Regrets surrounding my dad's passing


Irene Allen

My dad died Sunday, 3/26/95 in the ICU of Riverside Hospital in Mpls. Ten days before he had walked into the hospital to have open heart surgery which included a by-pass and a procedure called pericardiectomy, a scraping of the heart lining to remove calcium deposits.

My last full day with him was Sat., March 11. He played the piano for me. He knew hundreds of songs by memory. My fondest memories of him when I was a kid were of him playing the mandolin for me. I was a rapt audience and he'd play for hours at a time. He knew so many lovely melodies. My dad was born in the Ukraine in 1924, and was a highly intelligent, artistic man. He could speak Polish, German, Italian, English and of course, Ukrainian. He was a self-taught musician who played guitar, mandolin, piano. When he spoke it was like poetry. His stories about his life and especially the war were deeply moving.

That Saturday was the day he told me he was going to have the surgery. I tried to appear calm and supportive. His doctor and the surgeon had met with him and somehow convinced him that he needed to have it done. But when he described the procedure and told me they only gave him a 5% SURVIVAL RATE, I couldn't believe he was going to go ahead with it. He had high blood pressure, arthritis, weak kidneys and was on an assortment of medication. I was astounded the doctors felt he was a candidate for surgery. I was so afraid, but didn't want to alarm him. Oh how I wish I had told him what I was feeling!

I talked to my older sisters that night. I said "They're only giving him a 5% chance of making it through, why is he doing it, he's going to die..." and my oldest sister told me not to think that way, she said dad needed as much positive energy as we could muster. Think positive Irene.

The last time I saw him was on the Monday before surgery. I live a mile away from my parents' house. I came over to bring him a photocopy of his living will. I'll never forget saying goodbye to him. He came to the backdoor and stepped out, I was already outside, it was cold (Minnesota) and I only patted his hand as it rested on the railing and said, "Don't come out Tat, you'll get cold, it's not good for you." Why oh WHY didn't I hug him and never let him go? I called him the night before surgery. I had caught the flu and couldn't go see him since my passing germs to him would be disastrous. I couldn't even tell him I loved him on the phone. There was an awkward silence between us and he said "Okay, wish me good luck and I'll thank you three times."

He was in surgery for eight hours, much longer than they expected. He lost, I forget how many, units of blood. They damaged the lining of his heart while scraping the calcium. He received a severe burn on his back from the surgical grounding plate. They sent him to ICU after surgery and his surgeon took the weekend off. He had gained about 20 pounds in fluids and his body was so bloated I hardly recognized him. They had six IV's stuck in him. My brother spent the nights with him, holding his hand, talking to him. On the second night, a brusk nurse told my brother to call our priest. My brother didn't understand why, he told her he didn't have the number. She threw a phonebook on the bed between dad's legs. On the third day after surgery, his heart rate raced up to 200 beats per minute. They had to defib him nine times that day. Every time the alarm on his monitor went off we were ushered out of the room. He whispered two words to us that day: Finish me. After that he was placed on kidney dialysis. We were so hopeful after dialysis, his kidneys seemed to be working, we thought he was on his way to recovery.

Every morning I brought my mom to the hospital. Every day she sat at his side, held his hand. She prayed in the hospital chapel. She hardly slept. She had depended on him for most of her life. She only has a 2nd grade education and doesn't write or read well, she doesn't drive and her English is not very good. He was everything to her.

On Sunday, March 26 my brother called me at home and said, "Irene. You'd better come down. Dad's kidneys are failing and if they put him back on dialysis he may only last ten minutes... so we've decided to let him go. He's on a morphine drip now..."

I'll never forget the image of my mom leaving the hospital as she carried his two bags of belongings -- the new robe he bought for recovery, his glasses, pajamas. And the way she cried out "Why didn't you take me with you?" and fell across him when we told her he was gone.

How I wish I had told him what I was thinking that Saturday. I was so terrified to talk about death. I thought talking about it would make it happen. It's been almost a year and my heart is still in a million pieces.

Thank you for reading my story.

Irene Allen


You can send email to Irene at allenib@gw.startribune.com
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Crisis, Grief, and Healing: Tom Golden LCSW