Let me tell you a bit about the scene: Mom and Dad’s house is an open-plan, post and beam beauty in which life takes place in the kitchen – which is the first room you walk into through the garage (as with most of the world, they never, ever use their front door). As soon as you come in, the dining room is just beyond the large kitchen island, and the L of couches to its right. (A Franklin stove sits near the couches but has been dark and unused for the better part of the past two years, unlike decades before when it was well-tended and in daily use.) There is a large tv that bisects the kitchen and the living/dining area, and it is constantly on. Mostly it’s the old black and white movies, sometimes it’s the cooking channel, and in the evenings it’s set to the local weather. Mom has become ever so slightly hard of hearing these days, and so the tv plays at a volume that adds a certain frenetic energy to the room. I always have to turn it down in order to hold a conversation. And through it all, dad – at least the past few years – has either been sitting at the island on a stool, sitting in his chair to the side, or lying down on the nearby couch. Since we four Conants moved him from the stool to the couch this past Sunday night he has lain there ever since, and it’s my suspicion it may well be where he remains until he dies. Because there’s little question about it now: my father is dying.
As I’ve said before, we Conants – at least mom and dad, Bob and Nancy, that is – aren’t very comfortable with physical displays of affections. Or spoken expressions, either I suppose. It was only through a very intentional campaign made by my ex husband years ago (when he was still my very new boyfriend) that I learned to say “I love you” to either of them. Thank goodness it was over the phone – I don’t think I could have done it in person. But at the end of my catch-up calls on Sunday evenings from Chicago to sleepy Greenfield, just as I was about to hang up, Fareed would lean in close to my face and mouth in an exaggerated way ‘AND I LOVE YOU!’ and he’d shake me til I said it. I thank my ex for a couple of things in my life, and this is one of them. From that time forward it because customary to end conversations with an ‘I love you’. But in person, not so much. And after I moved here, even less. Only in the past few months have I made an effort to revive it. Because, well, now’s the time, you know?
When my parents began their post-city lives here they found themselves in a cozy little social group which included a gay couple (that they were gay never registered to me until I was way into my own adulthood – they were simply my beloved Jim and Everett), an ‘older’ (as in my age now) opera singer, husband and wife musicians who ran an old-fashioned farm and maybe a couple extra characters that joined in the parties and concerts over the years. But the core group was always Frank and Martha, Jim and Everett, and Ruthie. Over the past decade I’ve seen all of them die. Except Martha, that is. (One might joke that she aint never dying. And if you knew her, you’d laugh, shake your head and tend to agree.) Since only the trio has been left, it’s naturally had me wondering who would go first. And now I’m pretty sure we know.
Mom did finally call someone to learn our care options at this point. And finally, there it was, “Hospice”. For me it wasn’t a shocker, but the idea hit mom like a train. I heard it in her voice on the phone – she even readily admitted that even she wasn’t emotionally prepared for hospice to be brought up (the suggestion actually surprised her!). Later, when we visited, her eyes began to well with tears as we talked about the next phase. She’s held out til the last possible moment, and while I myself might have done many things differently, none of that matters now. Dad is still happy, so if we can keep him comfortable and healthy, he will die here at home. That, in my world, is a HUGE blessing. But regardless, it is still the death of my mother’s partner of over fifty years we’re talking about here. As much as we might toss it all around like so many common plans for the to-do list, we all know what this means. We are getting ready to have dad die, right here, and very soon. She is facing the biggest good-bye of her life. And after that, the house will be empty. She will be alone. Shit. This is hard. So goddam hard. It’s not like we didn’t know it was coming, either. “So how long did you think he might still live, Mom? Three years? More?” “Oh God no!” she snapped. “But then what, like another year?” I pressed. I’m not sure she herself knew. One doesn’t tend to actually sit down and map this stuff out. “I don’t know. His mother lingered like this for years….” she trailed off. That may have been so, but it looked like we were closer than that. Never know though. You hear stories of folks being put on hospice care and then living for years… Just never really know. But then again you kinda do….
Now that it’s real I feel a mix of three things: first, concern for my mother (and Martha too). How will she react? Will she allow us to see her cry? Childbirth gets so heavy that all modesty goes out the window; will she behave in a similar way with the death of her spouse? How does this work exactly?? Next, my brother. Just how will he react? How will this affect him? His drinking? Will this be what he needs to finally rise up and get healthy or will he sink to his own final funk? And then I myself feel a queer mix of sorrow and relief. The two battle it out inside me; when I take a closer look at his existence, it seems we only want him around us for ourselves, plain and simple. He himself would probably greatly appreciate an escape from this tired, confused body. But even as my mother had admitted a few weeks back, just having him there – even if he’s asleep, checked out, for all intents and purposes ‘not there’, his energy and presence is still very much there. And you feel it. You just know he’s there in the room. And it makes a difference. We both try to imagine the house without dad in it somewhere (as it’s been for the past quarter century) and the house seems almost pointless. Good thing mom has that goddam tv to fill the house up with crap and distraction I guess. Sigh. Elihu has great compassion for mom and her need to ‘fill the space’. “She just doesn’t want to really understand how far things have gone. She’s scared, so she tries to ignore it.” Yeah kid, probably a good bit of truth to that. Whenever I mutter about mom under my breath he says “I understand. She doesn’t mean it. She’s just trying to figure out how to behave”. Yeah, once again, thanks for keeping me on track. This isn’t easy for any of us.
When we went over earlier today, dad was resting on the couch. It was a different sort of resting now. Having continued to lose weight, his cheeks took on an extra sunken look in his horizontal position. Honestly, in his current condition, if you just glanced at him, you might think he was already gone. But no, he is there. He is there. Still. While Elihu chatted with grandma, tv continuing to do its thing, I sat next to dad, hoping for something. Some new pearl, some word, a smile…. Sadly, gone was my hope for a cute anecdote or story, it was all he could do to recount his two childhood pals by name for Elihu last time; now he related tiny blurred scenes to me, and all I could do was to try and understand what he was seeing as best as I could. Which I noticed became increasingly hard to do as mom continued to badger me with useless and uninteresting facts about this and that… a constant stream of crap that may as well have come from the goddam nightly news… Can’t that wait? I’m thinking, but biting my tongue lest it come out as I think it might… Please, lady, just shut up!! Can’t you see I’m trying to hear what dad is saying? But I don’t move, my focus is essential here. I listen, then I place my hand on his. We are connected now by touch, and I swear I feel him relax. His eyes have been closed the whole time. “Hi Dad, it’s me, just sayin hi”. He opens his eyes and smiles gently. “I love you so very much, dad” I tell him. And in a not-too-faint voice he answers me “Oh Elizabeth, I love you so very much”. Then he closes his eyes again. But my hand is still on his, we are still engaged with each other. Mom comes over to us and leans over the couch. I hope she doesn’t stay long, because she’ll probably start asking him what he wants or trying to make sense with him, asking him things that require answers – hell, that require opinions. And dad just doesn’t care now. Can’t you see that, lady? I’m thinking. Dad opens his eyes and looks at mom, saying “Pop is here…” then trails off. Mom laughs it off as the nonsensical mis-firings of an Alzheimer’s-riddled brain, and thankfully, she leaves. But I know that something is going on in there, and I stay with it. Me, I believe he’s just seen his father. His Pop. A pause. He closes his eyes and smiles. “I am in pleasure” he says, with a slight tone of humor. But then again, I take it to mean that he’s feeling ok too. He’s letting me know. “Susan” he then says, his eyes opening and looking a bit off into space. “You mean Susan, your niece?” “Yes, Susan. Where is she?” he asks. Now me, I personally believe he’s probably just seen Susan himself. She knows he’s coming soon, so she’s letting herself be seen. “Your niece Susan died about a year and a half ago. It was rather sudden. She was living with Jean in Florida. She got very sick and died.” What else to say? Sorry was not what this was about. He seemed to be thinking of – if not actually seeing – family members that were now gone. Sorry was the opposite of what was going on here now – all I felt was ‘yeah, this is it. Yes, there is some love and comfort awaiting him when he goes.’ And thank goodness! It makes me feel much better about things. A moment passed after the Susan thing, then he raised a finger and pointed a bit out and to the right… “who are all those people waiting by the curve?” he asked. “Oh, Dad, I wish I could see them too, I wish I knew who they are, but I don’t.” As if to keep things real, keep humor in the house (a staple of our family) he summons a bigger voice and in a funny accent says “I weesh to be reech”. He repeats it again, closes his eyes, and a wide, happy smile settles on his face.
This is the fork in the road at which many of my friends may choose to part from my company. Because for me, I do not believe dad’s words are meaningless bits of information, retrieved randomly from disparate areas of the brain…. I do not see this as a purely physical phenomenon taking place. Surely it is on some level just that, but there is another equally ‘real’ phenomenon occurring now which is not something than can as yet be quantified by science. I recognize my father is becoming less vibrationally in tune with this reality, and he is now becoming aware, if only in the faintest way, of the new reality he’ll soon be joining. Bunk and booey to my neurotransmitter-as-only-real-data-channel thinking friends, I know. My dear friends of the ‘it’s either working or it aint’ school of thinking will know dad’s behavior to be nothing more than a failing system of data transmission. In short: a body breaking down. Yeah, I’d agree with that. But I’m going to take that other path from here on, the one that knows we are more than an organic machine, and that there are countless energies we are a part of that no meter or machine can measure. I know that ‘real’ can be real without tests, trials and placebos. My dad’s death is certainly a real experience to him, and that, ultimately serves as the Truth here and now. Quantifying or qualifying his Truth does seem rather silly, don’t you think? A moot point really.
One day I do hope we’ll have the opportunity for a good laugh together about it all as we re-evaluate our Earthly lessons and kick back for a little respite after our exhausting lives on this tricky planet. Cuz I believe this is one tough-assed school. And I believe we’ve come here to work on things. We’ve found the right groupings and scenarios and countries, bodies, talents and occupations – the whole shebang – so that we might most effectively learn what it is we need to in order to become better. Dare I say, more Godlike. When I put it like that, kinda makes me laugh. I mean man, this planet don’t exactly seem like a good choice for a mission like that, huh? Pretty crappy place sometimes. Sure aint easy, even when you do have it easy. Plus there is this existential uncertainty which thrums through us our whole lives, nagging at us to try and answer it if we dare listen. But thankfully, there are lots of diversions here to muffle its drone. Yeah, you can easily go through your life and never give a shit about anything but just getting by. The challenge, however, is to care, and to widen your sphere of caring and loving influence. And we all know that is much, much easier said than done. The distractions are so very tempting – and easy. But a life spent mostly on the path of love and caring is one spent pretty well, at least I think so. Certainly more of a step ahead than not. And my dad has made many steps forward here. He’s also had to carry some burdens that I wish he hadn’t. He grew up knowing he was loved, but he grew up in a culture where love was not expressed. A handshake from dad before he went off to the Army. Nurses instead of mother. Boarding school from a young age. I’m glad that now, in these final, restful moments on the couch that I can tell him I love him.
Because if he’s going soon, all he really needs to know is that we love him. The rest will sort itself out on the other side.