August 21, 2010
Dad spoke about his horizons diminishing when he talked about dying, and I understood his perspective as his needs and wants contracted into smaller spheres towards a vanishing point.
But I had a different understanding when I was sitting with him, saying goodbye. He had slipped in and out of consciousness for the better part of two days, and he was struggling with letting go, struggling with being easy in his own heart about being without breath. He was struggling with losing the experience of life, any life, even one which by this time was one suffused with fear and upset as his lungs wrestled with air that offered too much resistance.
I spoke to Dad for a long time, though he didn’t answer. I don’t know if he heard me, but I imagine that I helped him walk over the last ridge toward the shore, the most difficult one.
“I want you to know how much I love you. I’m with you, and Chris is with you. All your friends are with you. Milo and Lars are with you. Betsy is here beside you—all your friends and companions. John is with you too, somewhere, having a drink. Carol and Kelsey, and all the people who keep calling and writing and telling me how much you meant to them—every last one of them are here to help you when you’re suffering. They’re here for you.
“You affected so many people. People are crawling out of the woodwork to share stories about you, how you helped them, got them to believe in themselves. You were teacher and friend to so many people, and they’re all here to help you now.
“I want to tell you that we know how much you sacrificed. Chris and I came first, then teaching, then your true love, painting. But you gave it all to us and your students. And I know it, Pop. I know how much you gave to us.”
I told him about my day, about Lars and I watching Milo swinging on a trapeze at a performance during his last day of summer camp. Later, Milo lost his first tooth which had been hanging by a thread for some time, just popped out as he walked with Lars. Milo then read us an excerpt from a book called How Things Work; as a result I learned that the longest suspension bridge, at almost two-and-a-half miles long, was in Japan. Even as Milo read this strange tidbit I marveled that Dad lives on in his grandson, this sweet, funny boy who is as voracious a reader as he, and likely to put my brother and I to shame in the brains department.
I closely described the bouquet which I cut from our garden and sat at the foot of Dad’s bed: the glowing yellow of rudbeckia balanced against the periwinkle blues and dusky pinks of hydrangea, and the jolly dancing heads of sea oat grass shuddering when I walked by to cool Dad with a cloth, jostling their platform. Sunflowers peeked through, amber gold, a sure sign that autumn was around the corner, and I mused that there were a few trees starting to turn just a blush through town, though fall was officially still a month away.
His breathing was shallow, but when he roused because I bumped him wrong, he seemed scared or in pain. It was heartbreaking; I assured Dad that he was passing through the hardest part and then he’d reach his goal. I held him, held his hand, told him stories. I tried to pick out classical music which would ease his mind, but I was pathetically out of my depth. “I could really use your help, Dad,” I quipped. I picked fairly pedestrian pieces, but they worked, and I chose Chopin’s Nocturnes which had been one of the last albums he had requested and had played numerous times over the previous week.
But as I recounted tales of me dancing in our living room on Spruce Street pretending I was a centaur from Fantasia, or performing every role in Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, I realized that instead of contracting inward, Dad was reaching out, further than he possibly could yoked to this old container which had served him well but was finally giving way.
“You always talked about your horizons diminishing, Dad,” I started. “But really your horizons are expanding infinitely, just like the universe, and you’ll become a part of everything and everyone you loved. You’ll be in France, where you left your heart, and Sayulita, where you probably got some sand in it. New Mexico and the Ghost Ranch, and Judy’s place. The Cape with Bets, drawing.
“And Spruce Street. How could that tiny little house seem like such a palace? We lived in a magic world there, Dad. It was huge, with mystery and happiness around every corner. You made our lives there; you made that happen. And you loved us so much we were completely safe.” I sighed. “We really had it good.
“You’ll be everywhere you ever loved, with all of us.”
I was out of beer, a real pity under the circumstances, but Chris had bought Dad a ripping good bottle of Rémy Martin for Christmas, suspecting rightly that it would be the last time they would share such a pleasure. It sat with a scant smidge in the bottle, but enough to toast Dad. I had given all the glassware to Chris since I hardly ever drink hard alcohol; now I graced the last crappy snifter with Dad’s 250 dollar bottle of hooch.
It seemed there was more, something else I needed to say.
“We love you, Dad,” I said, smelling the heady fumes of his ridiculously awesome cognac, too good for me and my untrained nose. “We’re going to miss you so much,” crying into his booze, stuffy nose, puffy face, “but we’re going to be okay.
“So this is about a dollar a sip, huh? You deserve to be toasted with this,” I mused. “I probably don’t deserve to drink it, though. I never knew what two hundred and fifty bucks tasted like.
“We’re going to be okay because of you,” I said. “You gave us that.”
I sat next to him for several hours, and then laid out the pad that Chris or I had been sleeping on in the tenuous nighttime hours when Dad struggled more. Beethoven’s piano concertos came on, and I turned down the volume and all the lights. I laid in the dark listening to Dad straining to breathe, letting go, speeding up.
Chopin played and I drifted in and out with the mournful but sweet Nocturnes, which Dad so appreciated at the end of his days. I awoke when they ended, listened to Dad, turned off the music and tucked the covers around him, hands and feet cold, but breathing haltingly.
I fell asleep toward three.
At dawn, my ears strained to hear Dad’s ragged breath. My eyes opened. Light was bluish and cold as it crept in, the edge of a pink marine layer moving in to blanket the city in gray low clouds for the first part of the morning. I pulled my head under the cover more deeply, waiting for the next exhalation. I stared at the wall.
The silence as chill as the light, I knew Dad had gone. I urged myself up, torn between waiting, in which I could avoid the truth, or rising to face the inevitable reality that Dad had finally slipped the yoke. I laid there looking away from his bed toward the wall a last few minutes. When I rose, he was as he had been when I finally fell asleep: listing toward the right, mouth slightly lax. The half-light of morning hid the obvious, but the silence didn’t. I pulled the covers up over Dad’s shoulder where I touched his skin which was still warm. I leaned over and put my head over his heart and rested for a minute, taking in the silence.
I waited there a while. I tucked him in, gave him a kiss.
I wrote to Lars, still sleeping. He asked if he should come over but there wasn’t any need; I wasn’t going to do anything else. I was relieved of duty, though it was a bitter pill, and I chose to stay by myself and sort out the little odds and ends and sit with the silence. I opened the curtains so that Dad could see out, knowing it wasn’t relevant any longer. I called hospice, who assured me that everyone said Chris and I had been superlative caregivers, and what did I need? Should someone come out? Do you want to stay with him a while?
I had to tell Chris that Dad had finally embarked, an unfortunate moment in which Chris had just arrived in Winnipeg; I was mixed about calling him, knowing he had to know soon, but not wanting to take the blush off the rose. I wrote him, then called, then called again half an hour later, each time feeling more unfair and me with a thankless job. The calls were the worst, but I made so few of them.
Chris called me back and it was a jumble of words, him wishing he was with us, me apologizing for being the bearer of bad timing along with my tidings. I told him Dad was still with me, lying in state. “I waited to have him moved until I talked to you,” I said. “I’m not sure what to do.”
“You should call the Bargain Burn Barn and have them pick him up, and go home to be with your family,” he laughed through his tears. “Go sleep. Get really drunk,” he said. “But you should go home.”
“I guess so,” I laughed as I sobbed.
Hospice called the funeral home on my behalf, the same funeral home I visited a few weeks before to arrange for a cremation, and I laughed to myself about its golf urns and dog statuary. I gathered a small bouquet for Dad from the flowers I brought. I re-wrapped Dad’s otherworldly care-package, having added two sets of teeth: Dad’s real ones that he kept in a box on his dresser andwhich Chris and I discovered with curiosity and modest chagrin several days before; and his dentures. I added an old twenty-franc note I found in his dresser to pay for Charon’s services, hoping that paper currency was acceptable instead of coinage. I tied the bouquet with a bow tie I found in Dad’s top drawer, not knowing when he would have ever worn such an animal.
Chris’s mom called to ask if I needed anything. Nothing, really, we already did all the heavy lifting, I said, as I gently wound the silk tie around the stems of hydrangea and sunflowers. I gazed out the window while I put the finishing touches on the bouquet when the man from the funeral home pulled up in a black Honda minivan, an utterly inelegant automobile, taking me by surprise. “I have to go,” I gasped, as the man, his name already lost to me, walked in. It happened so quickly that I was caught off guard in this moment of thoughtful care for Dad’s after-worldly effects.
“You can stay or leave the room, whatever you’re comfortable with,” the man said, gently but efficiently.
I was with Dad this far; how could I leave him now? I watched the man bring in the gurney, loaded with sheets and straps and an ugly autumn print coverlet. I hastily placed the flowers atop Dad’s care package which rested on his stomach, packed with his shaman mask and pouch, filled with talismans of his life: the ancient sage burnt to the nub, a few Tibetan flags he had hung around the house, some shells, his many teeth; a sketch book, a girly pic from his office, the money for the ferryman, two paintbrushes. It was moving too quickly; “I’m going to cover his face now,” and he did, with steady hands. I wanted to help somehow, to slow down time, to intervene, but this was a professional and I was helpless to the inevitable: Dad had left this earth, and was now leaving his house for the last time.
The man rolled him over, swaddled him in deep indigo cloth, and I spied a hint of Dad’s back, which had lain so closely to the bed for so long, imprinted with the creases of the sheets underneath, my last glance of the man who had given me life and breath, given Chris the same—who had cared and nurtured and sacrificed. Then he was gone, swaddled completely, wrapped in a tweed body bag, strapped to the gurney.
“Are these going with him?” the man asked, picking up Dad’s bundle of treasures and the bouquet.
“And this,” I said, handing him the vase which Dad had chosen so lightheartedly when Chris and I were making funeral arrangements a few weeks before. He gripped the round vase and almost dropped it while juggling all Dad’s effects on his way out the door. I grabbed it greedily; my god, don’t drop the vase, Dad’s future home.
And then he ably jostled and bounced Dad down the front steps, slid him in the van and drove away.
I waved, not knowing what to do. “Bye, Papi.”
I walked back inside, shut the door and collapsed against it, heaving all the desperation and grief and relief and sorrow and emptiness which echoed off the walls of Dad’s empty house, his recently vacated hospital bed still wearing its sheets as though it would be made up for another day. Which it would, but not by me.
I wandered through the house. Chris was no longer here and I was alone, so I put on our playlist to share the moment, and sent Chris a message that I was listening to it. I grabbed a huge photo of Dad as an eight-year-old boy, dressed in adult clothing by his mother who treated him like a toy doll to pose and perform duty as her stand-in erstwhile husband after her own marriage fell apart. I poured the last of the Rémy Martin, grabbed the photo, and danced to the slow, reflective tunes Chris and I had chosen, moving around the living room so recently full of expectation and waiting.
The morphine sat in its same position, the pills Dad no longer took stood like tiny Stonehenge on his bedside table, guarded by Anubis who had sat vigil beside Dad after I discovered him in Dad’s bedroom. His glasses cast aside weeks before; everything was the same, except Dad no longer needed them.
I tried to gather my thoughts, but all I could do was putter and wander from room to room. I scanned some photos I found, called Lars, closed up the windows and curtains, put light timers on the lamps. Took a shower. Lars and Milo arrived just as I was packing up my own clothing, hastily jammed into a bag five weeks earlier. I boxed up papers, bills, notices; two paintings; some family photos and Dad’s watch which I put on as soon as his body was gone. Two smooth rocks which Dad carried in his pockets every day until he fell into bed July 17th, and never left again until that morning. Anubis, guardian for the dead, guardian of Dad until the bitter last.
Milo rang the bell, walked in and I burst into tears: there he was, the torch being passed in flesh and blood and an incredible propensity for reading. Milo was surprised, but welcomed my hugs and soothed me by finding a tissue. We packed up the car, closed up the house. And drove away.
Wounded, straggling in a ragged band, the French back from Russia, I went to my house with my husband and son, and I saw my dog and my beautiful but neglected garden. “I told all the neighbors,” Lars said. I was relieved I didn’t have to do it myself. Many of the neighbors were on their porches in the sweet Portland evening, warm and sunny after the clouds broke in the mid afternoon. None of them felt moved to come offer aid, for which I was grateful, but they waved.
I put up Dad’s photo, hung the two paintings.
And then I slept into another day, one without our anchor but to whom I had promised that we would be okay.
END OF PART II: Living in Twilight
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