Trigger warning: I speak frankly and in depth about death and more specifically, the death of my father.
The penultimate episode of the tv show This Is Us aired this past Tuesday. For those who have not watched it yet, there are some spoilers ahead, so put this aside until you’ve watched. But please return to this after you’ve watched it. I’d love to know your thoughts and what this episode brought up for you.
For those who don’t watch the show, don’t worry. It’s not all about that.
This Is Us, a heart-wrenching, weekly television drama is ending. Those of us who love the show tune in weekly to witness the joys, sorrows, triumphs, and pains of the Pearson family. I’ve wanted to write about the show since I started watching it six years ago, but I never felt I had anything to add to the ubiquitous commentary already out there.
What I (and I imagine everyone else) love about the show is how emotional it is. I appreciate that the writers craft truly difficult moments in each of the characters’ lives, and we get to witness their journey in processing those moments and what becomes of their lives based on the decisions they make as a result of their processing. We get to see and feel the heartache, witness the internal and external discussions, and see how these moments shape the characters’ lives. It’s like watching life itself unfold, in a way I don’t think other shows have captured as well (at least not for me).
Folks who are more cynical than I might find the show contrived or the emotional storylines manipulative, but I never have – at least not enough to stop watching. What I love most about the show is its potential to create moments for the people watching to have the discussions in their own homes – with their partners, parents, or children about their own difficult life moments.
Americans are taught to be rugged individualists; to “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps”. We’re taught to “look out for number one”. We are told, “no one else is going to take care of you, so you better take care of yourself.” On an individual, human level, this is awful. It leaves people feeling lost, uncared for, lonely, isolated, and depressed. People not only don’t learn how to ask for help when they need it, they feel shame if they need help or have to ask. In turn, we don’t know how to help or care for others. Our empathy muscles atrophy. We are uncomfortable and don’t know how to react when people express pain or sorrow.
On a societal level, this is catastrophic. We don’t live in community with one another. We don’t care or look out for one another. We don’t understand or fight for our common interest. We isolate from and turn on one another.
This Is Us, for me, has been a weekly respite from everyday misery, an opportunity for a cathartic cry, and a comforting moment knowing there were thousands of people on their couches and in their chairs tuning in for the same reasons I do. A community of feelers, connecting through the ether, feeling all the feels in a single, 45-minute, cultural moment. Every week has been a journey, but this past episode really brought out alll the feelings and then some.
This episode was about death, specifically the death of Rebecca Pearson, mother of the “big three” and matriarch of the Pearson family. The episode features an aged Mandy Moore, who plays Rebecca Pearson, lying still and non-responsive in a hospital bed in the bedroom of her home, while her children and grandchildren all come to pay their respects and say their final words to her. Those images are juxtaposed against a radiant and young Rebecca Pearson who is walking through cars of a long train, meeting up and speaking with those who have gone before her, like William, Randall Pearson’s biological father, who acts as her guide in this final journey, and the pediatrician who delivered her triplets, who serves her a Vesper in the bar car.
I absolutely love that the writers placed her on a train. According to the book Final Gifts, written by Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley, two hospice nurses who shared their insights and experiences with patients at the end of their lives, “the dying often use the metaphor of travel to alert those around them that it is time for them to die.” While Rebecca wasn’t communicative with her family in the show (except one poignant moment when she squeezed Randall’s hand), the train trip as a metaphor is beautiful and even fairly common. Other patients in Final Gifts spoke of needing to find maps or of getting in line at the airport. When you don’t think of death as “the end”, but rather the beginning of a new chapter or phase of life, a train trip or other journey is beautifully apt.
I won’t go into more about the show. You either watch it, or you don’t, and for the rest of this writing, it doesn’t matter. My publication is called Sh*t I Wanna Say Before I Die. I’ve written about how I have always thought a lot about death, and how I look forward to volunteering with hospice. I don’t need an episode of This Is Us to make me think about death and dying. My thoughts are usually not that far from it. But I appreciate that the episode exists because not everyone is as obsessed with death as I am. I love that it may have inspired some folks to think about their own death, and what that means in terms of how they want to live. I imagine it conjured up feelings about people they have lost, as well. It did for me, and that is what I want to share now.
In late 2006, my father had a stroke after having surgery to insert a defibrillator pacemaker. He survived the stroke but was unable to walk or eat on his own, had difficulty talking, and had severe cognitive impairment. He went to a rehabilitation facility, but it was clear after a few weeks to the medical staff, that he was not improving, and would need to be moved to a 24-hour nursing home facility. We found a home for him, and in early January 2007, he “celebrated” his 80th birthday there. We had a small party for him in one of the communal rooms. I remember one of his friends from the retirement community he and my mother had moved to less than ten years prior feeding my father cake. The friend, lovingly, yet with a look of utter incomprehension that the man sitting before him was my previously active and jovial father, lifted the plastic spoon to my father’s lips. My father, staring down at the table, mechanically opened his mouth and ingested the cake. We all scurried around him, trying to be upbeat and joyful, but he was miserable. After a short time, he asked to be taken back to his room. The party was over.
At the end of that same January, I got a call from my brother while I was at work. My father had taken a turn and was not doing well. My brother was flying down to Florida immediately. My (then boyfriend and now) husband and I did the same, as did some of my other siblings.
When we arrived, my father was in the hospital. His heart and his other major organs were failing. His blood pressure was so low, that every time they attempted to help him stand, he would faint, and/or his defibrillator pacemaker would be triggered into zapping his heart back to life. He was placed on some sort of IV drip medication to keep his blood pressure stable. The doctors said he was in the process of dying, and the only decision we had to make was whether he would die in the hospital or at home. I remember trying gently to get my father to decide which he preferred. I tried having “hypothetical” conversations with him about it, but he couldn’t quite grasp the hypothetical. I would ask him, if he was dying, would he prefer to die at home, or in the hospital, and he would say at home, so we would tell the doctors to discharge him, but then he would immediately say that he wanted to stay in the hospital to get better so he could go home. Finally, I just had to be blunt. “Dad, the doctors say you’re dying. Do you want to die here, or do you want to die at home?” He said he wanted to die at home.
We arranged for him to be discharged, but a few things had to happen before we could take him home. One was, we had to have his pacemaker turned off. That involved one of the more bizarre experiences of this whole thing. A young, male medical rep from the company that made the pacemaker (Medtronic) came into my dad’s hospital room with a briefcase-like box, pressed a few buttons, and turned the pacemaker off, rendering it useless. It was like a truly bizarre visit from the cable company, only instead of fixing our television reception, he turned off the machine that was keeping my father’s heart beating properly. The other was, when they took my dad off the blood pressure stabilizing medication, his blood pressure would have to stabilize on its own. If it did not, they could not transport him to his home, and he would have to remain in the hospital. We said we understood and left, hoping for the best for when that time came.
My husband Jess and I went food shopping for my mom that afternoon. We were picking up easy, frozen foods that could be cooked quickly for dinner. With so many siblings visiting, my mom didn’t have enough food in the house, nor given the circumstances, did she feel like cooking anything. As we were shopping, Jess said he thought we should buy a cake mix for my birthday. My 34th birthday was the next day, and Jess thought celebrating might be something fun for my dad when he got home. I thought it was fucked up, but didn’t have the energy to argue, so I relented to him buying the cake mix, frosting, and candles. He also bought a couple of helium balloons he thought my dad might enjoy looking at. I just smiled politely and went with it.
The night before my dad came home from the hospital, my brother Kenny decided to stay in the hospital with him. At about 5am, we got a call from Kenny saying he thought we should just take my father off the blood pressure stabilizing medication and let him go. Apparently, my father had had a very rough night. He had been in pain and was cursing a lot and very agitated throughout the night. My brother had finally had it, and called, asking us to let him go. I told him that we were scheduled to be there in about two hours, but instead of waiting, we would get ready and get there as soon as possible. Dad had been clear that he wanted to die at home. I asked Kenny to hang in there and said that we would be there as soon as possible to try to get Dad home.
We got there within about an hour. My Dad was calmer, and my brother was exhausted. I don’t remember how long it took, but we got my father discharged. They got him off the IV drip, his blood pressure was stable, and he was transported to his home. They wheeled him into the house and placed him in his hospital bed in the middle of the living room. I remember making him a gin martini, which had previously been his favorite beverage. There were no longer any rules about what he should or should not eat or drink. I don’t know whether I am a terrible bartender, or he had just lost his taste, but he did not like it and was unable to drink it.
More siblings had since arrived, and we called others to tell them if they wanted to say goodbye, they should come. We didn’t know how long my father would live, but we knew it would not be very long. We sat around talking with one another and sitting with my dad and taking care of my mom. At some point, Jess asked me if I wanted him to make the birthday cake. I quickly told him no. I just didn’t think it would be appropriate. Plus, I thought it oddly put the focus on me instead of my dad, and I did not want that.
That night, we all went to bed. There were siblings strewn about the small house, in twin beds, and on floors. My father slept in his hospital bed in the middle of the living room, and my mom went to what had been their bedroom. A hospice nurse was with us, as well. At some point, not long after we went to sleep, my father began to get agitated. I could hear my mom talking with the hospice nurse but couldn’t hear what they were saying. My father was crying out in pain, and my mother was trying to soothe him. I laid in bed as long as I could, but then jumped out of bed and walked quickly into the living room to see if I could help. My mother was trying to rub my father’s head and calm him down, but it was not working. She looked exhausted and miserable, and I asked her if I could take over and she defeatedly said, “Yes, please. I can’t take this anymore”, and she went off back to bed. The hospice nurse asked if I would like her to give my father pain medication, and I said yes. She administered some morphine, and I tried to massage my father’s hand and shoulders. When I gently pressed down on his shoulder, he cried out in pain, and looked up at me with such a childlike, frightened, look, I drew my hands back as if I had touched a hot stove. I told him I wouldn’t do it anymore, stroked his hair a little, and shushed him like a baby, and told him everything was going to be okay. At the same time, the morphine began to kick in. My father settled down, closed his eyes, and went to sleep.
The next day, I woke up to a bustling house. More siblings arrived. The hospice nurse was still around. I went to say good morning to my father, but he was still sleeping. We continued to all talk with one another and take turns sitting with my dad. As the day wore on, his breathing got increasingly louder, and there was an odd, disconcerting, hiccup-like noise that accompanied it. It was if he were on an invisible respirator that kept his chest rising and falling and him rhythmically breathing. We asked the hospice nurse if this was something to be concerned about, and she said no.
At some point, as I usually do, I found myself standing off to the side, just observing everyone and taking in the scene. I had feared my father’s death since I was a child, and now the moment was arriving. It was surreal. I was standing near the hospice nurse. She looked at me and smiled. I no longer remember if I wondered aloud whether he would wake up again, or if she just sensed my thoughts, but she told me how people who are dying often find a way to say goodbye to their loved ones. She said she had seen it countless times, patients who had been seemingly in a coma or otherwise nonresponsive for days, suddenly wake up, and whether they smile, say something, or just squeeze someone’s hand, it’s their way of coming back to say goodbye. I remember feeling somewhat uncomfortable, but glad she had shared that with me, and then I went back to sitting with my siblings.
That afternoon, Jess got tired of waiting for me to want the birthday cake, and he just went ahead and made it. He busied himself with making and decorating the cake, while my siblings sat around sharing memories and laughing as much as we could. I told him we could have it after dinner. I wanted to put it off as long as I could.
The day wore on. My father remained asleep and rhythmically breathing, and Jess finally said I was out of excuses. He lit the candles, and I relented. My mother was sitting by my father, holding his hands. We turned out the lights, and everyone began to sing “Happy Birthday” to me. Jess placed the cake in front of me, and I smiled and blew out the candles. We all clapped, and as we turned on the lights, I turned to look at my father, and his eyes were open.
“He’s awake!”, I exclaimed. His loud, rhythmic breathing had stopped, as well, although we got the sense he was still with us. We all rushed to his side, and started telling him how much we loved him, and what he meant to us, each of us touching a part of his body, while my mother held his hands in hers and prayed. We just kept saying over and over again that we loved him, and that we would take care of mom. He appeared to speak and say, “thank you everybody,” and then his eyes fluttered, closed, and he died.
Hearing is the last sense to stop working. I love the idea that my father, although not awake and seemingly not aware or present for the last day or so of his life got to hear the joy of his family sharing memories and singing happy birthday to his youngest child. I love that he woke up, and we got to have that beautiful moment where we all got to tell him how much we loved him. My father was a kind, loving man, and I love that he got to have a kind, loving death.
Other than just dying peacefully in your sleep, this is kind of the ideal, in my mind, of the “perfect death.” Not too much prolonged suffering and surrounded by loved ones to see you off on your journey. I also know not everyone is privileged enough to have such a storybook ending. In the past couple of weeks alone, we saw the murder of ten Black souls in a grocery store by a white supremacist, and we also reached the grim reality of 1,000,000 souls lost to COVID-19, many of whom died intubated in a hospital.
My mother was a “control freak”, as they say. I too like to have the illusion of as much control as possible over my life. In the end, that control really is just an illusion. For me, I think my obsession with death is my earthly desire for control. If I think about and plan for it enough, I’ll be ready when it comes. I do think there are steps we all can and should take to help us and our loved ones get ready for our death, especially if you have children, but that is a different post for a different day.
Today, after watching a television show, I was prompted to think about my father’s death, and I also can’t help but wonder about my own. If I have the privilege to live a long life, and if life goes chronologically the way it’s “supposed to”, given I am the youngest of ten kids, my mom and all my siblings will likely die before me. My husband and I have discussed and agreed that I need to outlive him, so hopefully God and the universe will hear our thoughts and prayers on that one, as heartbreaking as it will be. We don’t have any children, so chances are, I will die “alone”. I put alone in quotes because I don’t believe anyone truly dies alone. Rebecca may have been a frail, old woman in a single hospital bed, but even if she wasn’t physically visited by her children and grandchildren or tended to by a nurse, she was still greeted in spirit by so many special people in her life that died before her, like William, Miguel, her pediatrician, and of course, Jack.
While This Is Us may be fiction, I do believe we are accompanied into death by those who died before us. Whether it’s a delightful hallucination, or true spirits guiding us, I don’t know. What comes after those spirit guides leave, I don’t know. But I believe with all my heart I won’t be truly alone. I wonder who my guides will be, and what our surroundings will look like. I don’t love to travel, so chances are I won’t go on a journey or board a train. I hope I’ll be at a party, a Christmas party, visiting with friends and family until the night quiets down, and like Rebecca, I’ll go to bed, I’ll close my eyes and there will be my husband. He’ll say, “Hi, Lamb”, and he’ll pinch the apple of my cheek, and I’ll smile and know I’m home.