Monday, 30 November 2015

So I know that you’re still with me.

In this season of love and hope that there really is some type of Everafter, I have at long last put this story to paper. A story which has sat in my heart for over 2 years. This story is about the day my father left us, which is also the day he gave me the greatest gift of my life.

Merry Christmas.

Believe.

___________________________________________


“Dad, there’s something I really need to ask you.”

I didn’t know it then, but there would only be ten days left to ask him anything.

We were sitting in the living room of my father’s apartment—now his home-hospice, the place where he had chosen to succumb to the cancer that had moved in and was evicting him from his own body. Stubborn to the bitter end, in-patient care was out of the question. To die in comfort was the only thing left which my father could control, so we all did what we could to accommodate him. There in the midst of such total helplessness, smothered by a situation about which we could do nothing, this also delivered the tiniest bit of comfort to us.

I’d arrived mere hours earlier from my home in England to deliver my goodbye. The seemingly outrageous decision to visit Chicago in the dead of winter was made more urgent by the recent news that Dad’s condition had deteriorated significantly since my son’s first birthday two weeks before. Although he was still very much his typical jovial yet cantankerous self from the minute I saw him, this newfound ease with difficult questions not only alarmed me but also gave me comfort that he was at last finding peace with the inevitable. The conversation between us was strangely easy. Unfettered with nerves and pretense, there were few what do I do’s, but only a pressing need to find closure for us both and to set him on his way the right way.

No regrets. So I let loose.

“What are you going to send me when you’re gone so I know that you’re still with me?”

The words to that purely selfish question shoved the lump in my throat clean out of the way in their desperate need for release. I have always believed in guardian angels and I hoped more than I’d hoped for anything in my life that my father would become mine. That he’d watch over my son.

And sure enough, Dad tried to provide me an answer. He looked up at the ceiling as if he’d find it written there and leaned back in his tatty recliner with a wry smile.

“Well, I’d tell you that I love you very much. And I’m thankful for everything you’ve done…” he trailed off, lost again in the place between now and forever, that place I’d seen him slip into earlier in the conversation.

I resigned myself to thinking that maybe I wasn’t supposed to have an answer after all. That an answer would put me closer to the angels than I was worthy. And that was ok.

I glanced up at the tall curio cabinet behind him and caught sight of a baseball hat with a clover on the front; the same hat he’d been wearing the last time we’d seen him, the last time he would ever see his only grandson.

Dad stayed temporarily adrift so I reluctantly let my question slide and found another. “Can I have that hat up there for Rukai? You were wearing it in a few pictures I have of you and him and I think he’d love to have it when he gets older.”

Dad turned gingerly to see what I was looking at. Every fiber of him screamed out in pain but he turned. Because I’d asked him to, he turned. He smiled. “Sure, take anything you want.” He was giving his things to me without hesitation. You read about this. This couldn’t be happening. My heart was in splinters and begged me to break down. I smiled instead. “Thanks Pops.”

I took the hat down and made my way down the short corridor leading to his bedroom to add it to the small stack of things he’d already given me to take home. As I turned and stepped into the room, I heard him say “yeah, I’ll send you something.” I stopped in my tracks, looked at the hat in my hand and smiled. “Maybe a clover.” I laughed thinly as I lay the hat on the bed and turned to go back out.

I glanced at the desk to my left, where a framed photograph lay face down. With other more pressing things at hand, I let it lie and went back to savor more of the time we had left. For the day, this would only be another 15 minutes as the disease also brought with it exhaustion–it was time for a nap. I settled for another treasured hug and promised to call him later.

So as Dad napped, I left and went about my business. That business of visiting funeral homes and cemeteries. Of discussing life insurance and shopping for things that would bring him comfort. Plastic cups he could grip with weakened hands. Suspenders to hold up his pants which had become at least three sizes too big from the weight loss. Slippers he could squeeze over his feet swollen with retained fluid.

Then, a chain for the mini rosary given him by a favorite uncle. “Did you want the extended warranty on this?” asked the sales lady.  No. No need. This would be going with him.

I got back to my hotel and carefully tucked that clover hat into my carry on. I dare not leave it behind or risk it get lost in a checked bag. It’d be amongst the ‘all I have left’. I slept.

Fitfully, I slept.

___


Departure day began with my phone bleating over a late night shower. I picked up a message telling me Dad had slid out of his recliner in the night and his carer wasn’t able to help him back up. They’d called the paramedics who took some 25 minutes to arrive, but they managed to get him settled in for the night. His carer rang later to tell me Dad’s breathing was labored. I slept with one eye open the rest of the night, but again I slept.

I awoke to the eleventh grey Chicago morning of the journey. This day was the conclusion and the reason I came. It was that last goodbye, which had played out in countless words and hugs and stories and gratitude over a strangely long series of days.

But the days had gone and Dad was following close behind.

I arrived to find him wincing, delivering a last hug which could only be returned with a cheek pressed against my own. “You look like you’re in pain today, Dad. What’s hurting?”

“My neck is killing me.”

“Where?”

He drifted a hand behind his head, moving it left, now right, now left.

“At the base of your skull?”

Thumbs up. No words.

“Can I get you something?”

A croak, sounding like ‘coffee’.  I repeat it.  He nods.

He would have a sip. He would not speak nor drink again.

Then he would drift.

___


There had been a stack of bills on the end table all week. We had meant to go through them all—the ‘life admin’ was another duty I was trying to uphold for him. I hadn’t finished. There they sat. I’d promised to sort it out by phone with his carer after I got home.

For now, there they sat.

Dad’s carer knew this was the last I’d ever have of my father alive. So he graciously left us to the quiet, barring the TV and its Saturday afternoon Son of Svengoolie presents Dracula–quite possibly Dad’s favorite movie. There was nothing but us and that clock just ticking towards two departure times. One from the airport and the other from the very air.

Another friend who I’d asked to be there for Dad once I left had come and gone to get some lunch. Then again, still more silence.

Dad had been drifting in and out of consciousness all day. There was at once a heavy stillness yet such a tremendous lightness in the room. Where I should have been feeling torment, there was only the slightest concern that for the first time since I’d arrived I didn’t know what I should be doing. I thumbed through the leaflet hospice had given us and counted how many signs of pending death I was witnessing. I did this very matter of factly, with a serenity I rarely possess. I am sure I didn’t find this from within myself, but from the place and the time and the happening.

Each time I got up to use the bathroom or refill my glass of iced tea, I saw Dad peek out of the corner of his eye, disturbed by the sudden activity. I’d come back to find him still again. I felt like an intruder who’s surprisingly asked in for dinner.

His drift made him restless, and I began to see such such beauty in the drift as I searched for its meaning. Dad would sit forward in the recliner and stroke the armrest with his left hand, then lean back and the hand would move to rub his forehead. On and on this repeated, and every repetition made me wonder what I was missing. Am I preventing him from going? What should I say? What must I do?

I turned the volume down on the TV. I told him how much I loved him and how grateful I was that he waited for me to come and see him one last time. I told him it was ok to go. I told him I’d be ok. That everything would be ok.

Still he drifted.

The door opened and Dad’s carer returned. We had a bit of conversation about how Dad had been and he realized that we hadn’t finished the bills. I was relieved that we had a task. I was due to leave in about 90 minutes. It was beginning to hurt.

We started through the bills, making a few phone calls, asking for payment addresses. Dad’s restlessness had stopped and his breathing was slowing. It seemed we were all reaching an end.

“There, that’s done,” I said, and the bills went into a neat pile on the table. A small accomplishment, small talk, and I needed to have one more conversation.

“Can I talk to you for a minute?” I asked Dad’s carer. We stood up and went into Dad’s bedroom, out of earshot. I told him not to worry when Dad did leave us, that I was sure it would happen on his watch and I didn’t want him to feel ‘at fault’ or as if he was unable to prevent it. We hugged. We knew it was coming.

We finished our conversation and just before we walked back into the living room, I stopped and turned over that photo frame I’d seen sitting on the desk. It was a picture of Dad and his sister, both smiling, long ago. “I think you’ll be seeing each other very soon,” I said.

As I turned to walk out, I sensed Dad’s carer behind me and to my right. We both made our way down the hall and stopped in front of Dad, folded our arms and mirrored each other in our shoulder to shoulder stance. We looked down. I was watching to see Dad’s chest rise and fall but I only saw stillness. I’d read that breathing slows almost to a stop at the very end of a life. I thought he was in a lull. I thought I’d have to come back to see the rise again.

I turned to my left and made my way into the kitchen for another refill. Then I came back and knelt down next to Dad’s chair to watch for movement. Like waiting to see the grass grow, there was nothing discernible. I put my hand on his chest. Nothing.

"Dad? Are you still with us Dad?"

The front door opened and Dad’s friend had come back. My hand had reached to check for a pulse and again found nothing.

“I think he’s gone.” This voice cracking, desperate. Not mine.

Dad’s friend tried to rouse him. He shouted Dad’s name, felt for breathing, felt for pulse. Still nothing. Dad’s carer had come out of the bathroom and stood over us, silent.

There we all stood and there Dad had gone. It seemed I wouldn’t be on that flight after all.

It was Dad who’d said goodbye.

___


In the haze of the next few days, where all meticulous plans came at last to fruition, I found little time to reflect with the people who’d been there with me that afternoon. I wanted to talk to Dad’s carer about that moment, where we stood together and bid my father goodbye. I’d felt Dad was still with us then. I wanted him back if only within a memory. Within a shared experience.

It wasn’t until I finally got back to England a few days after the funeral, after I’d said goodbye to Dad’s grave, when I was able to phone Dad’s apartment to talk with his carer, who was looking after packing up his things and moving everything out. I asked him about how we walked out of Dad’s room together and stood in silence. I commented how strange I found it that we’d stood in reflective poses and had that quiet moment so similarly.

He didn’t have a clue what I was talking about.

“When we walked out of Dad’s room and stood in front of him? And then I turned to go into the kitchen and you were still in the living room?”

“I didn’t walk out of the room with you,” he said.

I froze. My heart leapt.

“I went from your Dad’s room into the bathroom. And you walked out of your Dad’s room and turned right.”

But there WAS someone beside me. Someone who led me out of that room, across that very same threshold where my Dad had told me days earlier that he’d send me something to let me know he was still with me.

And he had. He sure had.

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