I suppose there’s never really a great time to tell this part of my life’s story… But for whatever reason, maybe the time of year, when I sat down to write about something else (yes, it was the Hot Garbage post), this kind of just came out instead. I am going to honor that.
I realize it is maybe a lot.
I will say, I am a completely different person than the young 20 something who actually went through it. But I remember her. Maybe by writing this piece, I am honoring her memory right alongside my father’s.
Thank you in advance for allowing the space for possible discomfort.
I am okay. Life is good. Promise.
It was the spring of 1997. I was home in Virginia Beach, visiting my mom and dad for a few weeks. I’d had some time to kill before my next job dancing in Indianapolis would begin. Meanwhile, Dad had been biding his time, waiting for the awesome appointment when the doctors would be going over the details of a much needed liver transplant. He was considered a bit of an unusual candidate because of his underlying conditions, but everything sounded really positive- all green lights, and they would be heading up to University of Pittsburgh Medical. We spent the nights enjoying dinners on the back porch and watching the dolphins together.
All was well.
That appointment was scheduled for Tuesday, but in the wee hours of Monday, March 31st, I was awakened by my mother talking about having trouble waking my father up. My eyes delayed fully opening, but I could make out the white brick of a cordless phone nestled between her shoulder and ear. Her mouth was moving. She was half talking and half listening for the doctor… He… blah, blah… something about medications… couldn’t wake him up… definitely breathing… a bit labored…
I shut my eyes for a moment.
I was in that place where you begin to feel the certain weight of the day, but the ease of dreamland is lapping at your feet, like a siren, enticing you to dip your toe back in for just a sec…
Or… Wait! Or was THIS a dream?
I cracked one eye open.
Nope. She was actually standing in the doorway. “You can go back to sleep if you want, I just wanted to let you know the paramedics are probably going to be here in a few minutes, if you want to get clothes on or whatever.”
While what she said had the potential of being pretty disturbing, she seemed only mildly disturbed. She did have a
cool, calm, well, let’s just say, collected way when it came to handling things.
I rolled to my side, both eyes adjusted like a pair of binoculars. The soon-to-be-vintage digital clock on the nightstand read:
Those three red numbers, stared back at me, silently tapping out the last seconds of my life as I knew it. The life where I was just one of the two dancing Tapper-daughters, visiting her parents’ new-ish bayfront condo with brilliant sunsets, 4th of July fireworks and the awesome dolphins.
The life where they worked their hardcore adulting things out, and I’d get the cliffnotes after the fact, which seemed perfectly reasonable to my 24 year old, not-quite, but-almost–developed-frontal-lobe self.
Rolling thunder of unease drummed in my ears…
Paramedics? Get dressed if you want? Labored breathing? Can’t wake him up.
I’m up! I’m up!
I drove my dad’s Toyota Camry pretty close behind the ambulance. I don’t remember getting dressed, but when I glanced down, I wasn’t naked. Next to me, my mother was now definitely disturbed, but I’m pretty sure it was because I blew her rule-following-mind when I decided to follow the ambulance through a red light.
Shhhhhhhhh!!! I was on a mission!
We were inside the hospital for no more than five minutes, when my mom informed me I would have to go BACK to the condo, grab the Hemophilia factor-medication from the refrigerator, (apparently, they didn’t have it on hand), AND FIRST, get this… are you sitting down? Stop by their bank to make some deposit she deemed emergent… Even though we were clearly in the middle of an actual emergency in the EMERGENCY ROOM.
I shit you not.
I started to argue, but knew it was pointless. I got back in the car and double backed down the road, still smokin’ hot from my AWESOME ambulance chasing.
Speaking of smoking… Sorry, but the need was real.
I decided to make a quick detour into the corner Exxon… It was definitely the right call.
It wasn’t exactly an advantageous time to quit my secret addiction.
When I got back to the hospital, mom was talking to an ER doc. As I approached, I noticed his condescending tone, face distorting like he needed a minute to search for the right words in a foreign language. And that’s when I heard him say,
“Ma’am. Your husband is a very sick man… Are you saying he does not have a living will?”
Oh. My. God, DUDE. She-un-der-stands-Eng-lish-you-ass-hole!
“No, I don’t think he has one… We… we didn’t have a reason to have one.” Her voice trailed off. She was clearly shocked by the question.
And now I will have to ask anyone EXCEPT FOR YOU MISTER BEDSIDE MANNER- what a “living will” even is… Because… Asshole!!!
Note to self: Never talk down to people
when you know more than the next guy – JUST NEVER TALK DOWN TO ANYONE FOR ANY REASON – EVER.
I mean, it’s not like we didn’t know my dad had stuff going on. He’d had medical challenges, being born a severe Hemophiliac, but he had been living 50 years successfully dealing with whatever came his way. Furthermore, since he was a physician himself, he handled most all of his stuff on his own. Up until recently, he’d been doing pretty much okay…
And of course, with that liver transplant on the horizon, he would be pretty, really okay.
After he was stable enough, they moved him up to ICU, where he, and we, would end up spending the next two weeks. My mom’s mother, (Nana Jocie), and my father’s father, (Popop Dave) flew up from Florida as soon as they heard. My dad’s sister, Aunt Bea, and Uncle Paul also zipped down from NYC. And my sister, Kim, who I’d called when I was sent back to the condo for meds, had come home, leaving the last month as a junior at Goucher up in the air.
Each day, we’d load up bags of snacks, magazines, wine, and whatever anyone did before iPhones (like actually, what did we do-? I can’t remember!), knowing we would be camping out for endless hours in the ICU waiting area. Friends, acquaintances, and local clergy came by to visit him and us in our little lobby-campsite. The doctor friends would sneak a read through his charts and give us the scoop: This count and that number was off… Oh, and his liver was bad- Duh… But, I dare say, not that they should have – but no one gave us the inclination we wouldn’t all be going home at some point soon.
That being said, through the uncertainty of it all, one thing did become clear. We should not make any future plans. Meaning, I needed to cancel mine.
I anxiously waited my turn to use the (very) public waiting room phone to call the Indianapolis Ballet Theater. Needless to say, they were not thrilled to hear I needed to break my contract, and whoever the lady was receiving my call… Well, let’s just say, she was not getting any kindness or empathy awards anytime soon.
I hung up and thought I was going to be sick, a cyclone of thoughts encircling me:
This can’t be happening. Is there a chance my grandfather might outlive his son? My aunt, who relied on my dad for so much stuff going on in her life, might be flying solo. My sister had not even celebrated her 21st birthday. My mother was 49 years old and hadn’t known a day without him since she was 18. And because I left home SO early, I had missed ALL the (everyday) things for TEN YEARS.
Fast forward to April 12th.
It had been just a regular day at camp ICU, when we were called in for a family meeting with the doctors. They explained… Actually, I have no idea what they said because my brain no-work-no-more, but I did manage to catch the punchline:
“It’s time to try him off the ventilator.”
There had been a few banner days when my father had been awake and even communicating by pointing to letters and spelling out words, still making jokes. But, according to these doctors, those days had come and gone.
Of course, his liver was failing… duh.
Couldn’t his little liver have just waited another day or two?
We had a plan!
Note to self: Live as though there’s always a possibility of plans changing. This goes for anything and everything- the big stuff and small. Of course make the plan, but try to be ready for anything to change at any moment. Be flexible. Be like a dancer.
Evidently, removing the machine was a big risk. He might be able to breathe on his own, but he might not.
It could be fine- or it could be fast.
Ummmm… do we have to? Not really a big risk taker over here.
Aunt Bea and Uncle Paul had run out to grab some food for everyone. The rest of us (and the medical staff), were waiting on their return before doing the thing. In the waiting room, I was zombie-staring at the elevator doors. Ding. Open. Ding. Close. Bea? Nope. Not Bea. Oh, hello other people- not Bea. Goodbye people. I’m pretty sure my grandfather was outside having a smoke. I should join him.
Nana Jocie was sitting next to me watching the people. I guess she thought she was talking under her breath, but I assure you, she was not, when she announced, “Woooo! Did you see her? She had purple hair! What was she thinking?” Dear lord, kill me now.
Could the doors close ANY SLOWER?
Warning: Highly emotional content ahead:
In a scene straight out of Grey’s Anatomy, a nurse came running from around the corner, calling out our last name. When our eyes met in acknowledgement, she put the brakes on just enough to make a U-turn.
We bolted up out of our chairs, staggering behind her and gasping for breath like we were at the end of a marathon.
Where was the air? There was no more air.
For reasons we will never know, they’d taken him off the ventilator.
No. More. Air.
It could be fine or it could be fast.
Well, it was NOT FINE. He didn’t make it. It may have been over before we got there. Those last minutes were chaotic and confusing and, after all the planning- unexpected. Again.
And my brain played on:
My grandfather outlived his son. My aunt, who somehow missed the whole thing, would be flying solo. My little sister… I cannot. My mother. I cannot. And me…
Note to self: Tomorrow’s never promised.
The next few hours, days, weeks and months were a blur. Thank god people came out of the woodwork to take care of us and my father’s body. We got an accelerated course on death and mourning through the Jewish rituals and customs.
Turns out we were not the only ones who thought F. Bruce Tapper, of blessed memory, hung the moon.
They held a large memorial service for him. Hundreds of people filled our synagogue in Norfolk- It looked like the High Holy Days.
I heard I was there. (I promise I wasn’t)… I heard it was very special (I believe you)…
I don’t know, but that day… was a whole thing. The Good: The long eulogy by his long-time-friend (because no one else could speak). The Bad: My body shaking uncontrollably and The Ugly: Crying.
Then, this string of beautiful words pulled me down to earth. They are forever engraved on my heart, and possibly, the one and only thing I remember being said that day:
Seemed written just for us.
The next day, we flew up for the graveside burial in New Jersey, followed by a few days of sitting Shiva at Aunt Bea’s in NYC, and I don’t think it was “traditional”, but we had lots of wine. This was followed by a few more days of Shiva back in Virginia Beach, (also with our new tradition of wine). The whole thing was a lot. A lot of being ON. A lot of hellos and goodbyes to all the people… Goodnight already- Don’t you people have to get up in the morning? LOL- But seriously, there was so much love and light… and a lot of wine.
The Rabbi had warned us. He’d said there really were no great words or phrases to offer someone when they’re grieving; Therefore, people do the best they can, but understand there’s a lot to be desired. I’d never really thought about it much before, but, I think he was right. Pretty interesting and kinda sad, considering everyone goes through death and grieving at some point. You’d think there would be some really awesome stuff out there to say.
Now, I DO think the “I know how you feel” line could definitely get dropped when used on someone who is grieving.
Oh! And while we’re working on better things to say. How about dropping “The Look”. You know the one where there’s a split expression of “I-feel-sorry-for-you-BUT-glad-it’s-not-me”.
Note to self: No one will get “The Look” from me… for any reason, EVER. Instead, learn to make my whole heart come through my eyes. Also, listen to others’ stories without feeling compelled to interject myself.
There were SO many beautiful stories and beautiful people who really wanted to share their connection and experiences with dad. We absorbed it all, until we were overflowing with
wine gratitude. So much, truly.
A week or so later, while my life was on hold, I noticed someone pressed PLAY on everyone else’s. All the people went back to their super busy lives. All of us were wobbling around our new normal, and the home phone began to ring less and less.
Note to self: Show up AFTER the initial grieving period- when everyone goes back to their lives. People in mourning don’t have their lives to even go back to.
Well, I didn’t anyway.
Every breath I took seemed to be contaminated with the disgusting, band-aidy-medicinal smell of his hospital room. And every step was on a hamster wheel- replaying every, single, stupid second of those last two weeks.
For the first time in ten years, I didn’t have a reason (or job) forcing me to leave town. I don’t know if I could have managed even if I had. Also, my mother (and the dolphins, of course,) needed me around.
Unfortunately, I witnessed her deal with a plethora of logistical problems in the aftermath of his death. They served as daily reminders we were living in hell. We were new members of some bullshit death-of-a-loved-one-club… They call it: “The club no one wants to be in”.
Note to self: Don’t say, “Welcome to the club”. It sucks. Also it kind of takes the focus off what someone’s going through. It minimizes it... Even though at first glance it would seem like it’s connecting, it’s really not. There are other ways and other times to show you really get it and why.
One of my closest friends, the girl I’d probably been the most vulnerable with at that time, literally bailed on our friendship. Had my heart not already been shattered, she would have broken it for sure. Our messy, hand-written letters became distant in all the ways, and the occasional phone call, offered no recognition for the massive elephant in the room. I don’t know if she was just so caught up with whatever was going on in her own life or what… But, if you would’ve told me I’d be doing all that real-life stuff without her, I would have thought you’d lost your mind.
Note to self: Friendship can be for better and for worse. Never be too busy or worried about how YOU are going to feel when something bad happens to your friend. Just show up when someone is going through
hard things life… Don’t worry if you don’t know what to say or if what you say comes out all twisted up and dumb. As long as you are genuine, it won’t matter. It could even mean not talking- just a silent nod, that is okay too. You make a safe space to allow all of it. Any and all emotion and reactions are accepted. Also- expect NOTHING in return. JUST SHOW UP, for the love of god, JUST.SHOW.UP.
I think Father’s Day was the worst. Having to pass the masses of Target® shoppers who apparently still had their dads was just SO intense. I never felt more mad and more alone.
Note to self: Reach out to people who have lost someone during holidays, maybe their birthdays or life events, all the “firsts” and definitely the “seconds” (when no one has it on their radar anymore) and actually, what am I even saying – ANY day you think of them…Just say HI. Send love their way even if you aren’t close. Even if you think they are probably fine. Who cares? Also, they are not fine.
It was just a matter of time, but I did it. I showed up.
I was in a somewhat newish relationship with a friend, when I learned her mother had just passed away. We really didn’t know each other well at all, but according to my heart (and my note to self), the depth of our friendship wasn’t what mattered.
Before I knew it, she’d lovingly nicknamed me her “Stalker”. Oh believe me, I earned it for sure!
Here’s is a step by step of what I did:
Step 1) Think of friend.
Step 2) Reach out to her 🙋🏻♀️.
Step 3) Repeat without hesitation.
It’s now been over a decade and she’s one of my favorite people and most authentic friendships. Every time I would press send on a “Me again🙋🏻♀️!” text, I could see her smile or hear her awesome laugh in my mind (even if she didn’t). And honestly, that’s all I needed. Yes, her acknowledgement was sweet and funny- but I found I didn’t need it in order to be true to ME.
So, life’s gone on, and I can even say life is good. Hard is good. Taking all those mental notes on how I felt, things I learned, and what I would have done differently… It’s just something I do naturally. I don’t know if everyone does this or not, but it’s served me well for all sorts of situations.
Listening with compassion, communicating hard things, putting yourself in others shoes, normalizing challenges, disabilities, and even death. My father did these things and led by example. He didn’t need or want anyone to feel sorry for him. He lived with optimism, playfulness and gratitude for his life, family and friends.
I am honoring all he taught me by lighting up the world every chance I get.
Just as I was writing that, I had a vision of the dolphins playing.
If you know me, (and Lord knows you do now), you’ll know I like to look up signs, symbolism and meanings of pretty much anything.
SO Guess what! OMG- This is SO GREAT!!!:
“IF YOU RELATE to the Dolphin, you are most likely PLAYFUL, CURIOUS, INTELLIGENT, KIND, COOPERATIVE, GENTLE, and COMMUNICATIVE. You feel an almost altruistic LOVE towards humanity and all of earth’s creatures. Being gentle and kind comes NATURALLY to you. Dolphins seem to understand the higher TRUTHS in life and apply them daily. When you can see the whole picture, the only thing that’s left is enjoying the part you play in it. Dolphins have effortlessly accepted their fate and have decided to get the most out of every experience life has to offer.”
I relate! I relate!
Note to self: Be like the dolphin. When you can see the whole picture, the only thing that’s left to do is enjoy the part you play in it.
And wow. You’re still here… I am honored.
PS. If you want to see what I been burdened with for months, instead of writing- click here.
PPS. If you want to contact me, or make sure you don’t miss a post contact me here.