Traveling through the Berkshires on Amtrak, I’m on my way to see my sick father. Dad has pancreatic cancer and is back in the hospital with severe vomiting, dehydration, hyper-hydration, low blood pressure, congestive heart failure, intestinal bleeding, high bilirubin, weight loss… Thankfully, he doesn’t seem to be in much pain. We may be facing the beginning of the end.
I feel awful: guilty and regretful, that my life circumstances have not allowed me to be more involved in his day-to-day care; jealous of the fact that I will not be allowed the opportunity to spend much anticipated alone time with him; and terribly sad that he is getting so sick so fast.
I’m faced with this struggle of negative, childish feeling and a supreme sense of inadequacy that is so prevalent when I am with my family of origin and give myself the ritual pep talk. I have a role of my own in this drama. I’m here to listen to and support Dad and my sisters and brother. I am told that my daily letters are “the high point in his days.”
I seek Spirit guidance in staying in the light: stopping negative self-talk and projection, thinking before I speak, making the most of my time with Dad. I would love to be able to make disappear the competition and comparison and rivalry that has remained an undercurrent in the relationship between the five of us siblings. I remind myself that Dad admires me for who I am: for having overcome great difficulty, and for having the initiative to do something important with my life.
When I do finally get my wish for the one-on-one time I have so craved, I’m the good guy because he is being discharged from the hospital on my “shift”. Dad is visiting his apartment for a short while now When people see how well he is doing, their jaws drop because a week ago he was in such bad shape. He is one pissed off boy, as is typical for someone in his position, but it is very difficult being the brunt of his anger.
Once Dad returns to his apartment, the days drag by ever so slowly. At times I feel like I’m on vacation- when he is in good spirits and not treating us like shit, he can be a real pleasure. But try to get him to take his meds as directed, or to use his cane or walker as he stumbles about, and I just want to walk out and leave him to his own devices. I don’t know how my sisters have done it week after week all summer. I’m grateful though that Dad fought (yes fought!) his way back home. His first day back I am so happy to see him in his chair that I almost start to cry.
Time here is a reality check in letting go. I can remind Dad of the things he needs to do, but if he falls or has an oil spill (i.e., leaks an oily substance into his pants as a result of not taking his medication with meals), the consequences of his inaction will be clear enough. (Likewise, my teenage sons do what they’re going to do in my extended absence.) The most I can do is make sure that I’m doing the next right thing.
Dad’s home, but has gone downhill in a big way in just the last few days. I was happy to have him at home at all because I really didn’t think that I would ever be here with him again. I greatly fear a downward spiral and feel so powerless.
Shortly after my return home following the visit with Dad, a friend and I are shopping at a large fabric store, and I have an episode whereby cloth becomes brighter, tilting in a weird way… I wonder if I am having a seizure, think: “Wow, feels like I’m on drugs, this is pretty cool, what is going on, oohhh, I don’t feel so good.” I get dizzy, break out into a cold sweat, and barely reaching the bench, grab a bag of M&M’s on the way. Low blood sugar? What is going on??? Later my sister calls to tell me of the episode that Dad had, winding up on the bathroom floor, at the same time I almost passed out.
Dad is terribly sick, although Nancy has seen to it that he has remained at home, as is his wish. I wind up having 45 minutes’ notice to make flight reservations, arrangements for coverage in my classroom, pack and find a ride to the airport.
Once there, I find there are moments that I need to distance myself from my siblings and get the hell out of Dad’s apartment. He has an apartment in a lovely retirement community, attached to which is an assisted living and nursing facility. By chance, I meet an elderly gentleman named Paul, as he is shuffling past Dad’s building, binoculars in hand. We have never met before. In my upset, I have to force myself to acknowledge this man, before rushing on. But he looks so frail, and I begin to wonder if he has wandered off unbeknownst to his caregivers. So turning back, I ask if I may join him in his walk. What a dear, dear man. We walk the same walk that I have taken with Dad on numerous occasions. He reminds me through his descriptions of birding adventures, and his wife’s authoritative knowledge of wildflowers that I want to pursue these interests. I share with him my reasons for stopping social work and not becoming certified in education. As we return to the entrance of Dad’s building an hour and a half later, I learn that his wife has died two days previously, and tell him of Dad’s pending death. We share tears and I feel in that moment that Spirit has brought us together in our grief. He tells me how proud Dad is.
Upon my return, I sit writing in the lobby of Dad’s building. A neighbor stops to find how things are going. This is the first time we have met. We get into this amazing spiritual discussion about how Mom and the others are joyously awaiting on the other side; Mom is admonishing him to wait until something is finished; that he hangs on waiting for something to happen; that something amazing always comes of even the worst of events…
Thankfully, Dad is comfortable after getting meds into him that he has been refusing until this weekend. He is amazingly clear and in good spirits most of the time, but continues to hang on waiting for who knows what. Beth and Catherine are here and have taken on most of his care. I pretty much just sit quietly with him so when he wakes up there is someone in the room with him.
The minister has just left. While he praying for Dad, I open my eyes and Dad looks at me wryly as if to say, “What is he talking about?” Then, “That was a beautiful prayer, but I don’t understand why he picked that one.” I comment to his pastor that Dad is still in denial and he replies, “No he isn’t. He’s ready.” So it occurs to me to ask a prayer in the way that I prayed when my firstborn was a baby. I pray that Dad is welcomed with open arms and celebration as he crosses over. That Mom and his mother and the multitudes of people upon whom he has had such an impact are lining up to greet him. Please let him know that we will all be fine. I thank him for setting such an amazing example. His generosity and humor and wisdom will travel through future generations.
Early this morning Dad’s utterances are heard through the baby monitor in the living room, “I’m afraid to let go.” God be with you Dad. You can go and know that we will be with you always, that your mark here is everlasting. “Oh dear, I don’t want to let go”
Dad has a tremendous sense of humor and has taken great pleasure in shocking people. One of his favorite pieces of advice over the years has been, “Don’t forget your rubbers.” Even when there is no one in the room with him, he is aware of the fact that we remain vigilant through the use of a baby monitor. At one point he sighs, “And he died with a smile on his face and his hand on his pecker.”
I feel so lost here, and focus my energy on just being. I fight my sense of exclusion as my sisters and brother repeatedly put their heads together. Between my lack of involvement in his physical care, and projections of negativity (anger, judgment, resentment, loneliness) I take myself a-wandering through the building. I stop to visit with the woman from the lobby, so comforting had been our previous visit. She gives to me an angel identical to the Hummel that Mom had as I grew up.
Next, I am sitting out in front of the building, where Dad and I had spent several gorgeous afternoons just a week and a half before. While walking with the elderly gentleman a few days ago, he mentioned that he was surprised by how few birds there were, that he had not seen or heard any on his last couple of walks. I have since noticed the truth of this. This morning, however, there are all kinds of birds in the trees, flitting about. And there is a blue jay outside of Dad’s window that sounds for all the world like it is calling his name, “Dick! Dick! Dick!” -Mom?
We think for sure that Dad is on his way. He is going deeper and deeper, and at one point does not respond to my sister’s ministrations. Catherine is Dad’s Angel of Mercy, so very gentle and loving as she keeps him medicated. Hospice is called and a social worker comes and yanks poor Dad back. “Where’s the eagle? Where did the bonny eagle go? … behind the black cloud… Did we save your life little boy?” Catherine is so upset: “Nobody goes in that room!” Later I am compelled to go sit with him, against the strong expression of disapproval on the part of my sisters, their belief being that our presence is holding him back. All I want is to go sit. I so do not want him to be alone, and in fact, at one point he says, “Well here I am, here I am by myself. I’ll go by myself if that’s the way you feel.” They refuse to acknowledge my assertions that we should be with him. I sit against my sisters’ wishes, for about an hour and a half, and just before I leave the room I whisper, “Let go, Dad. It’s time. They’re waiting and we are going to be fine. It’s ok Dad, just let go.” After I leave the room, he does stop breathing for longer than the usual 50 or 60 seconds, and Beth goes in. After several minutes, he awakens again and is so amazed. He keeps saying over and over, “I’m awake! I’m awake! I was asleep and now I’m awake. God told me that I’m awake. I was asleep.”
The day after he asks about the bonny eagle, Nancy shows us an article in the paper about a horrible accident in which 3 teens, students at Bonny Eagle High School have been killed.
For the rest of the day, he is clearly between Here and There. When Pastor comes, he wakes Dad in the first loud voice since his previous rude awakening. “Dick, I’ve come to say goodbye.” “Where are you going?” “Nowhere, you’re the one who’s leaving.” “Oh yeah, I’ve already been there and back.” After prayers, I don’t think Dad speaks directly to us again. He speaks of and to people all around the room when there is never more than one or two of us in the room at a time. He repeatedly admonishes, “Nothing mentioned, nothing gained.”
I go to sit with him, holding my book in my lap, staring at the words, when Dad’s breathing becomes more rapid with almost a moan. When I look up there are tears in his eyes. Nancy comes and asks to sit, and I point out that Dad is crying. “Oh my God, he is.” I think, “That’s why he doesn’t want to let go: he loves us, and life too much to leave.” A while later, I read to him in his unconsciousness, from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, on life, love, marriage, children, death. Catherine medicates him; we turn out the lights and are watching Notting Hill when he dies at 10 pm on Thursday, September 23, 2004. Nancy goes in to check on him and her keening announces his death. Later, Catherine mentions that the sound reminds her of a bird that she isn’t able to identify. Nancy’s reply: “A nightingale pierced by a thorn.”
I have asked Dad to try to “make contact” with me.
As I shop for something to wear to the service, I come across this great red felt hat that actually fits!! I am compelled to wear it for his memorial despite such impropriety in the face of death. After the initial head shaking, the realization that Dad would have loved this brings laughter to his friends.
As we travel to Winchester, the town that is to be his final resting place, the urn holding Dad’s ashes rests in my lap. As George Winston’s piano rendition of Pachabel’s Cannon plays through the car, I am swept back to our walk across the lawn for my marriage. How fitting that the music that signifies him giving me away, plays as I prepare to give him away.
And later, as I wander in search of “something” to give my siblings in remembrance of this huge event in our lives, asking Dad’s guidance, I come across a children’s book called “You’re All My Favorite.”
Saturday, October 9, 2004, 4:15 am
“Try to make contact…”
Dad looked at me with wonder when I said that to him a day or two before he died- like yeah, right. Or, maybe I will…
As has been usual since Dad’s passing, I awaken hours early and lay tossing about, falling back into that delicious visionary sleep that occurs early in the morning. Having overslept then, I start instantly awake as Coconut by Harry Nilsson plays on the radio, the subject of music trivia. That had been a particular favorite of Dad’s in the seventies- he even bought the 45. I had sent him a card that made reference to it earlier in the summer. I have repeatedly searched online for that song since I found that card. I haven’t heard that song in 25 years! It’s him.
This morning I again awaken, mind a-race with things that I want to make priorities and goals, and things that Dad would do differently to make my business more financially viable.
“Try to make contact…”
I inherited my love for clocks from Dad. One of my fondest memories is of the time he was visiting and on the way to pick up some groceries he slammed on the brakes as I pointed out an old clock in a yard sale. The clock was broken, so as was his custom, he had it repaired and it has since been on our mantle. On a shelf in the next room, there is another clock that he has left to me. Since his death, the clock on the mantle has developed a quirk that can be rather annoying. It will strike and continue either until someone turns it off or the clock winds down. So we keep the chimes on that clock turned off.
One night I am awakened by the endless chiming of that clock. I’m too lazy to get up to turn it off, so it continues its music for twenty minutes or so before stopping of its own accord. Immediately Dad’s brass clock chimes in for another twenty minutes, followed by repeat sessions by both clocks. As the clock on the mantle begins again, I come downstairs and the chimes cease. Dad just wants some company.
My sister e-mails me with a journal entry regarding our growing up and lack of nurturance from our mother as little children. I call her after a futile attempt to gather my thoughts on paper, sharing with her how i go about filling that inner longing for something that is so elusive. I tell her about my toy drawer and my snuggly elephant and how it feels when I hold it close to my heart. I tell her about how I try to give to other kids what I feel they are not getting, and how doing that, having that outlet, fills me; how I believe we need to circulate the loving energy in the universe and that as long as we are vigilant in doing that on a daily basis, what we feel we lost out on as a child is somehow compensated for because we are giving it to someone else who may not have it otherwise, and that is so healing.
Immediately following this conversation I came downstairs and the back yard is filled with birds: nuthatches, chickadees, woodpeckers, cardinals, tufted titmice. Ben and I are so enthralled. As I re-dial my sister to tell her of this event, I am filled with peace. When I come down, the birds are gone.