Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 2, 2010

A Terrible Beauty: Lessons learned from death

My dad's death wasn't pretty, but I learned from it

By Whitney Hubbell
Special to the Record-Eagle

---- — My father took four months to die. I counted. I remember on one of his last days I was plopped down in the middle of our living room, massaging my snoring dog when my mom glanced up from her book and said to me, "Whitney, it's OK to be mad at the world right now." As if I hadn't already had a rather bleak view of what was surrounding me.

I was already a somewhat sardonic individual. If I didn't appear so on the outside, I definitely had that attitude on the inside. Holding in all my emotions was my natural way of dealing with everything. Maybe originally it was being a teenager that caused me to view the world in a somber light; however watching my dad slowly deteriorate made a large contribution. In the last week and a half of his life, Dad literally spiraled from being able to walk on his own to being bedridden and on oxygen. I would eye the oxygen tank every so often, appreciating it and disgusted by it at the same time, associating it with the only life my dad had left. It was mind-blowing how fast pancreatic cancer sucked all the life from him. Only a week and a half before he died, my parents had ambled in the front door from a visit to the hospital and told my sister and me that Dad was unable to continue chemotherapy. He was going to die. The doctors estimated that he had a few months. They lied.

Because of what was inevitably going to happen, a hospice nurse visited our house a few times to arrange extreme comfort for our dying family member and therapy sessions for my sister and me. I knew the nurse was going to have a hospital bed and an oxygen tank brought into our house, so it shouldn't have been as much of a surprise when I came home after a day at the beach to see that our living room had turned into a hospital setup; but I stopped dead in my tracks. I finally cracked from the pressure, finally let my emotions out after holding them in for far too long, finally let everything hit me like it should have months ago. Why did this crisis happen to me when catastrophes were supposed to happen to other people? Why should I believe in a god that would unleash racism and hatred and war and cancer on the world? I would have given anything for the past few months to be erased from history, or at least to become a complete psychopath so a psychologist in a mental institution could brainwash me. But my prayers weren't answered.

June 19, 2010 would have been a perfect day. There wasn't a cloud in the sky and there was a slight breeze in the warm summer air. It was the day before Father's Day, which I'm sure made countless other fathers eager to live another day. Mine wasn't one of them. That morning I was shaken awake at 7 a.m. and was driven home from my best friend's house by her dad to be greeted my mother's tearstained face as we pulled into the driveway. The next few hours, relatives kept pouring into our house at random intervals, each of their faces etched with distress. There wasn't much noise or conversation, just muffled sobs and the sound of the oxygen tank — the last sounds Dad would ever hear. I had wanted to turn on iTunes and play some Elton John or Queen for him, his favorites. But Mom said no, so we sat and watched in silence and helplessly waited.

Dad's uneven breathing stopped not 30 minutes after his last sibling entered the room. When I looked at his newly lifeless face, I wondered if this was what he had wanted — everyone he loved surrounding him, watching his breaths get shorter and shorter until there was no life in him anymore. As I watched my mom take off his mask and turn off the oxygen tank and heard everyone's sobs get louder and louder, I remembered Mom telling my sister and me repeatedly that we should remember how he was before the cancer took over and how he lived, not how he died.

That was not going to happen. The sweat on his brow, the agony in his eyes, his stomach that was too big from his swollen liver, it would all stay with me. With that image glued to my brain, I ran up to my room, retrieved the $20 my aunt had given me for a Father's Day gift, and gave it back.

For my 16th birthday, which was exactly three weeks later, all I really asked for was DVDs. One of the movies I received was "American Beauty," which I had never seen before but had always wanted to. I watched it intently, moved by what I was seeing. I was drawn to the character Ricky Fitts in particular. In one scene he tells his girlfriend about how he witnessed a homeless woman freeze to death. "It's like God's looking right at you, just for a second, and if you're careful … you can look right back." At the end of the movie, when he sees a man who had just been shot in the head, Ricky looks into his face and mutters one word:: "Wow."

Despite his obvious abnormality, I watched Ricky with envy. He was cheerful and content with himself despite his dark past; I was cynical and depressed albeit my upbringing had been a piece of pie until a few months earlier. I wished I had his view of the world. He saw death as he saw life: something beautiful. To me, death was the ultimate destruction. He was so sure of God's presence in every walk of life; as much as I wanted there to be a God and a heaven, I sometimes doubted it.

But as envious as I was of him, Ricky gave me comfort, helping me realize that I was wiser and more mature than I had been less than a month ago. He also raised an important question to my mind: When I looked into my dad's eyes one last time, was God staring right back at me, and I missed it?

The funeral was only a few days after Dad's last, and it was as beautiful and terrible as the world around me. The first thought that came to my mind when the casket made its way down the aisle was the question of why the pallbearers were rolling it on some metal contraption with wheels. Wasn't the whole point of pallbearers to carry the casket? Also, my emotional confusion reached its peak. Mom was sobbing uncontrollably and hot tears were even streaming down my own face, but what did I feel? Anger? Despair? Animosity? Rancor? Disbelief? Numbness? Emptiness? It was impossible to pinpoint my feelings. There were too many. I had never felt more human.

I wish I had Ricky Fitts' view on life. I do not see the beauty in death as he sees it, and that is probably because I am still grieving for a lost loved one. After I witnessed my own father's death, I wasn't sure how to feel for a while. People can stay in this state for however long they want to, but eventually, they will have to look closer at what they learned, and how they've changed; whether they're a better person for it or not, if they will ever learn to live with the images etched in the back of their mind.

One of the last things I realized was that when one looks closer at even the most terrible situation, they can find the good that came out of it. For me, it was becoming wiser and becoming more in touch with the world around me. I wish my dad was still here watching World War II movies, singing off key to '70s music on our stereo, taking long naps in our squishy armchair with our dog in his lap, but I feel like I am able to accept what happened and move on. "You have no idea what I'm talking about I'm sure. But don't worry…you will someday." — "American Beauty," 1999

Whitney Hubbell is a junior at Elk Rapids High School.