It’s okay… It’s all okay… Those are the last words my father heard. My sister spoke them to him several times over the last hour of his life. I think, to give him permission and to quiet any fears and anxieties. Maybe ours, too. As if to say that this is the way of things and it was okay to get on with it. To give him the strength to face forward; not aside, where we hovered, nor behind, where memories clung. Face forward. Step into it. And so we held his hands, stroked his arms, and rubbed his chest—until his breathing was too shallow, too fragile. We were with him, and each other, as his breath went from barely perceptible to imperceptible. Until the nurse touched his chest with a stethoscope and listened, four times. And flashed a light in his eyes. And said, tearfully, that he was gone.
But oh, two letters and a scratch cannot pretend to describe the difference between is and isn’t. Between being with us and being absolutely absent. He is ended. He is not here. Though something that resembles the man remains, emaciated. Unrecognizable, nearly; dad but not dad.
The rest of our family arrives—they were already en route—and we stay for a while as he cools. We laugh, because our youngest brother can make us laugh. He has always made us laugh, but never have we been so grateful for it; for him. For his easy ability to smooth our solitary edges into a circle, for making solidarity more intimate than grief. The audacity of laughter. The temerity. The irreverence. It is precisely what we need. He offers us this gift because he can, even when there is no mirth in him. Even when he is leeched dry of joy. Even when he is hammered by another storm. It is what he does.
I had two full months with my father before he died. Two months of regular, daily interaction and care. And despite someone wise advising me to be courageous with my father, and to be selfish around stealing moments of beauty with him every day, I stay reserved. Not cold, but not vulnerable, either. Not really. Until… until he is no longer conscious or lucid, until his breath is too shallow for the rattle to be heard, and then I lean in to whisper in his ear, to a 90-year old man who is not wearing his hearing aids, that when he sees God, to let Him know that we could do with a little help down here. And then, suddenly ashamed, I add: And thanks. And I mean it. For all my despair and unrelenting sadness, it’s still a magnificent life. But I don’t think he heard me, and I wished I might have said something like that to him when he was present. Or maybe not. Perhaps that would have made him worry for me; for us. Because we are all a little broken—sometimes a lot. And maybe he would have fought that grim current in order to be a father to our existential wounds, to see us discover some peace before he was delivered to his own. Perhaps it was for the best that I am a bit cowardly.
I don’t know how we decide that it is time to leave him and go home, but we do. I watch from the door as my mother leans over him, his wife of 57 years, and kisses him. And leaves. I watch my eldest brother lean over and kiss him. And leaves. And then I am alone with him. I approach his bed. I love you dad, I think I whispered, as I lean over and kiss his forehead. How quickly the body cools. It is a stark experience, like blue fluorescent. Incongruous, though I knew to expect it. One more offence to an already vexed and febrile soul.
I leave the room to my sister, who has emerged from the bathroom. She should be the last. She was his light when he was disoriented. She was his protector, his unflinching nurse. I simply followed where she led. It is right that she speaks the last words to him, kisses him into the final night, and closes the door.
We leave him for the body collectors.
Outside the front door I run into my older brother who is talking to Dave. Dave is waiting for his wife to die. He plays the ukulele. He offers his condolences and I am surprised by my voice, which starts breaking, and I am crying, and he is crying, too. I hug him, this man I hardly know, and touch his face and call him my brother and wish him peace. Then I go to the car and wait for my sister.
I don’t go to the funeral home to see my father before he is interred. My sister doesn’t go, either. But my brothers and my mom go. My youngest brother takes a picture—the last—of my dad in repose in his coffin. Later, he asks if I want to see it. No. Maybe we could show it at the memorial service, he says, because we didn’t have a viewing or funeral service, just a graveside for family, and maybe people would be disappointed if they couldn’t see dad one last time. Is he serious? Seeing that I am discomfited, he pretends to mollify me by adding—deadpan—that if people prefer a closed-casket service, we could just show a picture of the coffin instead. Ha.
Mom does not grieve because she knows he is happy and at peace with God. But she feels guilty for that. A little ashamed, maybe a lot. And judged. How can she describe to others her relief that he has died? That she thanked God for taking him? How can she explain that it is love that makes her joyful? Guilt can learn to take nourishment from whatever is offered it, I suppose. Or maybe that is guilt’s special power. Perhaps this is the existential concomitant to original sin—anything and everything can make us feel bad. I recognize it in myself, too.
Almost a month passes. I have not seen him. I have not felt him. The turbulence of my everyday has flowed into his absence. Like it did when I was away and he was at home. Oh sure, there is some part of the absence that will never be filled. That will always ache, whether I rub it or something in the world does. I had bound the moment of his disappearance in my memory, the moment between when he was and when he wasn’t, to unpack and process at some future point, as I am doing here, but already it is eroding. Dissolving into the muck of my memories. I do not have time to grieve, which is just as well, because I do not know how to grieve. Or with whom to grieve. Emptiness is dangerous for me. The fragility of being is dangerous for me. It is the font of all things beautiful, I know, the fleeting and impermanent, but this world is already too beautiful for me. It’s not for me. I am not strong enough for it.