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Monday, February 13, 2006

Follow you, follow me

If you’re an adult and you lose both your parents does that still make you an orphan?

I’m not sure what the answer is, but it’s been a question I’ve been pondering lately. Not for myself, but for my husband. Danny lost his dad to a sudden heart attack on Dec. 28, 1980 – 25 years ago. He had just turned 14 years old and woke up to find his household in a state of hysteria and sadness because his dad had died in his sleep.

Danny’s older brothers and sisters wouldn’t let him see his dad. He is the youngest of eight kids in an Irish-Catholic family and it was probably an effort to protect him. It’s something his older siblings would try to do until fairly recently. They didn't need to because in reality he is the strongest person I’ve ever known.

Edward “Bunny” Hoke was buried on New Year’s Eve in 1980 at Holy Cross Cemetery. He was a popular guy, an insurance man with Dawson Insurance, active in the Cuyahoga County Republican Party, a golf fanatic and friend to many. Danny remembers that his wake at McGorray’s in Lakewood was so heavily attended that the line stretched out the door and around the corner. His eight children played the Genesis song, “Follow You, Follow Me” in tribute to their dad. Whenever I hear it now it brings tears to me eyes.

He learned to live without a father. And he learned to live with four older brothers who all tried to be his father at different points in his life. He’s made a kind of peace with that fact, even as he misses his dad so profoundly.

Now his mom, Joanne, is lying in hospice with her body’s systems slowing shutting down one by one. It’s been such a painful process that began five weeks ago. Joanne was unable to eat and she needed to have some tests done. She was fearful and unwilling to go to the hospital. But it reached a head one Sunday when her children convinced her it was for the best. She entered the hospital weighing 99 pounds.

An endoscopy revealed that she had a mass in her stomach that was blocking entry to her intestines. It turned out to be a bleeding ulcer. She required gastric bypass surgery and a transfer to University Hospitals. Joanne is such a strong-willed Irish woman and she was not going to have the surgery no matter how much her children and doctors pleaded with her.

One night, Danny sat in our darkened living room and asked himself and me a question that was haunting him: “What are her wishes? Why are we doing this? For us or for her? Can she survive the surgery and the recovery? She’s so frail.”

Tears were streaming down his face as he dried to wrestle with how to let go. Early the next morning, Joanne gave the surgeon her consent to operate. The surgery went well. Everyone was pleased.

But a few days later, her breathing was labored. Tests showed pneumonia, collapsed lower lobes of the lung and a pulmonary embolism. She was whisked into ICU, hooked up to a ventilator and filled with blood thinners, antibiotics, anti-anxiety medications, pain meds and oxygen.

Surprisingly, she was stabilized within a couple of days and able to return to a surgical floor. Doctors felt confident that she was stable enough to be transferred back to St. John West Shore Hospital in Westlake to recovery in their skilled care unit.

She would be close to home and to her children. But Joanne has been fighting battles on too many fronts. Another pulmonary embolism developed and her breathing once again became labored on Friday. Danny knew what this meant. Her living will clearly states that she does not want to be hooked up to machines and wants no extraordinary measures taken to prolong her life. The ventilator was not an option this time.

On Friday night, doctors suspected congestive heart failure and the decision was made to bring in hospice. Make her comfortable, there’s nothing more to be done. On my way home from a conference on Saturday, Danny called and asked me to come to the hospital. I stopped at the gas station earlier that day and when I got back in my car, “Follow You, Follow Me” was on the radio. Was it a sign?

I hadn’t seen Joanne since Christmas day. I was shocked at her appearance. She’s down to 88 pounds, her translucent skin is riddled with bruises, her hands look like those of a child and her skin is falling away from her eye sockets. It was startling. She is only 75, but she looked 100.

As I sat in a chair behind Danny’s niece who was feeding her baby food bananas I fought back the lump in my throat. I am not close to Joanne. That was her choice. But I was there when she needed me and I think she respected that. She leaned up a little and with her voice muffled by her oxygen mask asked, “Is that Wendy?”

“Hi Joj,” I said and scooted over to hold her frail hand. “I’m sorry,” she said.

“Don’t be,” I said, knowing that her apology could have been for so many things not necessarily directed at me but at Danny.

I’m glad I saw her and I know it meant everything to Danny. She continues to hang on this morning, though her body is showing signs of an accelerated shut down. Danny’s brother Tom called at 3 a.m. Sunday and said Joanne was asking for him. So he jumped out of bed and rushed to the hospital. Of all her boys, he’s been by her side consistently in the 25 years since his dad died.

As he crawled into bed at 7:30 yesterday morning he told me he was at peace. He had said his goodbyes and prayed that she would close her eyes and take her leave. The human will to live is stronger than can imagine. She’s labored through another day, working so hard just to breathe.

Finally, last night she said to Danny, “I’m ready to go.”

“Then go, Mom. Close your eyes and go,” he said.

I told him yesterday that he’s been a good son. Joanne knows this and it’s what she loved about him even though she couldn’t or wouldn’t say the words. In the end, I realized that for much of his life their roles have been reversed. He has been the parent and she the child in need of nurturing.

But I saw a change in him on Saturday night, a very subtle change, as if he were suddenly free to blossom into the full adult he was meant to be. I had told the boys that JoJo (that’s what they call her) was probably going to die in the next couple of days, and that dad was sad and really needed us now. As if on cue, Danny walked in and when he saw us, he fell to pieces.

I’m sure it scared them a bit to see their normally composed and calm dad so emotional. Soon they were all crying and hugging. I stood back and let him soak in their love and support. I realize now that they were crying for him. “I don’t want you to not have any parents,” cried Mikey.

“It’s okay, Mikey,” he said. “I have you guys.”

Stay with me,
My love I hope you’ll always be
Right here by my side if ever I need you
Oh my love

In your arms,
I feel so safe and so secure
Everyday is such a perfect day to spend
Alone with you

I will follow you will you follow me
All the days and nights that we know will be
I will stay with you will you stay with me
Just one single tear in each passing year

With the dark,
Oh I see so very clearly now
All my fears are drifting by me so slowly now
Fading away

I can say
The night is long but you are here
Close at hand, oh I’m better for the smile you give
And while I live

I will follow you will you follow me
All the days and nights that we know will be
I will stay with you will you stay with me
Just one single tear in each passing year there will be

I will follow you will you follow me
All the days and nights that we know will be
I will stay with you will you stay with me
Just one single tear in each passing year...

— “Follow You, Follow Me” / Genesis

1 comment:

Jill said...

Wendy, please give my warmest wishes to your husband, your family and yourself. I'm very sorry for your pain, but know that you're surrounded by love, especially today.