Creative Nonfiction: Killing Dad

By Kaitlin Peterson

I will never forget the feeling of unease that settled in my stomach when I saw my brother’s name pop up on my phone while at work on a Saturday morning. As much as I love my brother, we don’t have a “call each other on the weekends” relationship. That gut feel was the right one, because the first words out of his mouth were “Dad is dead.” And through my shock and instant grief, the first thought in my head was, “Is it my fault?” Six months later I find myself wondering, who is it that stole my dad from me far too young? Was it the broken health care and social system? My Dad’s own loss of will to live? Or did I, through an overabundance of respect for his lifelong independence and out of state absence, kill my dad?
He had gotten sick at the very beginning of the pandemic, March 2019. It was so early on in fact, that he was sent home from urgent care three times without even getting tested for COVID. Frazzled nurses told him it was probably just a nasty flu, he should drink fluids and rest. So he went home and, ever the believer in modern medicine, waited patiently for his balance and mental clarity to return. It did not. His week off work became a month, then disability, then he was kindly let go, unable to perform even the simplest tasks for his proposal writing job for, perhaps ironically, one of the largest healthcare companies. It took him several months of doctors visits and hospitalizations to finally get a diagnosis of Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome, otherwise known as POTS, and by then his frustration at being bounced from doctor to doctor, hospital to hospital had slid him from a functional alcoholic to a practically immobile one. It took him a full year and a half to jump through the many hoops that finally got him a home care nurse from the county. He was hospitalized several times and underwent intensive physical therapy. He seemed to be better, and this would bolster his spirits and get him talking about traveling again. Then he would be sent home with typed up instructions on how to continue the work, which in the gloom of his empty black mold covered apartment, he of course would lose the will to do, and back he would slide. After his death, his insurance company called, leaving me a voicemail saying that while alive, they had denied his long term disability pay which he had requested multiple times, but would pay out my dad’s $50,000 life insurance policy, even though he no longer worked at the company at the time of his death. I saw this as a way to ease their corporate guilt (i.e. don't sue us) for not helping him in life when he so clearly needed it. So perhaps it was this system, with all its paperwork and required medical referrals and appeals before he could even get a diagnosis, that had failed to keep him alive. If my father, who had literally written health insurance policies for twenty some years couldn’t figure it out, who could?Much of this I had to piece together of course, through the details he didn’t let slip between sentences, the assumed information from my aunt (he didn’t tell you he had a.seizure?)and then finally when I stepped into his place after his death to help clear away the 20 years of his life, fit neatly into prepacked boxes as if he suspected the end was coming. There was much he didn’t tell me, or that he outright lied about. He said he’d had someone come out to fix his apartment, install ADA features and clear away the mold on his walls that was surely keeping him sicker. The air of the apartment was in fact thick with the smell of plaster decay, and the hand rails meant for his shower sat in his closet, unopened. POTS meant that he would often and without warning pass out, collapsing wherever he happened to be. He had fallen many times, cracking vertebrae in his back. This caused him enormous pain and a hefty prescription for painkillers. And he passed out again in the shower on a Saturday morning, the one without handrails. He cracked his head as he fell, mere hours before my brother was meant to arrive and help him out, and that was how my brother found him. Next to his bed, I found bottles of painkillers and bottles of liquor. Each time when I had called his voice was slurred, his thoughts frustratingly slow after a lifetime of quick wittedness and hearty banter. The POTS did slow his thinking, the change in blood pressure literally draining the oxygen from his brain needed to form coherent thought. He would often cut our calls short, his frustration at being unable to communicate too much for him. I found myself wondering, was it the disease, or was it drinking? He was told he must not drink, could not drink, in his condition. He swore he was sober, and from across the country, I wanted to believe him.
The truth is, and it’s a very hard one to swallow; my dad did not want to live anymore. His partner had passed away seven months before of a difficult and wasting disease. He couldn’t read for more than a few minutes at a time, and definitely could no longer write. He was a dedicated intellectual and worked to afford travel. Without the ability to write and to see strange new places where he could stretch out on warm beach sands at night and listen to the crash of ocean waves, why did I think life itself would be enough? I wanted to believe in his sobriety. I believed him when he said he had made his place safer. Living across the country, I felt I had no choice. And perhaps worst of all, I assumed he wanted to live, to meet his granddaughter who was due in three months, and to get to know his grandson better Why did he take a shower hours before my brother was to arrive and could help him, buzzed and with a condition that could cause him to fall at any moment from a loss of consciousness? The coroner declared it a natural death. But I know, deep in a place I don’t like to examine because it just hurts too much, that it was a death by apathy.
I’m not always sure who I blame the most; the broken healthcare system, my dad, or myself. I know now I should have pushed harder to have him come live with me, to try the new therapies, to at least move someplace that let him keep some freedom while also keeping him safe. He was stubborn and independent his whole life, and I used to admire this quality. Now I deeply regret honoring it. The healthcare system my dad worked for for over twenty years did nothing for him when he most needed it. But I didn’t protect him from his despair like I should have, and in that I failed my father. He didn’t share how truly dark his state was with his loved ones, keeping us all at bay in his shame and anguish, and while I don’t blame him, this is where he failed me.

Kaitlin Peterson is a Public Librarian and writer from Denver Colorado, where she is the proud mom of two precocious children and a wild cat named Oedipuss.