One month ago: Hootenanny in the Hospital

This post is about a music-filled night exactly one month ago. But it’s about far more than that. I won’t make you read to the end for the most important bit. My Dad died October 4. He had some music during his final days. One sing stands out in my mind; it took place exactly one month ago. I wrote about it the next day and posted it on a private family blog. I guess I’ll begin by giving some backstory, as I wrote it for those who were already following along:

<Background>: Saturday, September 26—My Dad went into the hospital—his sixth hospitalization since May of last year. I had been with him Thursday (24th); it took 3 of us to get him from a wheeling walker w/ a sitting seat to his bed; he was too weak to stand. I left the next day; oldest bro D arrived late Friday night (25th) and Saturday got Dad admitted to the hospital. I spent that Saturday afternoon upgrading my ancient crappy cel phone (vintage 2002! spontaneously disconnect from battery at the worst times, rendering it highly unreliable) to a new one with a text-message plan, which turned out to be A Very Good Move in light of what was to come.

Also On Saturday the 26th, R, my next oldest bro arrived to the Homestead (by plane, from NY, pre-arranged flight) and on Sunday morning he and my Mom met with the doctor, who told them that the infection Dad had was difficult, pernicious, and would require heroic measures to treat. “Dad’s backed into a corner,” R said when he called and told me to come down now.

Oh. background to the background: Long before any astro-turf political freakshows started calling such a sane, thoughtful and ultimately kind activity by the insane name of “death panel”, both my parents created medical powers of attorney and advanced directives to spell out what kind of lifesaving heroic measures they did not want performed on them, When The Time Came. And when you’re an adult child working through the channels of the medical system and throwing dice in a high-stakes game where you’re playing against omniscience (“If only I’d known such-n-such…”), knowing that your father doesn’t want to have his life unduly prolonged by tubes and hospitals—he’d rather die at home—legal documents that spell it out is a wonderful piece of guidance to have. 

Sunday the 27th my plan changed from “go down to visit since Dad’s in the hospital and brothers are in town” to “Come down. Now. Urgent.” I arrived at the hospital, Dad was in the CCU—Coronary Care Unit—with several IVs and a mask on his face to help him breathe. One of the IVs carried a drug that brought his blood pressure up to a normal level. Dad was more alert than I’d seen him on Thursday. With Round #6 of hospital (3rd time in CCU), we were getting pretty good reading the vitals on the monitor. That blood pressure medication, though… is a CCU-only drug, and for us, it was keeping Dad stabilized while we all gathered from our various places to, well, bring this different hospital stay to its conclusion. When we went into his room, we had to put on isolation gowns and wear gloves. At first we thought it was to protect Dad from us, but we learned that no, it was to protect us and the other patients in the hospital from the bacteria Dad was infected with; keep it isolated to Dad’s room; wear gowns and gloves and take em off when you leave, and then wash your hands. Brought anything in with you? Clean it with a bleach wipe.

By the afternoon of Monday the 28th, we were all assembled and we gathered around his bedside. We talked of his medical situation and options, and where to go from here. Dad decided, together with us, to go off the b.p. meds (and all IVs) and move him from the CCU to a regular room. At sunset. We said other things; I will not write of them. At sunset the meds were done and they transferred Dad to his new room. Freed of all the IVs and machinery save the oxygen, we wheeled his bed around so he could look out on the ocean and see the sun set.


Here’s what I wrote about what took place a month ago tonight. I wrote it the next night, after my Dad had been released from the hospital to hospice care at home.

Wednesday, September 30, written at the homestead: Tonight is a quiet night. The last two nights have been musical.

Monday night (two nights ago), after we took Dad off meds that kept his blood pressure up (and other IVs) and transferring him out of the CCU to a regular room, we sang some old songs.

As afternoon waned, R took his laptop to 1st floor of the hospital where there’s wi-fi and searched for all kindsa songs and lyrics. Scottish songs. Irish songs. Sea shanties.

Search. Find. Copy. Paste (to a Word Doc). Repeat.

He brought the computer to the room, and pulled up the Word lyric doc. And so we sang. A capella. Dad attended, some. When I sang Eriskay Love Lilt—which he’s sung, and we’ve done as a duet more than once—he looked right at me. I wondered if he would try to sing along. No, not really. But he paid attention, from what I recall. Or I guess you could say that he was aware we were singing. Yes, definitely aware.

That was two nights ago.

Last night (Tuesday Sept 29), we were a bit better prepared. For the singing, that is. Mom came home on a break and found a few songbooks. I asked my boyfriend Doc M to come down from the SGV  and bring his guitar for R to play, on R’s last night before he flew back to the other coast.

It was 10 o’clock by the time the hootenanny got going. In a private hospital room. Us in our isolation gowns and gloves. Songbooks. And a guitar. Singing songs that we’ve sung around campfires. Songs that Dad has sung. Oh, we found old favorites, puzzled out the tunes, and sang them. With gusto.

Dad wasn’t paying us much attention; he was looking at his arms, the shirt, the covers, the sheet. Bandages where IVs had been—he worried the bandages. He ran his fingers along folds of blankets, folds of sheet. His fingers searched for I don’t know what. I sat next to him and held his hand. This was not like the last coupla days of hand-holding. (This is his sixth time being hospitalized since a year ago May, and we’ve got the comforting hand-holding part down.) He squoze my hand. Strong grip! He pinched along my fingers same way as he pinched folds of blanket.

We sang. At one point I looked at Dad from the midst of a song that he loves. loved. There were his fingers, worrying fabric of the bed, his bandages, his own fingers. Did he hear the music? Was he aware of the lyrics? No. From what I could tell. We were in the same room. He was surrounded by music and love. But his eyes followed folds of fabric. Hands restless, moving to a different rhythm—one I don’t know about.

This has been surreal, this trip to the hospital. Normal, abnormal. Just like some of the other times at the hospital, but no. This time has been imbued with heightened significance. A different outcome. Like I said, surreal.

When I saw the disconnect between Dad and the songs, the surreal became real. I have never seen him not respond to this music. Until now.

… . .

Tonight he’s at home, in his own bed. When I visited him before bed, he was quietly sleeping. No song sing tonight. Exhausted family members are sleeping while M, his evening care giver, stays up late. All night. So we can sleep. The TV’s on in his room. I hear the coffee pot gurgling for M’s long night ahead.

That was Wednesday night, September 30th. We learned when we talked to the hospice nurse that what we’d witnessed during that sing—and further restlessness afterwards are fairly typical for someone who is close to death. After going off meds, Dad’s blood pressure went from normal to a stable, lower place… roughly 70/40. Doc M’s M.D.-friend told him that what happens is that organs shut down, one by one, and that it’s a quiet, peaceful way to go. And so it was. Dad slept and slept those last couple of days, and not long after Saturday night turned to Sunday Morning, October 4, Dad breathed his last.

After Dad’s rough last month, we gave ourselves enough room between his death and the memorial, which will be in a couple of weeks. There’ll be a reunion, all right. When I go down to the Homestead, I’ve been scanning fotos like mad (for a mega slideshow), preparing a singing chapbook for the Bill Kitchens Memorial Sing that we’ll have the evening after the memorial. We’re gathering the guitars. And oh yes, I’m preparing all the audio equipment to capture stories as well as songs.

… … … …

Other posts I’ve written about music and family, or music and dying, both of which are totally in keeping with the Music and Family theme of this post:
There is Music—About my boyfriend’s mother’s death.
This Land is Your Land—I thought about a certain banjo when I saw Arlo Guthrie and his son on stage at UCLA seeing Arlo’s Daddy’s song.

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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on October 29, 2009 in • Personal
7 CommentsPermalink

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I’m so sorry for your loss. I can only imagine how painful it was to see your father so disconnected. The idea of waiting a bit for the memorial is a good one and I’m certain there will be both laughter and tears to accompany the memories.

Apple  on 10/30  at  02:34 PM

Thank you for sharing this story of music and love and your Dad. May his memory be eternal.

Kathryn Doyle  on 10/30  at  07:45 PM

Susan, I am so happy that you got to spend those precious moments with your Dad. I’m sure he did hear the music…and feel the love of his family wrapped around him like a cozy blanket. Know that I am thinking about you daily, as I have walked your path. If I can help or if youwant to talk - you know where to find me. Love You, Your Bama Cuz.

Karen Kitchens Murphy  on 11/04  at  09:14 PM

Thank you for sharing, hope it gives you some peace.  It surely touches all that read it.

Carol  on 11/05  at  08:48 AM

I’m so sorry for your loss Susan. I know how hard it is to lose a parent. I’m glad that you and your family could be with your dad in his final days and hours and that he was able to leave this world on his own terms. May he rest in peace.

Thank you for sharing your very personal and emotional story with us in the COG. I wish you strength and peace in dealing with your loss.

Jasia  on 11/05  at  12:33 PM

Thank you for taking the time to write such a touching story.  You’ve done such good and positive things for your father.  I wish I’d have had the chance to do the same for mine.  My condolences.

Donna Wendt  on 11/07  at  10:21 PM

Susan -
Have just found your site and am thrilled what you are sharing.  My interest started with learning new technical approaches to preserving my family’s history, and now I feel blessed with new insights into how to experience the present moments as well.

Having, more than once, walked through a death with someone, I feel compelled to comment on the moments you spoke of when your father seemed detached from the family surrounding him, “fingering the folds in the sheets” etc.  I remember those moments of my own experiences and this is what I believe about them. 

I believe that our transition from this existance to wherever / whatever the next is, can be gradual or sudden depending on many factors.  Surrounding a loved one with the things & people they love, I think, allows them to feel more at ease with that journey, allowing them to explore it and to take their steps in their own comfort, their own time. 

What a lovely experience your family provided for his send-off!  I am so touched by it.  Thank you for sharing.

Lynn  on 04/18  at  11:34 AM

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