The times I saw him die

Don Van Wagoner – January 1927- March 2018

I heard my mom screaming my name. It was three in the morning. I found her in the bathroom talking to my dad “Don…Don…wake up!” He was sitting on the commode, leaning back on the tank, eyes open, not breathing.

My dad was an anxious guy. Like me, he internalized most of his worries and bad feelings from his past. Poverty, losing his mom when he was 10, WWII, Korean War, low income, no knowledge of how money works. He hung onto those worries and feelings with a death grip. He doused the heat from their fire with shots of Corby whiskey and cigarettes but the embers would flame up again and again.

Dad. WWII front right.

I was home from college that weekend. Dad had been complaining about flu-like symptoms and was in bed. The cause was actually three stomach ulcers that were bleeding. He was 55 and was in shock, barely clinging to life.

I stepped in front of mom, held dads face in my hands and felt his neck for a pulse. Nothing. I thought “what a weird way to go.” Just then he blinked his eyes and started scolding us for interrupting his sacred private time. “Now get out of here I’m trying to do my business!” I looked at mom, she still looked horrified. When I looked back at dad, he was back in shock. Fortunately, he came to again long enough for me to get him up.  We got him in the car and I rushed him to the emergency room. Why didn’t I call the ambulance? I was 19 and believed I could get him to the hospital faster than they could. And so I did.

When the doctors had him stable, one came out to talk to us. He said it was “unbelievable” that dad was still alive. His stomach was full of blood and he didn’t have a pulse when the doctor first saw him. Later that day, after leaving his room for a bite to eat, I returned to find him sitting up in bed. “Steve! It’s good to see ya!”  “How ya feeling dad?” “Oh, I feel like a million bucks.” Within a week, dad was back home. He never smoked or drank again. Okay…he may have had a sip of wine Wendy offered him at Christmas a few years ago and enjoyed it very much.

It was the first time that I had seen a dead person. Sitting there on the toilet he was grey, cold, no light coming from his eyes. It was the first of four times I believed I’d seen him dead. I liked to ask him if he remembered anything. You know, a white light? The voice of God? Seeing loved ones who’d passed? It made him uncomfortable but he always said he didn’t remember anything.

In 2006, he had a hip replacement that went well until, while still in the hospital, he choked on his dinner. The doctors and nurses had gathered in his room where he was unconscious. When I arrived they were working to remove the food from his throat. He had no pulse and a nurse stepped into the hallway to give me a grim update. The scene was chaos and went on for nearly 10 minutes. I remember looking back into his room. A doctor was straddling him on his bed while another was giving CPR. I thought “What a weird way to go.”

The buzz in the hallway broke wide open when they came out of his room, wheeling his bed yelling “we’ve got a pulse.” They disappeared into an elevator and the next three days were as difficult as they come.

On the fourth day, after having gone home to shower and eat, I returned and he had been moved out of intensive care. When I got to his room, he was sitting up in bed. “Steve! It’s good to see ya.” “Uh…how ya feeling, Dad?” “Like a million bucks.”

A few weeks later, we sat at his kitchen table and I asked him if he wanted to hear the story. About choking and all that. He said, “I think I can handle it.” I told him what had happened and didn’t embellish. When I finished, with tears in his eyes he said “so many times when all this should have ended. Wonder why I’m still here.” Dad was 79 and recovered fully.

“The old familiar story told in different ways,
Make the most of your own journey from the cradle to the grave;
Dream your dreams tomorrow because today
Life must go on.” ~Steven Curtis Chapman.

At 90 years old, he was struggling with his health but still living at home with mom. He went through a period of illnesses that meant several hospital stays. When his health got better, his depression and anxiety (Wendy’s diagnosis) seemed to deepen. It was hard to keep him motivated. To get him out for a dinner, the American Legion fish fry, or a haircut.

One Sunday evening, my mom called me to say dad had fallen and she couldn’t get him up. I called the fire department – those Belding folks are the best anywhere – and while they were getting him off the floor I was on my way. I found him in a real funk and after spending a few hours, decided he needed to go to the hospital. Why didn’t I call an ambulance? I was 56 and believed I could get him to the hospital faster than they could. And so I did.

By morning the staff had determined he was dangerously low on phosphates and began loading him up with it. By the next morning, I was not seeing improvement. He seemed worse. I left his room to get coffee and when I returned I was sure he had passed. He was peaceful, cold, grey and I couldn’t see him breathing. I thought “that’s not such a bad way to go.” I got into bed and laid my hand on his face. About to say goodbye, he opened his eyes. It was the coolest moment. “Hey dad…you hangin’ in there?” He nodded then closed his eyes.

I left the room and called my friend Bruce who owns a funeral home. We had met a few months back while I was getting my parents wishes in order. I needed to know “how this works.” “Do you come and get his body? Do I have to call you or will the hospital?” Bruce laid it out in black and white and was very comforting. After I had breakfast, I called my mom. My brother Bill was bringing her to see dad in a bit. So I went back to dad’s room.

He was sitting up on the side of his bed. I stopped in the doorway. He looked up and said “Well, Steve! Glad ya came back!” I said “Don’t tell me, ‘you feel like a million bucks.'” He smiled “yeah…I feel okay.” Standing there in amazement, a nurse came in and said to me “how about that? He hasn’t even had breakfast yet. I was sure we were gonna lose him.” “Yeah, me too.”

“But there’s more to this life than living and dying,
More than just trying to make it through the day;
More to this life, more than these eyes alone can see,
And there’s more than this life alone can be.” ~ Steven Curtis Chapman

He made it through one last Christmas and New Year and turned 91 on January 13. Then in March, he fell down at home, weakened by complications of pneumonia, and I got to spend his last four days with him in the hospital. He was lucid enough to tell some funny stories and a few sad ones. In one of our conversations there, I repeated something I had asked him for years, “when you get back home, you should tell your stories of death and coming back to life.” He said, as he always did “You can tell them. You’re good at that.”

Mom comforting dad. It would be his last day.

Then, a few days later at the end of his last fight, we unplugged his life support and 12 hours later said goodbye. He was 91. I was so lucky to have him for 56 years of my life.

Sometimes, when a person is about to die, their breathing sounds much different. You might here a kind of gurgling in their throat. If you’ve experienced this, I’m sorry for your loss. It was nearly 3am when I heard that sound. I woke my mom to tell her dad was taking his last breath. We stood by his bed. I said to him “It’s okay to go, dad, you’ll feel like a million bucks.” He went quietly in what was a very holy moment. I thought “now that’s the way to go.” It was the fourth time I’d seen him die. Four times saying goodbye.

That guy was tough. Resilient. He toughed it out without a quiet nights sleep for over 75 years. I’ve never been in need. Always food, warmth, opportunity to express myself through sports or the arts. Dad also gave me a glimpse into the miraculous realm of death and new life. Peaceful. What a great way to go.

Over several years, dad kept track of his eight siblings lifespans on a piece of scratch paper. We’d sit at the kitchen table and he’d look at the paper, tell some stories and say “they’re all gone. I’m the only one left.” I asked him if he wanted me to fill in his information when the day comes. He said “Would you? That would be great.” So I did.
Dad having Facetime with my daughter, Tara who was in France.






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