is to die in your sleep.”
If you immediately knew the rest of that lyric, then you are probably a fan of Kenny Rogers, or at least a fan of the song, “The Gambler.” Although I have sung the lyrics, “You’ve got to know when to hold em, know when to fold em,” probably a thousand times in my life, I didn’t know the rest of the song until August 11, the day before my dad died.
My dad was a professional poker player, which was kind of a rarity among the suburban dads of Fargo, North Dakota. Not only was his profession rare, It was also illegal, so we kind of kept it on the down low until my parents divorced and he moved to Las Vegas to legitimize his vocation. I used to joke that my dad lived his life adhering to the advice of a Kenny Rogers song, but in a way he did. More on that in a minute.
Several years ago, my dad began experiencing brain seizures that took away his ability to find words. He also couldn’t remember people that he’d known for twenty years, like my husband when he went to pick him up from the airport. At times, I wasn’t even sure he knew who I was. When he moved in with my brother about a year and a half ago, I would take him out for dinner every few weeks to Outback Steakhouse. We didn’t do a lot of talking as it frustrated him, so we spent the dinner playing Gin Rummy. The man couldn’t remember the names of my children, but he could beat me at cards. (And I’m pretty good at cards). He also thought the Victoria Filet was the “best damn steak he’d ever eaten.” I considered this pretty darn funny as my dad, no matter where you took him, always knew of someplace better. The man LOVED steak. So the fact that he loved a reasonably priced chain restaurant made me kind of happy.
Even though my dad swore he was going to live to be one-hundred-years-old, he lost interest in eating. The last time I took him to Outback, he told me he didn’t like steak anymore. This was a shocker, as my dad loved to eat. Disheartened, I ordered him chicken strips from the kid’s menu. When he refused to eat that, I asked if he liked iced cream. He replied, “Who doesn’t"? It was a rare moment of clarity and comedy, amidst the saddening realization that my dad was getting ready to “fold em.”
When my dad began actively dying in a nursing facility, I decided to spend every day with him, which wasn’t easy.
It is rather difficult to watch someone you love fade before your very eyes. I had to fight against my natural instinct to force foods and fluids. He was dying and I needed to accept that his body instinctively knew what it needed to do. All I needed to do was bear witness, tell him I loved him and hold his hand. I did bring him a soft lavender wrap for his neck and he seemed to like it.
The night before my dad died, his breathing became agonal and I worried about leaving him alone. The hospice nurse assured me that many people want their loved ones to leave so that they can die without anyone in the room. I figured my dad would do this as he was kind of a loner…a rebel. But, when I returned the next morning, he was still alive. A few minutes after arriving, I decided to call my stepmom and tell her that my dad was dying. I figured that even though they were no longer together, he still would want her to know what was going on. We talked for a good twenty minutes. I asked if she would like to say goodbye to him. (Hearing is the last sense to go.)She got choked up and began to cry. She said she didn’t want to say goodbye to him but that she would see him later. She likes to talk and unbeknownst to her, I held up the phone to my dad’s ear. After I hung up, I told him during his narcotic slumber that she would see him later. Within seconds, his face relaxed and he died. I looked at my husband, unsure of what had just transpired. He fetched the nurse and she confirmed my dad’s passing. If anything, my dad’s death was peaceful and by golly, he died in his sleep, just like the Kenny Roger’s song.
In the days following his death, my sister Paula and I wrote an obituary and decided that we’d honor him next summer in his home town. In the meantime, I needed a sense of closure. After receiving his cremains, I made a box for my stepsister, Stacy, who had requested some of his cremains. And then I booked a ticket for Vegas.
My dad’s birthday is September 10. My 19th wedding anniversary is September 11. And I got married in Vegas. So, what better way to honor Bob Johnson than to fly to Vegas and sprinkle his cremains in the poker room where he used to play.
And then eat at his favorite steak house.
Yeah, we broke the law, but i t was worth it. We have a memory. A story. Something to tell the grandkids.
On the morning of my departure, I had a pretty serious crying jag in the shower. My dad’s death hit me hard. It was finally dawning on me that everyone I knew and loved was going to die, including myself. I’m not talking tomorrow, but one day. Some day.
But you know what? Since all I’m guaranteed is today, I better make the time I’m alive and kicking worth writing about.