This weekend marks one year since my dad died. the more I think about the time that has passed, and death, and living, the more I think that maybe everything is more than what it is. Bear with me. It seems as though we are living and we are not living. We breathe and there is space in between when we are not breathing. Sometimes people die, but sometimes they also, somehow, go on living. Oh and time, mysterious time. It is infinite and finite and non linear and somehow still marches on. This duality of life is a true comfort, although it wasn’t always. Wild river, gentle river. I am okay and I am not okay. This year has been hard. I haven’t really known what to think or feel or do with this time that keeps passing and staying still. I miss my dad. The hardest part is that I can’t seem to feel him. I listen to old voice messages he left me which are saved on my phone. But I miss his hard hugs (which were also quite soft). But time is non linear too, so I am giving myself more. And I am hoping that in some time and in some way, I will find him again.
I wrote the following down shortly after he died. It was such an unspeakable experience, magical and horrible all in one, I felt that getting words out in writing would get it out of my body. I shared it with those closest to us then, but I wanted to share it with you all now. xoxo
What do you do when your dad is dying? When the doctor tilts his head to the side and pushes his lips together before he says, “it’s not good”? When hospice is recommended and even though you’ve mentioned it before and you know what it means, you really don’t; and the weight of hospice can only be described as the weight of death and it is heavy. What do you do? You go to work, your feelings tip over as you walk up the stairs and spill out of your eyes, you gather them back and text your brother or your mom to check in; you get back to work. You listen to your co-worker complain about how busy it is and about staying late and paperwork and doctors and patients and you pray for patience and you check your phone. You finish your work, without complaining, because what’s the point, really. You drive home and sit with your dad, he is tired, you go back downstairs; you eat dinner with your family. There is so much family when your dad is dying, this is the one good thing. You try to sleep, like you’ve been doing for the past six weeks, like we’ve all been doing, you hope that the collective sleep is enough for now. When you’re not working, you’re watching, almost waiting, for what you’re not sure – you don’t think about it, you can’t think about it really. You make coffee and toast and check on your dad, you watch him sleep, your watch his chest rise, you look for this, the quick up and down, up down, up down. You go for a run or walk or to the store, you come back and you check, you watch his forehead, is the wrinkle between his eyebrows there? Is he uncomfortable? Is he in pain? You watch and if he wakes, then you offer medicine. Since the head-tilting doctor said hospice, he has stopped forcing down the brown sludge that passed as nutrition, and he takes some sips of water, but even this becomes hard, so you offer very little. At first, he talks a lot, mostly of the past, of memories, and often of a different world. But after the third day he is quiet. He will nod and whisper no; and mostly he sleeps. The long days almost become a new kind of normal. You wake and cross the hall and check, up down, up down, up down. Coffee, breakfast, up down, up down, up down. Run, offer medicine, check for his wrinkle, shower, up down, up down, up down. You make soup or a phone call or a plan and then you go back up stairs and you watch, up down, up down, up down. You think of your friends with the newborns, the new parents, how they watch their babies sleep, looking for the rise and fall of their little baby chests, looking at their faces for any signs. They say in the book from the hospice that physical communication is more important that words, so you rub your dad’s feet, you wash his face, you kiss his cheek. Once when you know it is near you ask if you can pray. He does not answer, so maybe yes? Dear God. You stop, there are no words, you look at your dad, whose love is as deep and as wide as the ocean, but was rarely expressed in words; but rather in big bear hugs, in silly faces, or loud phone calls; in fixing your car or letting you listen to him practice guitar. And you know there are not many words to be said, I love you, thank you. You are a really good dad. You call for courage, for comfort. You brush your palm on his forehead and kiss his cheek and let him sleep, then you look back in the doorway, up down, up down, up down. On the seventh day you rise and you watch, you can’t remember how high his chest would rise and fall before, is it less now? It has been very little for some time, so you continue the watching, the running, the cooking, the waiting, and the watching again. As the day nears the end and everyone is ready for bed your dad is awake. He is coughing, he agrees to medicine, which does not seem to help. You lift up his bed, so the breathing is a little easier, you offer the oxygen and suction and he is still coughing. Your body knows what your brain does not yet know. Or maybe your brain knows and your body does not, either way you move as you can, wish for one moment you could cough and breath for your dad. You find yourself taking deep breaths almost as in effort to perform such magic and then when your dad whispers for help you call the nurse and nearly two long hours later she arrives with the answer. Morphine. Lots of morphine. Your brain and your body have caught up. The nurse says he’s breathing too fast, “Like he’s running a marathon” she says. What? You look at her, she is nice and sweet, but this is not like running a marathon, this is like dying. She leaves with instructions for more morphine and you go back up stairs and you hold your dads arms, you kiss his cheek, you tell him he is almost done, it is almost over, only a little longer now, you are doing so great. We are all here. We love you so much. The coughing slows, his chest is still rising and falling, but you know that something else inside his chest is also rising and you know that this is dying. Your dad is still breathing, it is weak but strongly audible, the death rattle they call it, but his forehead is smooth and his eyes are closed and some kind of peace, or maybe exhaustion comes over your body and you sleep. In the morning he is gone. The weight of death has left the house and it is unusually light. You know this will take awhile, so you sit with your family and you drink some coffee and you remember this one good thing.
Later, it strikes you that the nurse called this kind of dying, this “going active” like a kind of labor, like in childbirth, she said. You think of how you’ve watched him like a newborn for the past week, how his lungs filled up with fluid, like a fetus in their womb. You wonder why is dying so much like being born? And yet, it is not at all the same, except that maybe, like being born, there is also some kind of miracle in dying. In letting go of this one wild and precious life to return to the womb, where we all come from and we all return.
Thank you Dad, for showing us the way.