I have mixed feelings about writing a post just now, but I feel compelled to share what it is that I, and we as a family, are experiencing. Few people are comfortable talking about death, yet everyone present on this earth will themselves die, and most everyone will experience death in his or her immediate circle of friends and family. I wish it still didn’t feel so taboo, but somehow it does. Perhaps in my writings I can help to dispel some of the mystery and help people to feel more at ease talking about the subject. Not sure I can put my money where my mouth is however, because even though I may be ready for this on some level – and even long for it on dad’s behalf – I am scared shitless.
Just an hour ago I’d been at the store, hoping to pick up some produce and other staples when mom called and told me I’d better get home. Dad’s been experiencing a rattling sort of breath over the past day, and it had just gotten more pronounced. Can you imagine the feeling in my body as I drove over the pastoral roads of the countryside towards my dying father, as Bach played on the radio? The most poignant soundtrack ever, and the snow-covered countryside out my window just made it even more intense. Hold on, dad, I kept saying to myself. I was fairly confident he’d wait for me; just before I left his side I told him I’d be out for an hour or so. Each time I’ve left his side – now, for example, as I’ve run home to eat a bite and just get a little emotional breather – I’ve told him what I’m doing, where I’m going and when I intend to be back. Many folks may not believe that this will mean anything to a man heavily medicated and sleeping, but I do. And I think he’s aware, on some level, of what’s being said to him. Just a couple of hours ago he held my hand back – and I knew he was there. We have all three been with him, sitting vigil at his side, yet on and on goes the wait. So when on earth will he go? And just what is he waiting for?
Ever the humorist, I suspect he may choose to leave us at 4:15, which is the tuning for concert A in authentic, historically accurate Baroque music. Just now, when I explained that I was going home for a bit of lunch, I told him the current time. And I suggested to him that possible time of departure too – cautioning that at the very least he might not want to go at 4:40. ! Then I kissed him on the forehead, told him I loved him so very much, and parted using Elihu’s last words to his grandfather: “See you shortly”.
Last night, when dad gurgled for the very first time and choked ever so slightly on his inhalations, my entire body immediately filled with adrenaline. I was there at his side, and quickly spoke to him as soothingly as I could. I took his hand and waited. When it seemed his breathing had returned to an even, rhythmic pattern, I sat down again. I noted how very panicked and full of pure fear I was. My very body had been physically jolted as if I’d just been in car accident. It was very surprising. And alarming. Proof of just how afraid I was. And I am a person who truly believes that my father is on his way to a grand reunion – and a much more joyful, love-filled place than here. Even with this firm belief, I am still frightened to the core of that final moment. Yet I so earnestly desire to be there with him for it. I pray that I don’t miss it, even if I am petrified of its finality.
Andrew has spent the past eighteen hours at dad’s side. He must be wrecked with exhaustion – and I pray now that he’s gone to his house to get a nap in, that he doesn’t come back drunk. Christmas evening – the one day on which my mother had so dearly hoped my dad wouldn’t die – Andrew returned from Martha’s drunker than either one of us had ever seen him. He stumbled in, and plopped down at the island where we were having dinner. He picked up his stuffing and ate it with his hands like a caveman. Unable to get much food successfully into his mouth, he got up and left, lumbering out of the kitchen and down to his house. We were on the lookout for lights from his place (just at the bottom of the driveway) to indicate he’d made it. No lights were ever turned on. As I left later on that night I made sure that I didn’t find his body passed out in the snow. It was brutally cold out, and he’d left in nothing but a sweatshirt. Suffice to say, our father’s death is pushing Andrew to his absolute limits.
Mom tells me she’s told dad it’s ok to go. She’s given him her permission, so have I. Whether Andrew has done the same we’ll never know, but at least he’s had a good amount of private time with his father. That makes me feel better. So now it’s purely a waiting game. I finished writing dad’s obituary today, and in lieu of a date of death, I’d written in December 28th. Mom gasped when she read it, as if, like me, on some level she simply cannot fathom his dying. I told her it was just to fill in the blanks, but she remarked that I shouldn’t “push things”. Man, are we mixed up about this. I look forward to having this whole experience behind, and not ahead of me. What a challenge is life… and what a greater challenge is death.
Hospice workers tell us that the very final and sure signs that death is within hours are a change in skin color in the legs, feet, arms or hands. A bluish tint will occur, signs that the blood is no longer oxygenating as it once did. I’m glad to have something to look for, because dad has seemed on the very precipice of death for the past twenty-four hours. His mouth now hangs open, his breathing is deep, faster than before, and his face had truly become sallow. His face still looks like him, yet now his cheeks have become sunken and if one were only to glance at him, a person would register nothing but an ancient man. How quickly he has changed. In some ways it makes it a bit easier, for we are not saying goodbye to the man we all knew. He has already departed. It’s a wonder what exactly it is that remains. He must be hovering somewhere in a semi-conscious ether, trying to muster his last earthly courage to let go of the cord, to bid us all a final adieu.
You are loved by so many, dearest father, and you have left a grand and beautiful legacy. Please be at peace, and know that you may let go without fear, and travel to the place that calls you now. We’ll see you shortly.
Post Script: Dad did in fact die on 12/27/13 (although legally his date of death will always be recorded as the following morning when a nurse arrived to ‘legally’ pronounce him so. We know the true date, however.) It was around 11:20 p.m. when Andrew, mom and I were just sort of doing our thing at the house. Mom at the kitchen sink, Andrew at his computer on the dining room table, dad in his hospice bed, and me on the couch with a view of all three. Dad emitted two vocalizations which where unusual in that they were focused and a bit louder than anything he’d uttered recently. I personally feel he was summoning his effort to get our attention. The whole family was there, there was a cozy, familial feel to the home and it must have been the right time. It worked; it got my attention and I called to mom and Andrew. We were immediately at his side. Now his breathing had begun to change.
Never once was there ever any discoloration of his legs, feet or arms, so our only indication that things were reaching a new phase was the breathing. Now he’d take a labored breath and wait much longer til the next. We got into our positions by his side; mom held his right hand, Andrew his left, and I held both of his feet in my hands, dancing side to side in an expression of my acute distress and fear. We all must have known this was it. The past twenty-four hours the cats had paid their visits to his bed and alerted us that things were changing, now it was our turn to sit with him one final time. We stood like this for some twenty minutes. It was apparent what was going on this time. We were getting ready to watch our beloved Robert die.
He took another deep breath and then… nothing. We all began to sob for our loss when he surprised us by sputtering to life again, taking in another breath. He went on to repeat this a few times – each time throwing us into tears, each breath having us laughing at how it had fooled us… It seemed he was taking a couple of curtain calls at the end of his life – so we began to laugh even more at the idea. It happened again, one breath, a pause, then mom, maybe sensing his wasn’t quite ‘it’ yet, began to talk about something she’d been doing before this – a cat-related item – and I shushed at her to stop talking – because it really seemed this was it! We quieted down and waited again… I hoped we’d hear another breath, but none came this fourth and final time. Having those three fake-out curtain calls had softened the departure, leaving us crying and laughing all at the same time. When we were sure a minute without breath had passed, we agreed he was finally gone. And a cat meowed twice from his office precisely at that moment as if to confirm it. I’d watched dad carefully through the whole thing, hoping I’d recognize that one final moment of departure, but I didn’t.
But when I moved in close to look at his face, I got it. Yeah, there was no one home to animate that body anymore. That thing that made the difference between a physical body and a charming, intelligent, funny human being – that ‘whatever it was’, was just plain absent. He was here just a few minutes ago. But now he was definitely gone. Nothing in between about it. Wow. Kinda nice that he had us all laughing through our tears as he left. Thanks, dad. We really appreciated it.
And we hope you’re still laughing where you are now. We’ll spill some tears here for you yet, but in the end you’ll have us laughing more than crying, I’m pretty sure of it. Curtain calls at your own death, indeed. !
Robert Scott Conant died at 11:51 pm on Friday, December 27th, 2013, and did so as peacefully as any person should ever want to go. Amen.