I was in twilight again, where I had been two weeks before. Dad had been watching television when he became feverish and then collapsed. It was like clockwork: the hospital bed had arrived from hospice that afternoon and by night Dad was in it. Dad never left bed again, save for two brief moments in the lift chair which arrived that same day. We used the chair far more than him. Milo loved it; he would raise it and lower it over and over, laughing with delight when it dumped him out onto the carpet.
Dad slept quietly by the window overlooking his garden, though his eyes were too dim to see it any longer. His breath was slow, the classical music station which had been sentry and companion throughout these two weeks playing endlessly, providing curious symmetry and counterpoints, poetic revelations and unusual leitmotifs to his passing. The phone calls were fewer as people waited to hear news, waited for the end. Chris called, wondering why he left; I reassured him that he had no choice.
In the quiet hours following Chris’s departure, I packed up the other-worldly care package for him, which Chris and I discussed beforehand: Dad’s Shaman mask, made on a lark but which became a persona; his Shaman pouch, and shells which adorned his Shamanic attire. A small sketch book full of tiny ink self-portraits, all of them the same except for the Greek fisherman’s cap doffed in some and not in others. I saved one drawing of each for Chris and I; the rest of the notebook would go into the fire. A picture of two girls’ butts; the man loved a nice ass. All wrapped in dark blue cotton and tied with a cloth ribbon, I selected two paint brushes which I pushed through the bow. Dad would be quite content with such largesse in the afterworld.
Dad slept peacefully. We were lulled by Sibelius and Mozart, Rossini and Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann. Dvorak woke him up with the Slavonic Dances but it was brief, or maybe it woke me; mostly we rested. I puttered about. I wrote.
Dad slept all day Friday, passing out immediately after Chris left, waking only a moment to ask, “Have I forgotten anything?”
I didn’t know what he meant; I asked the useless “What?”
He looked at me. “Odd,” he whispered and settled back to sleep.
I agreed with him on this point.
Time was fluid and mutable for him, crossing this way and that, memory and presence interchangeable and strange. When he woke up Saturday, as much to his surprise as mine, he said, “Well, that’s it then. It’s my curiosity alone keeping me here.” I couldn’t disagree. There was nothing else holding the ship afloat.
Dad was having visions, pictures which climbed out of the shapes in the room, in his sheets. “I still see a lot of paintings,” he said. “You can’t see it,” Dad told me when I looked for the one he was tracing in his sheets with his finger. “Only the seer can see it.”
“All things are revealed in their own time,” I said. How cliché, I thought. I couldn’t do any better.
“I see you in your playpen.” His eyes were milky with memory and fatigue. “You’ve got something on your head, which puts your face in shadow. But I can see your button nose.” He started to weep. “You were so cute. Shot me right through the heart, the second I saw you.”
“You were the first thing I saw, I’ll be last thing you see,” I noted.
I read him the emails people had sent, or letters delivered by FedEx Overnight, missives of love and small tokens bespeaking his influence upon his friends and students; each one was precious to him. A letter came from an old schoolmate Sally, about finding her painting voice at last, and Dad waved his frail fist in the air in conquest and celebration and tears of joy. “You go, Sally!” he cried in triumph. He was proud of her, proud that she fought and struggled with her craft but broke through.
“Maybe that’s what I was waiting for,” Dad sighed. “Teacher to the very end. I was waiting to hear from Sally.”
The shift in Dad was palpable. Visceral. Dad was lighter in spirit, goofy, making sweet jokes and crying about how proud he was of my brother and me. “Chris is so good,” he said, love beaming from him in waves. “Really smart. I’ve been so profoundly blessed,” he wondered aloud. “I don’t know why, but people in general have been really nice to me.”
This is why people were so nice to him: on his deathbed, he was still filled with awe about his own place in the world.
Dad had made his first music request since he fell into bed for the last time. Over the previous weeks he had let the classical station dictate the mood of his surroundings; “Random is best right now,” he said. But now he wanted a specific duet from Tristan und Isolde. His vision was muddy, and he couldn’t tell if I was holding the Wagner disk in front of him, insisted I didn’t have the right one. I showed him again, and Dad was surprised at his own inability to recognize it.
I put his glasses on him so he could read the back and pick out the piece he wanted, but it was fuzzy in his mind—he wanted a duet but didn’t remember which track it was—so I put it on and just let it play.
“It’s coming soon, I think,” Dad said. “But I’ve been wrong before.” He chuckled. He was talking about the duet, but also dying.
“You’ve defied every prediction anyone had,” I agreed.
He was listening with peace on his face, though the opera was strident; clearly Tristan was making his tragic end. Isolde then sang, the music fading to a pensive, mournful strain.
Dad began speaking of Sigfried and Brunhilde, the walls of Valhalla crumbling atop them. “This is Tristan und Isolde,” I reminded him.
“Really?” He was confused. “The ear knows what’s right, but my mind is muddled,” he said, sounding like a dime store prophet. “That’s a good sign.” Dad smiled. He was glad for the strange surrealism because it signified he was letting go.
His glasses had been off for several days and his bone structure was forward. I could see the young man in him, despite the snow white beard and hair. I saw the imperiousness of some early photos, the ones in which Dad adopted the look of a serious artist. But I saw more readily the earnest, open-hearted young man who must have drunk of art and life with wonder and awe.
We’d been sleeping, night silence broken only by my asking if Dad needed anything, and his outburst that he didn’t want to be the guy that broke any longevity records, and goddammit, when am I not going to wake up?
He was mad and I was insulted, being a stupid girl at times. I said, “All I can help with is drugs and ice. I can’t do anything else,” and, in a moment of absolute immaturity, Dad sent me back to bed and I sulked as I went. At least I was adult enough to recognize the absurdity of the exchange, and hoped it was not our last words.
Fortunately, he woke with a start.
“You okay, Dad?” I asked.
“There’s a fucking cat in here!” he barked.
Oddly, this was possible since I had chased out our friendly neighborhood stray twice the night before. But I was already awake on my foam pad, listening to Dad breathe and I hadn’t heard the door pushed open or felt the breeze.
Dad insisted. “It’s a black cat, just walked over the foot of the bed.”
I got up in the dark and looked around. The front door was closed. Dad was describing the cat as I wandered through the bluish house, lit only by streetlights and the stereo system. There was no cat.
I went and sat next to him, fed him a couple ice chips. Dad was talking, but I’m not sure what it was about; his voice was stronger than it had been but more disjointed, dropped off into ramblings and giggles. “I think that was your ghost cat,” I said.
He snorted. “That was no ghost,” Dad said. “It was real.”
He didn’t understand what I was saying. “Maybe it was Frankl,” I suggested. Frankl was an old, mean cur that he loved like crazy, a tom who even after he was fixed was irascible and unpleasant. Dad really admired him.
“Nope. Fluffy tail.”
“Maybe it was Zoltan,” I said.
“Nope, black cat,” he insisted.
“What I’m saying, Dad, is that there’s no cat. I looked. There’s no cat in the house.”
He pondered that for a moment. “You’re saying it’s my hallucination.”
“I’m saying it’s your cat, Dad. But there’s no cat in the house.”
“Well, then.” He settled in his bed more deeply. “I can relax.”
“I think it’s your ghost cat,” I repeated. “I think you’re supposed to follow it.”
“Mythologically sound, anyway,” he replied. “If I die, you’ll find a cat here, but if I don’t, no cat. A paradox.” He laughed.
We wove a conversation threaded only by his wandering mind, curling together both his love of life and these peculiar drifts, oddments washing up on his shores in the night hours. Dad was always at home in surrealism; it was where he lived part-time now, a summer place by the River Strange.
But Dad enjoyed my company too much to get on with business, though he wanted to die. He could stay up all night with me jawing about whatever flights his newly surrealistic mind took; but clearly, the cat was calling. I told him we needed to go back to sleep.
“We’re doing good,” I said.
“We’re doing well,” he corrected.
“‘Good’ is more conversational, casual English. ‘Well’ is proper English, but more formal,” I laughed. “Don’t make your last words to me a grammar lesson. You need the blankets pulled up?”
“It won’t matter either way, I suppose,” Dad said.
“It won’t matter either way, I suppose.”
“Jesus, Dad. I could have sworn you said, ‘It won’t matter either way to Chronos.’ Now that would have been profound.”
Dad smiled. “That really would have. Damn. Oh, well,” he sighed.
I paused a moment. How do you do this part? Say goodbye, knowing it’s the last one? The part when you know you have to exit the frame because he needs you to, but you don’t want to because you love him, and he’s fun and has seen his ghost cat and is still such good company?
“It’s been a privilege,” Dad said.
“For me as well,” I said.
“Sweet princess,” he whispered.
“You make it hard to go back to bed,” I said, as I leaned in for an embrace.
“I love you, Dad. Goodnight.”
Dad was bemused. “I never knew how much time people had to come up with their Last Words. Long enough to come up with a bunch of rambling nonsense, stuck with a couple of gems,” he concluded.
The rambling nonsense to which he was referring was a new wrinkle in his dying: a series of disorienting and bizarre hallucinations, starting with the relatively benign sightings of me and my brother as kids, followed by the ghost cat, and lastly by Dad’s disturbing outburst the following morning.
The night before, we struggled for over an hour to make him comfortable, but there was no spot which his tired flesh could find respite anymore. It was the wrinkles in the sheets, the wrinkles in his flesh, competing with one another. We moved him in increments so small as to wonder if Dad was the princess of “pea” fame.
“I need someone who is unafraid,” Dad kept saying to me.
“Unafraid of what?” I asked.
“Unafraid to hurt the old man,” he said. He wanted me to wool him around, pull his body this way and that, but there was nowhere which met his needs.
When we woke up the following morning, Dad told me to call someone. “Call who?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “A nurse, an aide. Someone who can move me back.”
“Okay,” I said. I straightened his pillows and pulled the sheets taut underneath him and sat back down.
Dad glared at me with genuine malice. “‘It was four days before anyone thought to make a phone call, and by then it was too late,’” Dad’s deadpan delivery dripping with sardonic acid strong enough to burn.
I felt its sting. “I know you’re miserable, Pop. I know you want to check out, but I’m doing everything I can. I can’t doing any more than I am,” I said. His anger was palpable, raw, penetrating and cruel. He could scowl with a withering dismissal which would send students howling with their tails between their knees; I was always terrified by the rare but memorable sightings of Angry Dad.
“I don’t know what you want me to do,” I pleaded. “Please tell me exactly what you want me to do, and I’ll do it, or call someone else to do it,” I said. “But you have to be clear, so I know what to tell the hospice nurse.”
“I need you to move me, from here back to the bed,” he demanded, poking the air next to him with a sharp index finger.
“Okay.” I scurried to help him, still unsure what he was asking of me. His disappointment was too great for me to do anything else. “I’m going to try to move you myself, and then I’ll call for an aide,” I promised. I moved the bed into its fully-reclined position, which Dad hated because he was so stiff, and then I pushed my arms under his shoulders and armpits the way hospice had taught me so I could haul him a couple inches closer to the head of the bed.
I raised him upright and Dad gazed around, looking for clues to a riddle he didn’t know was being asked. “Okay,” he fumbled, “now I need you…” He searched for an answer which was elusive. “…I need you to put me back on the bed.”
It was clear in an instant and all was forgiven: Dad thought he had fallen out of bed, and that I was neglecting him, ignoring what was as plain to him as the sun hanging in the sky. But it was a phantom; I raised his sheet to show him that he was in the same place he’d been the night before, dead center—had never left it. “You’re still in the bed, Dad,” I said as gently as I could.
He broke down in tears as he gazed on his legs, sharp and thin like lath, but where they were supposed to be. “I thought you left me, I was looking at you and wondering why you weren’t doing anything, why you wouldn’t help me,” he cried. “‘Where’s Quenby?’ I wondered. You were there but you weren’t helping me. I didn’t know why you wouldn’t help me!” He sobbed tears of bitterness and embarrassment, surprise and relief. “I really thought my body was over here,” he patted the empty air next to him, “and I needed to be there. But I am there,” Dad sighed.
“Will you forgive me? Will you forgive me my sins?” Dad grabbed my hand in a gesture of panicked need, realizing, like Othello, the betrayed was actually the betrayer. That he referred to sins at all revealed his utter despair.
“You don’t have any sins,” I argued, crying with my own relief, my own sorrow that he was so angry, so disappointed with me and I hadn’t known why. “Everything is fine. We’re fine,” I tried to soothe.
“No, no,” Dad cried. “I’m so sorry! I was sure you had given me up, but you were here all the time!”
He struggled to make sense of his new working reality, which was not on terra firma, moved like quicksand underneath him, carrying Dad between worlds both strange and terrifying and then back again to the present. “It was so real,” he said. “I was lost. My body was lost. I couldn’t find myself!
“Talk about an existential crisis,” he concluded abruptly.
We climbed through the dark morning into a brighter day, full of enough arch betrayals and supplications to fill a Greek tragedy.
I said, “Next time a hallucination tries to get between you and I, call the cat to chase it away.”