arouse him by loud commands.  He then received 3 mg morphine intravenously. Following that he did not seem to feel pains.  After a few more hours my mother felt very tired and sick watching him suffer.  She went home.  I decided to stay till the end.  I felt that if my father must suffer the agony, I could at least watch him.  I could not escape by going away.  Besides, I did not want him to die alone.  Maybe he could feel me being there, as I was squeezing his hand and kissing him.

Watching him did not turn out to be unbearable. I watched his cardiac monitor and I was happy about every beat.  It meant that he was still alive, here with me.  It gave me joy.  Then I felt remorse thinking that every heartbeat, every breath only prolonged the agony, his bowel being in necrosis and black liquid draining from his stomach.  There was nothing I could do to lessen the final struggle. His heart did not want to quit, it went on fibrillating.  He kept on breathing as if there was some hope.

My mother had told me about the discussion the two of them had had on the night before he fell ill.  He had said that when he dies, he hopes to go back to his mother.  It was as if all his life he had had a “love affair” with his mother, who had been a loving, gentle soul like he.  I had a feeling that I wanted to give him back to his mother, to the person, who had given birth to him.  I was imagining that she was waiting for him in this room.  Then suddenly I felt like I was his mother, him being so helpless in his bed. I had been transformed from his daughter to his mother.   

Then another patient in the room became aggressive.  A nurse came in and gave him an injection.  Gradually everything quieted down.  The nurse rolled in a narrow cot for me to sleep on.  I rested and fell asleep for one hour.

Then my vigil started again.  My father seemed to have pain. I asked for morphine for him.  The situation remained stable for a while and I wandered out of the room. I found a psalm book. I looked up a topic of preparing for death. I read those psalms.  Then I read some of them to my father.   I prayed as I could, Lutheran, Jewish.

At 6:30 in the morning the nurse gave me breakfast consisting of juice, yogurt, bread and coffee.  I had not eaten anything since I came to Finland.  I realized that my father couldn’t have anything.  Why should I?

I went back to him.  His pulse rate was now slow, 60 - 50 beats per minute, the blood pressure was 60/40 mmHg.  His respirations were shallow.  The two other men in the room slept deeply.   I was happy that they did, leaving me alone with my father.  His pulse rate dropped to 20.  I was holding him.  I said I loved him.  I prayed.  Suddenly he had like an electric shock.  He was vibrating.   I was holding him tight.  Then there was no more breathing. The cardiac monitor recorded a straight line. The color disappeared from his face, which became greyish. It was still beautiful.  The time was 7:19 am.

His death had been quiet.  He had not bothered anybody.   I went to tell the nurses and they sent a physician to pronounce him dead.

I had thought that I could never stand this moment.  Now it was over.


Author Biography:

I became interested in writing in my teens after reading some fantastic, compelling poetry and fiction, like those of the English authors Somerset Maugham and A. C. Cronin (both physicians). Sinclair Lewis has also deeply influenced me.  In addition, many Russian, French, Swedish and Finnish authors have put an imprint in my mind. What about my own writings?   I have always kept diaries and I have written poems.  The piece, which I am submitting for the Creative Writing Exposition was written, because I had to “talk” to somebody to help me go through the loss of my father.

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