Right now, my husband's father is dying. His body is frail; he has liver, kidney, and heart failure, and when he contracted pneumonia this week, it was too much for his system. He is unresponsive, taking short, shallow breaths, and his sons and wife are by his bedside as I write.
It has been a difficult few days. Though my husband is 37, he still needs a dad and so does the rest of the family. This will be the first death that will have a profound impact on us and the kids.
I met Gary 15 years ago when I was still dating Todd, and he was gentle and sweet. Yes, his sons have stories of his temper and more "lively" times growing up, but I have only seen the calm side of him. I remember our first dinner out when I visited TX to meet the parents. I think we went to Ruth Chris steakhouse and I was so nervous about whether or not his parents would like me. They made me feel so welcome, and I sat next to Gary at dinner. I asked him a little about what life was like for him during college, and he laughed and said that he had a lot of regrets. He smiled warmly when I spoke about what I was studying and I felt very comfortable. He asked me about my family, and I slowly realized that I didn't have anything to fear. They had accepted me, and I was grateful.
Todd and I got married in August 1997. We had a friend make a video of our parents sharing thoughts on each of us for the wedding, and Gary said, "We are so thankful that Tammy came into the family. She's helped change Todd." I was very touched by that. I knew that the relationship between them was strained, and having me come into the family was a way for them to ease back into a relationship again.
In 2000, when I was 9 months pregnant with Ellie, Gary suddenly went into a coma. He had been battling his demons of alcohol, and it caused a condition where blood vessels burst in his esophagus and blood rushed into his stomach. The liver couldn't process that much protein, so his body broke down. His head filled with ammonia which caused him to be unresponsive, and Todd flew down to TX even though I was due with Ellie any day. But there was no choice; we thought it was the end.
I remember Todd calling me and crying, saying that he couldn't believe his dad looked so thin and frail. He wished he had more time with him, a better relationship with him. His brothers felt the same way. We had our church praying for him, for a miracle, and it came. A few days later, Gary woke from his coma. The most amazing thing is that Ellie did hold off on coming until Todd returned home, and she was born on Gary's birthday- November 6th. When we called to let them know, we heard laughter in the background as Gary said, "So am I supposed to die now?" But I knew he felt it was special to have his first grandchild born on his birthday, especially after everything that had happened. It was meant to be.
We came to visit Todd's parents and his brothers regularly, and our family grew in size. Matt and Karen were married, and then more grandkids came along. Holidays, especially Christmas, are a huge ordeal for the Meinershagens. They spare no expense and love to lavish gifts on the grandchildren and us. It is a whirlwind of flying wrapping paper, lots of squealing and giggles, and great food and wine. We are always amazed at their generosity, and I can tell it gives them great joy to give gifts.
When Todd and I were getting ready to move to TX from IL in 2004, Gary did all the leg work for us. He scoped out the suburbs and chose Frisco, and he also chose a builder based on our likes and dislikes. Every few days we would get an update from him on the progress of our home, and he was extremely meticulous. Like father, like son! He looked at every little detail and would put blue tape on any flaw to make sure it was fixed. Oh, that blue tape. I'll never forget how much of it was on the floor of their own house when they were having trouble with their flooring. It was almost humorous how much he cared about getting things done exactly right.
In the last 10 years there have been many milestones in our lives, and Gary has celebrated many with his grandkids Ellie, Chloe, Sophie, and Taylor, Abby, and Parker. The last time I saw Gary functioning somewhat normally was after my recital at the end of May this year. My mom had come into town, and Todd and I had an overnight in Dallas. On our way back home, we decided to visit Gary because we felt it might be one of the last times we would get to spend alone time with him. He was down to 109 pounds and very weak. His belly was still filling up with fluid and needing to be drained every week, and the skin on his arms was bruised and scabbed. We sat and talked with him a little bit; I said I thought he looked better, and he said, "I'm just skin and bones now. All my muscle is gone." I let Todd and Gary talk a bit on their own, and for some reason, I started taking pictures of their house; I had a feeling that things weren't going to be the same the next time I came over. I wanted to remember it the way it was. It has been a place of wonderful family memories and fun for the kids, and I wanted to be able to see it and visit it anytime.
I was right- it was the last time I spoke with Gary. When I came to see him at the hospital a few days ago in the ICU, he was already very incoherent. I asked for 5 minutes on my own with him, and I held his hand and cried. I cried about the fact that he would be gone soon, and I cried because I wanted to see him again on the other side. I told him I loved him and that no matter what had happened between him and Todd, I knew that he had done the best he could and that he had raised a wonderful family. I thanked him for loving me and accepting me, and that I was grateful to be a Meinershagen. I prayed that somewhere, in the deep recesses of his heart and mind, he heard me and that he let his heart go to the One who has known him and loved him his whole life.
So for now, we still sit and wait. Death is not beautiful. It is difficult and it is humbling. We will all die eventually, but what is beautiful is the love that is almost tangible in the family. No matter how much has happened amongst them, you cannot deny that they love each other, and they love Gary. That much is true, and love will be what remains in the end. I love you Gary, and will miss you.