It’s been just about four hours since my father died. I have already experienced a strange variety of feelings… they fade in and out, they linger, they twist and change, and then depart, leaving me unsettled and unsure of anything. One minute I think I have a handle on things, yes, I get it, it’s ok, I feel invigorated even; dad is free and he knew we all loved him, all is as it should be… and then seconds later I feel a dark sort of terror sucking me in, telling me that this is but the beginning of unending, lifelong heartache that will never conclude. The sort of horrifying truth that leaves your chest empty of air and has you crumpling to the floor in profound despair…
And on top of this, there’s now another new and strange brew of bad feelings beginning to emerge, and I don’t like it. Why and I feeling like this? Where is this coming from? Everything about my father’s death was exactly as it should have been! It was all and more than we could ever have hoped for! And yet here they are, sneaking their way into my psyche in spite of my knowing better: guilt and regret. My gut begins to feel sick, truly nauseous, and there is a low rumbling of dread building by the second. So many things I had wanted to talk with him about – but I stop myself. I couldn’t; being a single mom of a kid allergic to cats made it difficult, plus mom was always there. (It was nearly impossible to speak only to him without constant interjections from mom when she was within earshot.) Then I remember those years when she was away at work and I had NO job and I still never went to him, recorder in hand…. Ich. I want to throw up. But I remind myself that I did what I felt comfortable with. Given the same stretch of history to do over again, I’d probably do the same again. My father and I, while we clearly shared a very deep love for each other, we did not have the greatest success simply talking. I did ask him questions, and I do have some stories, and some answers. And they will have to be enough. I counsel myself away from the path of guilt and regret, and I’m able to feel a little better. But still, they lurk. My stomach reminds me.
Just a couple of hours before I’d felt surprisingly ok as mom and Andrew and I moved about the kitchen, chatting and even laughing together as dad lay, dead and gradually losing warmth, in the other room. We’d made it through together. We’d done it. For a few minutes everything seemed clear-cut and simple. We’d each had our sobbing breakdown, but we’d pulled out of it before long. And now we were in the kitchen, almost as if nothing had happened. Wait, wait, hold on a second – what just happened here? Wait, where’s dad? Whoah – oh no, oh shit, he’s over there. And he’s not breathing anymore. Really?? Oh my God. Is this real? Yes, it is. And it’s ok. It’s all as it should be. Hm. But wait, we’re laughing. Should we be laughing here? Yeah, that’s ok too. But the sorrow is so acute, the laughter so short on its heels. Strange.
Even after doping up on an entire sleeping pill – something that would usually knock me right out – I find that after a mere hour’s nap I am up, alert, my mind churning over and over again the micro-events of the past eight hours. It seems a blur, and my memory is already becoming fuzzy on some of the details, so I try to get a handle on the timeline. I’m concerned that I’m already forgetting how everything occurred. To begin with, I got out my date book and stared at the past week, trying recall how it was we got here from there, and so soon. I remember once holding the strong impression that dad wouldn’t go til ‘sometime in the new year’, thinking that to be yet months off… Even at Thanksgiving (all four of us were together and actually had a pleasant time, an amazing gift I realize now) if anyone had told me that my dad would die just around Christmas, I still woulda thought they were way off. Guess it was my way of stalling. No matter how much you know it’s coming, it aint the same as the real thing. No way.
After I make a little map of the last two weeks’ events I relax a bit. I have a better picture now of how quickly things happened. From mobile man sitting at the table eating toast and eggs less than two weeks ago (ok, so mom will tell you half of the breakfast ended up on the floor, a sign things had deteriorated even more from the previous day) to couch-bound dad, which would have been fine had he been able to get up and use the bathroom, but here is where he began to require the kind of care no one likes to think about. Here, a big corner was turned. And within two days of moving to his new home on the couch, the big hospice bed arrived. So he gets moved to the bed. Comfy, continuously moving air mattress to prevent bed sores and keep up circulation. Nice. Funny, you know he’s not leaving that new bed alive, but even then it’s not real. You’re just going with the flow. So dad’s in a bid hospital bed now. In your mind, you adjust your thinking til it feels ok. Normal. After all, he is still recognizable. His spirit is there – you can’t imagine anything else, can you? Likely he will live in this bed forever now. His friends will have to come to him, but that’s ok – at least he’s comfortable.
Then he will begin to move slowly in the bed, frail and without the muscle to simply turn on his side (a right-side sleeper like me, I can sympathize and so brought from home all my extra down pillows to help him achieve some variety in positions) and he will look half asleep, his eyes having that faraway look, not quite connected. But you hold his hand, you engage him, and he shows you a sign. ‘Yes! Robert’s totally still with us!’ you think, still under some crazy illusion that this is just some aberration and that in a day or two things will start to right themselves again.
And then there is that first day of the deep sleeping, and that heavy, open-mouthed breathing from which you cannot bring your beloved father back. And to be honest, he hasn’t got the strength to communicate a thing, so you can only guess how present or not he is at this point. His mouth looks so very dry, oh my God, how must that feel? While just yesterday you’d have offered him a water-soaked sponge on a stick to relieve the dryness, now that tiny trickle of water might cause him to choke. Ok, so you want him to die, but not like that! So at this point you just wait. The breathing continues, and every few hours its pattern and sound changes. You look up from your book, you glance at your mother who’s heard it too, then you softly agree with each other that we’ve reached ‘something new’, and then after perhaps leaning in to touch your father’s hand or kiss his brow, you whisper something encouraging to him and return to your reading. What else can you do? You are now in the thick of the vigil. And as a friend said to me just yesterday, “the vigil is awful’. Yes, it’s hard. And who knew it could go on so long?
Mom and I sat by dad’s bedside yesterday from two in the afternoon until he died, shortly before midnight. Now I am writing from the morning after, I’m sitting on the couch from which I can see dad in his bed just like the days before. It’s comforting that his body is still here. That just shouldn’t be; I understand he’s not present in his body anymore, I had felt it a few moments after his last breath. No magic, spiritual moment occurred for any of us really, but when a minute had passed since his last whisper of a breath we had to conclude he was gone. I looked at his face, and it seemed different. Yes, yes, he was finally dead (and as if to confirm it, a cat had meowed from his office twice at that moment). But oh how strong is sentiment, and oh how strong the pull of the familiar. I have seen wailing women in far-off countries throwing themselves upon their husband’s and father’s bodies and can remember thinking ‘dead bodies aren’t worth fussing over like that’. Furthermore, isn’t that a little, well, gross? But now it’s my daddy. And I am not for one moment put off by the fact that his body is dead. My possessive, primitive heart tells me in a panic that this is all I have left of him, and so I linger, touching him, kissing him, examining his fingers in a way I’d wanted to all of my life. Pouring over him, noticing his hair, his arms, his freckles… Please don’t forget these things, I beg my unreliable memory. The funeral home will be here to pick him up shortly. First a nurse from hospice will come and help get him into some pajamas (another thing one doesn’t think much about until the situation is upon them: what will dad wear as his body departs this plane? Are the cotton/poly blend pajamas from Walmart ok?). It doesn’t sound very dignified, but what would be dignified about wrestling his now-stiffening body into a suit? Sheesh. So many little things pop up when you’re finally here.
The men from the funeral home finally arrived. They looked much as one would have expected, in fact it seemed a little too cliché. Funny even. In hindsight I even think the older man looked a little like Peter Sellers. I didn’t notice it then, but it’s just as well. I think humor may have its limits. Certainly there was nothing funny about this moment. There were two men, in black wool overcoats and ties rolling in a gurney upon which they would take my father out. They were wonderful; not grim at all, but respectful – and they had an attentive, gentle manner which helped us bear the action at hand. Just as they began to unfold the layers of body bag and drape, I called out for them to stop – I wanted to put on some of dad’s music first. It just felt right, I hadn’t planned it, but the air was so thin, lacking of something…. I found the cd and pushed play. Not too many years ago dad had recorded this beautiful live performance of him playing Couperin; I had recently learned from friend Ken Slowik that the piece been written – fittingly for our needs now – as a memorial tribute to a deceased colleague. Gorgeously and deeply melancholic, it gave the room an air of dignity and beauty that was entirely befitting dad’s final moments in his home.
Perhaps it was going too far – but I was desperate not to forget this scene – and so I took a short video. But I stopped it after a few seconds to be present. I watched as they wrapped dad, as they lifted him, as they zipped him up to his neck. And then I saw my mother lean over to kiss dad’s forehead at the very same time that the final passage in the music played. The timing was so uncannily perfect. Again, things had lined up in the best possible way. They then wheeled the gurney towards the door. We joked a bit about dad and mom having moved so many harpsichords in and out of the house, this process was in many ways similar. Earlier we’d shown the two gentlemen some photographs of dad and his instruments, so they understood what we meant and shared in our amusement. Shortly we were outside in the gray, snowy day, at their vehicle which sat, like so many before, open and ready to receive its cargo. Dad was lifted in, feet first, his white-haired head still visible. He was one good-looking dead man, I have to say. The hospice gal who’d last come (and helped us get him in his final outfit) remarked that his skin looked wonderful, that his coloring was beautiful. And I’d have to agree; while he began to turn a little yellowish at the end, he never looked bad. In fact, as I took one last look at him in the hearse, I thought to myself what a handsome man, and what dignity he possessed, even in death.
But we, being the Conants, had to avail ourselves of the opportunity to note the humor and irony in this final step. Through the years we’ve taken hundreds of photos of our guests departing down the long driveway. We all raise an arm to wave farewell as we watch them reach the middle, and by the time the cars are at the road, mom will make a comment about the direction in which they choose to head out. We have done this for thirty-some years, why stop now? I had the younger funeral attendant take a pic of Andrew, mom and me waving at the hearse, and as they drove away I took one last picture of Andrew and mom, arms raised to wave goodbye to dad… “Well, Daddy, guess you won’t be goin down Braim Road again” mom remarked as the big black vehicle took a left.
It’s now the day after the first day, and as I go over my earlier writing for edits and corrections I still feel stunned. I alternate between acceptance and panic, really. One moment I’m listing for myself all the perfect things about the past two weeks – the past two months or two years, even – and I note how everything resolved itself as well as it could. So many things to grateful for, not the least of which is that dad died at home, with each one of us touching him, and knowing he was loved. But sorrow is not something you can negotiate with or rationalize; the very next moment it washes over me and I find myself weeping with a freshly-broken heart. I know that this will go on for a long time. I also know that it will lessen, and that life will surround me, distract me, fill me and satisfy me again. I hope. Cuz right now I feel that queer, wide-open sort of sad that sees no resolution, that doesn’t expect to feel entirely good and right ever again.
Elihu comes home on New Year’s Eve day, which is also my brother’s birthday. My son’s homecoming will in of itself be a gift for Andrew. That man could use a little light in his life. I’m going to suggest he come along with me to the train when I pick Elihu up. We’ll see Fareed then too, as he’s on his way to the city, and then on to London to visit with his daughter. It’ll be a brief, on-the-platform hello and goodbye, but even seeing Fareed for a quick greeting might also help my brother. Don’t know. Worth finding out. And then, we will know the greatest peace our hearts can know at this time – when Elihu is with us again. Throughout this process of my father dying I have been thankful that my son wasn’t here for this – I couldn’t have expected him to sit through a ten hour vigil. So things have indeed all worked out as well as they could have. And soon I will know the tender relief of holding my child in my arms again. I can hardly wait.
Finally, I’m done with this intense part of the process. And I can say that I’m proud of myself for it too; I’m proud of all of us who’ve lost a parent, for truly it is an initiation of sorts into full adulthood. We who live through a loved one’s death – no matter who it is who dies – are brave people. This process of being human, as I’ve noted before, is not for wimps.
Ok, one big life lesson down, I suppose it’s time to move things along. My process isn’t over yet…