It's Been a Hard Year
The day after seeing Run The Jewels last April at Fortress Festival, I went to go visit my parents. My dad had mentioned on the phone the day before that he was losing his balance, and it concerned me deeply. My anxiety finally got on top of me, and I got up and drove to my parent's house.
When I got there, my father stood up to greet me and immediately stumbled sideways and fell back on the couch. My mom, concerned, looked on from the other side of the house. She had been worried for a couple weeks, but he kept insisting he was fine, she said. He would go to the doctor on Monday, he said. I called 911.
Two hours later, an asshole of an ER doctor that I will never forget told me and my mom that my dad has cancer like it was an expensive car repair. A large mass was in his lung, and there were spots on his brain that were probably affecting his balance. That's all he knew.
I held my dad's hand while that prick broke the news to him. I'll never forget.
That began what has unquestionably been the most difficult year of my entire life. Maybe one day I'll try to describe the anxiety, fear, anger, depression and fog that losing a parent is. I don't think I have energy now.
On my birthday, March 27, I got the call from my mom that if I wanted to have some more time with my dad while he was still responsive, I should make the three-hour drive from Austin to the Dallas/Fort-Worth suburb that I grew up in the next day.
I had been visiting essentially every other weekend since the diagnosis and had been in DFW for several days before heading back home to have a birthday dinner. I didn't expect to get called back immediately.
I got back into DFW on a Wednesday with my wonderful, supportive girlfriend, Delaney, and had two more good nights with my dad — moments I will cherish forever.
Delaney is an amazing musician and my dad loved music, playing guitar and his guitars especially. She played him a couple songs — Such Great Heights by the Postal Service and Long Gone Lonesome Blues by Hank Williams — on one of his favorite guitars.
By this point, his vision and hearing was all but gone. But Delaney's music got through. He was tapping his foot and his hands. It was one of his best, final moments. They had a chat about the guitar. That night, I helped my dad to bed and he told me he loved me.
We chose to do in-house hospice, once the doctors decided that treatments were no longer effective. A process that began in mid February very slowly. Initially, it was a visit or two a week from a nurse and that was fine. My dad was mobile, had an appetite and wasn't in pain.
As we moved through March, he began to decline — quickly. His balance got worse and worse, and he lost weight. Eventually, his vision began to go. He developed a lazy eye, and then his hearing started to go. As he declined, he started to have some really tough falls. As he got weaker, he was unable to help my mom get him back up. His arms were destroyed by the falls and covered in bandages.
By the week of my birthday, things had gotten to a critical point. My dad was so weak. He could barely walk with the help of a walker and had to have two or three people to help him. The case manager for our hospice was an RN, Gary, and he did nothing. It was impossible to get him to visit. When he did, it was for 15 minutes, and he wouldn't check the bandages covering his battered arms.
My dad was too weak to shower, and hadn't had one in days despite us asking over and over for help. I got fed up and made a call to the hospice's office about our situation, and was able to get a nurse over to help us look at my dad's dressings.
We were saved. Our desperate cries fell on the right ears and a new caseworker, Laura, showed up on Thursday. Laura was our savior.
Around 5'7", impeccably dressed with Apple Air Pod wireless earphones hidden under her hair, Laura whipped around the house like a whirlwind. She immediately started asking questions about everything from the hierarchy of the family to my dad's condition and everything in between. She ordered us a hospital bed, got us tons of supplies, loved on the dogs and answered all our questions over and over again. She accepted coffee when we offered and gave us hugs when we broke down crying. She was there for probably two hours and ended the visit by asking if we like banana bread.
We looked at each other bleary eyed and confused and remained silent for probably a minute.
She grabbed the overly ripe bananas sitting on the counter and said she would be back with banana bread.
Later that day, a hospital bed showed up and we helped my dad make his final walk to his deathbed which was now set up in the living room of my childhood home.
The Bitter End
The weekend marked our last weekend on our own. Laura would be back Monday, and aid would be by too to help with a shower.
Dad was mostly unresponsive. He was not eating and we were giving him morphine and Xanax to help keep him comfortable. You could get through to him now and again, when we had what would be his last few moments of clarity. It was Saturday that I got the final "I love You" from my dad. I will never forget his final action was to applaud Delaney singing him another rendition of Hank William's Long Gone Lonesome Blues.
When the song ended, as though waking from a sudden sleep, he raised his battered hands and tried to bring them together. He missed, but he was trying. It would be the last thing he did.
My mom, my aunt and I began taking five hour shifts over night to stay by his side. I got great peace in my night shifts playing guitar, talking to my dad and listing to the radio. We were monitoring his breathing and waiting.
By Tuesday, Laura initiated continuous care — a nurse by his side 24 hours.
The Worst Groundhog Day
This began the hardest part of the process — Hell's Groundhog Day. We were only saved by another nurse — Lisa. Lisa was our countrified daytime CC nurse. She had the 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. shift and carried us through the hardest week of my life with stories of the ranch she lived on 30-minutes outside of town.
As she sat in my mom's living room and helped us care for my dad, she became part of our family. She knew our dogs like you wouldn't believe. She would make sure me and my mom were eating. She guided us through the process and helped us to get sleep and keep our sanity. I will never forget her.
These days were endlessly long. My dad was on oxygen, unresponsive, not eating and just had nothing left to his once hearty frame. Each day we were sure it was the last day, and he would just hold on.
The evening cc nurse was not as good as Lisa, but would at least allow us to get some sleep and would alert us if anything changed. For three nights I went to sleep waiting for a terrible knock to wake me. And three odd mornings came where he was still holding on. It went on and on and I unraveled.
Delaney, my girlfriend, has known me for about a year. I met her shooting photographs of her band for a local music blog. We began dating early in the year and from the beginning I told her my dad was sick. She stuck with me despite all the anxiety and sadness. And she did something I never expected from anyone - she stayed by my side through this whole trial. She poured endless effort into taking care of my mother and me, and she put her life on hold to do it. I owe her a debt that I can never repay, but I'm going to try.
On Friday night we got a new night nurse and his name was — I'm not making this up — Divine. He smoked like a chimney and played guitar quietly while he watched over my dad. They would have been fast friends.
Early that morning, I finally got that terrible knock. Riley Holder, my father, passed at 5 a.m. on Saturday, April 7. I watched his final breath.
I had every opportunity to say goodbye to my father. I took those opportunities and take great peace in that.
Things I Learned from Dad
The most important thing I learned from my father was how to be a good man and do the right thing. My entire life, he tought me the virtues of standing up for those that can't stand up for themselves, of being honest and following through with your word, of finishing what you start and doing the right thing — even if that is not the easy thing.
My sister, Sara, is a drug addict. My family has done everything in our power to provide her the means for recovery. And time after time, she does everything she can to subvert the system, break the rules, manipulate those around her, and she has no desire to get better at this time.
Her first daughter, Caroline, is now 8 and has been under the care of my parents since day one. He never flinched at taking on that burden. That's just one example.
I also learned how to play guitar, how to work with my hands, how to change brake pads, how to file taxes and countless other things that only a father can teach a son.
An amateur photographer himself his whole life, he instilled my passion for photography and dove into those first lessons about aperture, shutter speed and ISO. He gave me my first camera - a Canon AE1 - that sits on a shelf in my living room.
Most importantly, he understood and supported me when I chose to pursue photography in college and again and again in the professional world.
I love my dad, and I miss him so very much. Saying goodbye this year has been so hard.