The Last Word

Sandi Tomlin-Sutker

My Dad passed away at the end of March this year. He had been in a nursing home for several years due to declining health and the beginnings of dementia.

I got the call from my sister, Pam, that he was in the hospital with pneumonia—the scourge of the elderly―so I feared he wouldn’t survive his second bout of it this year.

His family of three daughters, one of his three living grandsons, two granddaughters and two great-grandchildren converged in Atlanta to be with him. He was mostly sedated but when one of us came into the room and touched his shoulder, said “Hi, Daddy,” he easily responded before sinking back into the rest morphine provided him.

Only three days into the illness, the nursing staff came in to say they recommended we take him to Hospice right way. Her words were, “If he makes it through the day.” We were shocked: even in that situation, we had continued to hope and even believe that he would get well.
We knew it was literally the BiPAP that kept him breathing, yet we simply couldn’t grasp that Daddy was going. My sister Brenda and nephew Billy were on their way from Florida and we hadn’t even considered that they wouldn’t arrive in time to say goodbye to him.

Even though he only lived a couple of hours once he was in the Hospice just across the street from the hospital, it was a blessing to be with him in that peaceful environment. The great-grands were able to watch a movie, play a few board games. We could sit with Dad without the noises of the hospital, and he was done with the IVs and the cumbersome breathing equipment.

I’ve never before been with anyone as they died. My dear daughter, Julie―whom Dad had always called his “Cracker Jack”―was whispering to him, “I love you,” over and over. And bit by bit his breathing slowed, sometimes stopping completely for a few seconds before he took a new breath. Then he simply stopped. And within seconds, it was so clear that his spirit had left his body. So clear.
According to his wishes, we had his body cremated and held a memorial service. Cousins I had not seen in thirty years arrived to pay respect to a man who—although not nearly a saint, not someone who left a legacy of good works or business success— was still a man who was well-loved.

We had not been close in recent years, mostly due to his being in the nursing home several hours away. He was technically my step-dad, although I had grown up with him as the only father I knew. In fact, I didn’t learn he wasn’t my biological parent until I was about twelve. Still, I didn’t feel that he treated me differently because of it.

When I was nineteen, I moved back to Colorado where I had grown up, and lived with Daddy awhile. It was an interesting experience to have solo time with him and get to know him a bit better. Some years later, I worked for him in his (and his parents’) truckstop.

I saw him take on a business he didn’t want to run, and it changed his life in ways that were painful to watch.
Yet, he maintained his love for his family even as he had difficulty expressing it. Not unusual for a man of his generation and background.

Today, I feel him in my life as a steady, accepting presence. A good legacy after all.

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Western North Carolina Woman


Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
Written by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker