The nurse looks young. Blonde-hair pulled up high in a ponytail. A blue mask covers half her face. But her eyebrows read concern.
“What do you think?” I ask her over Facetime.
“He needs to move from his house into hospice.”
“I’m in Uganda. Do you think he’ll make it long enough for me to get back in time?”
“If you’re considering it, you’d have to leave now.”
I’m facetiming with my sister who is holding my dad’s hand. Her nails are painted a bright fluorescent orange, and I watch her thumb move up and down, up and down across his skin.
“It’s okay Dad,” she says balancing the phone so that I can see him too. She’s using a voice with him that I’ve never heard. A voice you use to comfort a hurt child. But of course she does, he’s dying.
His cheekbones have caved in the last few days. He can’t open his eyes. He’s lying flat and writhes in pain every so often. He’s at that home they wanted to transfer him to.
“We’re all going to be okay here,” she half-whispers. By here, she means earth.
We’ve wondered how he’s held on so long. 2 and a half years longer than the doctors said he could. He held on long enough for us to see him again, completing a two-year missionary term in Uganda. We went back to America after to spend a few more months with him, thinking we may get to be there for his final days. But eventually we had to return to our home and work in Africa again.
I’m watching my sisters slow rhythmic finger and there’s a primal urge in me to hold his hand too. He’s in a blue shirt, a different one from last time. The blue looks nice next to his full head of grey hair. I’m glad they’re changing his clothes. The nurses must care. I have so many thoughts bumping up against one another.
Do I drive the eight hours to Kampala and fly the 36 hour available flight home? Will I make it? Do I leave my three young kids? For how long? Do I bring one with me?
I walk around that day believing I won’t make it back in time. And to show up after he dies seems like a heartbreak I can’t handle right now. But more than all that… staying feels right.
The next day on Facetime a new nurse is in his room, he looks Filipino-American. He's confidant, and chatty. He’s telling me that my dad is in a lot of pain but he’s giving him morphine through a line. I notice the nurse is down by my dad’s legs, so I ask, “Does he have an IV?”. (IV’s aren’t typically placed on the lower half of a person’s body)
“No. We’re giving him medication subcutaneously.”
“Oh. I didn’t realize you can give morphine subq,” I say.
His voice gets even louder. “I worked ICU for 8 years before Sharp sent me here and I didn’t realize this either. You a nurse?”
My dad moans. I don’t want to be rude but I can’t muster up the small talk. I want to see my dad. I want to be closer, next to him, touching him. But the camera is pointed at the nurse and I feel annoyed because everything is out of my control.
“Yes, I used to work at Sharp too," I say.
“Where do you work now?”
“I’m on the border of Congo and Uganda, at a hospital here. Dad… you’re getting pain medication now,” I say, trying to shift focus.
My siblings are champs, in the middle of it all. A few months ago when my sister and I were out eating fish tacos we talked about some of our fears, of how to be with a parent as they die. And now I could see what an absolute amazing job she was doing, holding the space in the room and showering him with unconditional love.
“I gotta go Kace,” she says. I see her trying to juggle everything in the room, and the phone call is just too much.
We hang up.
Our time difference makes it that I have to go to bed just as her day starts, and wait for news in the morning.
The next afternoon I talk with my counselor, who helps me weigh out if I should fly home or not. Time is ticking. Was that first nurse right, the one that said come home now? If she was right, I’d miss him. But if she's wrong? What if he was going to be around another week?
The logistics of getting home feel hard, and sad. I talk with Mike.
I want to be there, I say.
I think about packing, about leaving the kids, the long drive over the mountains, the last minute plane ticket. My seven-year old daughter Winnie and I have a girls weekend planned to go on a safari in Queen Elizabeth National Park, something we have been looking forward to for a few months now. I told her the only reason I could see that we wouldn’t be able to go, is if grandpa died at that time. She snuggled into me and said, “I hope that doesn’t happen, I really want to do this with you.”
Those words stick in my ears. I don't want to disappoint her. Ironic that the strong aversion I have in disappointing my daughter comes from having lived through some major disappointments myself, because of my dad.
But sometimes forgiveness feels like a miracle. Rather than cling to the disappointments forever, my siblings and I were just happy to have my dad back in our lives. He had disappeared for ten years.
“Safari will always be there,” Mike reminds me.
I wasn't abandoning my daughter. I was rescheduling our trip.
Then I’ll go.
I scramble to attend to the needs of the moment, and try to think about tomorrow, and the days after.
I balance an iPad over our electric keyboard and join a zoom call. Winnie sits on the bench waiting for her online piano lesson to start.
I sit on the couch next to her and decide before I made this epic trip home, I need to hear from a nurse that I will make it in time. The drive in me for more information is strong, like an engine that just got turned on.
I look at the clock. Is it 3 am in America? I text my sister: Can you give me the name and number of the hospice dad is in?
Why didn’t I get this information earlier? I want this information, now.
The Filipino nurse had said he worked at Sharp.
And my dad’s wife said she was so impressed by the “four-bedroom hospice home in a sweet neighborhood”.
I put those details together, google a bit, and within a few minutes make a phone call to a number that I think may be right.
A very kind voice answers and I ask if there is a man by the name of Dennis Mutscheller in their care. “This is his daughter, Kacie.”
“Are you Kacie Forrest?”
Hearing my name on the other side of this strange phone call is beautiful. Like reaching into the dark and having someone hold my hand.
I jump off the couch and leave my daughter in her piano lesson.
The woman's voice is bright and clear, “Yes, I have his emergency contacts here and you’re listed. What do you want to know?”
“Well. I’m calling from East Africa, and I was thinking about getting on a plane tomorrow, but I wanted to call first and see if you think I’ll…” I start to cry a little.
“If you’ll make it?”
“He’s made a significant change since I got on shift. His breathing has changed. He’s got what we call agonal breathing now, which means he probably only has a few hours left.”
As she says this I realize that I didn’t load up credit on my phone, and that this international call may get cut off at any time. Please God just let us talk.
“Okay,” I say.
“His pain is finally controlled, but he’s getting so much morphine sweetie he wouldn’t even know you were next to him even if you could make it in time.”
I hear what she’s saying but I doubt parts of it.
We’re spiritual beings, and life is a mystery, and if I were sitting next to him he may know.
I don’t have enough credit on my phone to give it any time to think about it.
I’m not going to make it.
“Is anyone with him?”
“Yes, his wife, Becca- or is it Bec…”
“Becky,” I say.
“Yes, thanks. Becky is. She’s on the chair next to him sleeping.”
“I want to be there, I’m just so far away,” I say, and then the tears come hard.
She listens. Then does a humming moaning noise that is strangely comforting to me. “I am feeling this so much for you right now. I’m with you,” she says, the way my hippie friends in college used to talk.
I keep crying, pacing my house and hearing piano in the background. She continues to comfort me over the phone. She’s good at this. I’m so grateful for this woman.
Then, I tell her I have to go.
I text my friend:
I just talked to the nurse. She says he only has hours to live.
Mike is at work. Boston and Piper are playing Legos in the living room. I can hear Winnie’s piano teacher laughing with her over Zoom. She has a sweet voice. Piper is up next after Winnie’s lesson.
Time suddenly takes on a different meaning. Two lessons is half of the time my dad has left to live. Part of me is slipping away forever. I get panicky, I walk in circles and the world constricts around me.
I text my friend again:
I’m at a loss of what to do right now.
She writes back:
Can the nurse put the phone up to his ear so you can pray for him? Then say goodbye, tell him what you loved about him being your dad.
I like that idea.
Winnie comes walking out of the room, “Mom, the iPad shut off, can you help me?”
My mind is too fuddled to deal with technology. It’s never a quick fix here, and we don’t have much time. I write a quick email to the teacher explaining that I’m canceling piano today, sorry.
I gather my kids and we all sit on the floor together. “Guys, grandpa is dying. I want you to be able to say one last good-bye. We can blow him kisses or just tell him we love him. But this is going to be the last time we get to talk to him or see him before he goes to heaven.”
Piper’s eyes get wet and she runs out of the room. I can’t figure out where we should all sit. I clear the couch of all the laundry. “Come sit here you guys,” I say.
I call back but the night shift doesn’t know how to transfer the mainline to their portable line. I understand this, I worked nightshift at one point. People don’t make these requests at 4 am usually. The nurse is trying her best, telling all her coworkers “She’s in Uganda and the phone might hang up” and I can tell they’re trying to figure it out.
After a long time, what feels like forever, the nurse says “Maybe you should just wait till the dayshift gets here…”
Something in me knows it will be too late by then. I will forever regret it if I wait. But the alternative is, I wake up his sleeping wife. I know she’s going through a lot and could use the rest, but at this point I don’t care.
I tell the kids to get ready, now is our moment. We take a deep breath, me and my little ones all curled up around me.
We call Becky using video.
She immediately picks up. She wipes her eyes and looks at me.
“Did someone tell you?” She says.
“Yes, I called the nurse and she said he only has a few hours.”
I thought she was talking about my dad’s change in condition.
“The kids and I just want to tell him we love him. Do you mind just putting the phone up to his ear?”
She looks shocked. “He died. Just now. I just woke up. I didn’t know he was dead. I was sleeping. He’s dead. He’s dead?”
I look at my kids. They need closure.
“Can the kids just say ‘I love you’ to the air?” I ask.
I fear she’ll turn the camera and they’ll have a vision of their grandpa they won't ever forget.
“Keep the camera on you. We’ll just say I love you to him. He’s not alive, I know, but… this doesn’t make sense. Okay never mind. He’s not alive. He’s dead. Okay-“
“I have to go,” she says, in shock, hanging up.
The last and only funeral my children have been to was a month ago in the village next to us. Hundreds of people gathered as they dug the hole for the grave, and in the heat of the day they put the body of a beloved grandfather and father into the ground. We were surrounded by banana trees, and women wailing and holding on to one another. Their voices crept higher and higher as they expressed their great sorrow. My girls watched with big eyes, taking in the foreign display of unbridled grief.
Immediately after Becky had said my father was dead, the kids do exactly what the women at the funeral did. They wail. Winnie throws herself across me and wails. Piper climbs the furniture and cries out. I don’t know what Boston does, probably because he is quieter, and I can't focus.
I sit there watching Piper and stroking Winnie’s head, while trying to wipe my tears.
“All I can think about is grandpa!” Piper yells, angry. “I WANT GRANDPA!”
Winnie curls into a ball, crying the loudest I’ve ever heard.
Boston crawls up and I open my arms to try to take in all my kids, but there isn't enough of me. I need some more help.
I lean over and text my friend and Mike:
She texts back:
I’m coming over.
Piper says, “I have 1 piece of clothing that smells like him, I want to smell him, but the shirt is in America”. She runs off. She runs from room to room. “I need a picture of him!” She screams with ferocity. “Where’s a picture?”
Boston whimpers a little, “I’m going to play Legos right here.”
“Legos!? How can you play Legos right now? How can he play Legos mom?!” Winnie asks incredulously.
“Let him do what he needs,” I say, confused. Do I have a picture of my dad? I know I have a picture of my dad somewhere.
Boston bent down and starts to stick Lego pieces together singing in a sad voice, my grandpa died, my grandpa died, it is so sad, my grandpa died.
I stand up and go into the kid’s room. Winnie follows me. “I want to do something but I don’t know what to do?” she cries.
“Do you want to go outside?”
“No, I want to stay in our house. I just don’t know what to do!”
Piper walks in. “DEATH IS STUPID!”
Both my girls look at me. “It’s okay, you can say that,” I say.
“Yeah, death is STUPID!” Winnie yells. “STTTUPPID!”
“Why did God make death?” Piper says, swinging from a bedpost. “Why?”
“Grandpa is the only thing I want right now,” Winnie says, crawling into her bed with me.
I hear the rumble our van makes at the front of our house. Mike’s back.
It’s like none of us know what to do with our bodies. Except Boston. He’s figured it out.
Piper cries and says “I can’t find the shirt. I can’t find a picture. I just want to smell a cigarette. I miss the smell of grandpa. I love cigarettes. I want to smell him mom but I can’t! Because he’s D-E-D.”
So real, so raw. Cute even. I wanted to laugh but I was still crying, trying to wrap my mind around the fact that the pressing feeling that I had to get in contact with him as quickly as possible, was actually coinciding with his death. It seemed so natural the way it all unfolded, but to call exactly when his wife found out he had died was more of a miracle really.
As if there were a certain connectedness to it all. A guiding across the seas. An interwovenness between a father and a daughter. An unexpected mercy from God- showing me that distance can be an illusion. I was closer in that moment than if I were a few blocks away sleeping in my bed.
“Hi,” Mike said, standing at the doorway. “I’m so sorry.”
We end up in our bedroom, all of us in a sad pile on our bed.
“Do your brother and sister know?” He asks me.
“I don’t know.”
“Want me to call them?”
“Yeah I guess.”
My friend shows up at our front door. She comes in, and stays close in our fresh grief. Then goes onto our porch to give us space.
After awhile in bed all our emotions start to simmer down, and Winnie looks at me and says “I was really mad at Boston for playing Legos, but it’s actually a good idea. I kinda want to play Legos too.”
“Then you should,”
“Okay,” she prances off to build her Lego city with Boston.
More than anything I wanted my dad to have relief from his cancer, to be freed of his body and to enter into the presence of His perfect loving Father. Heaven is his now and he gets to enjoy Christ, and whatever else the bounties of Heaven behold.
And I liked how wild, honest and unique each of my kids were in expressing their sadness for a grandpa that they really truly loved with all their hearts. I’m grateful to be immersed in a culture that is both collectively and individually well-acquainted with grief. How will this inform our experience of losing my dad, who knows?
I guess when I do I’ll write about it.
*We hope to return home to California for a few weeks to be a part of his celebration of life. And to spread his ashes in the Pacific Ocean per his request.