Cicadas buzz in the sorrow of night. Late summer heat and humid fear vibrates on my skin. Insomnia breeds paranoia and terror.
Dad’s gone. Two days left of this visit. My first one back since his death. This is not a night, or a day, but an in between. A purgatory. I remember another sleepless night in this bed a year ago. They’d found the cancer that killed him in the frozen dead of winter. We were hopeful then. We sat at dinner, over Mom’s vegetarian bbq. He was in a good mood as they discussed the spot on his pancreas.
God would heal.
Later, abandoned by sleep and haunted by the future, I feared losing him when there was so much left to say. Not unsaid things. But things that were on their way. And unremembered things. I kept meaning to ask why he walked away from God for 15 years when he was my age. There were other things like that, but he was dying and our will was bent towards his living.
He died in a horrible hospital bed in front of me, my mom and my aunt. His body turned to stone, his breath to ash and I—what? I what? I stopped? I pushed? I lived, though I still don’t know how.
I shut my eyes and walk the halls of that hospital as if it were today. I can smell the antiseptic and the February wind on heavy winter coats as the big double doors slide open to the street. I’d walk to the cafeteria feeling nothing, look at the food for what felt like hours, then walk away with coffee. Food felt guilty.
I stood on the shore watching grief swell out to sea in a tidal wave that hovered for a year. Now it crashes and I am drowning. God, he’s gone.
But he was infinite. A load bearing wall without whom our house crumbles. I called him Pops. “That’s me.” He’d say.
I stared at his corpse to remember it…
“Dad I hate my life and I don’t know how to fix it. I’m tired and I don’t know how to rest.” I want to tell him, but I’d never tell him that. It was too intimate and he’d start problem-solving and that would be the end of that conversation. I’m irritating myself. I’ve been whining all my life. Jesus Christ, he’s dead. Leave him alone.
My husband is a concert pianist. He gave a recital the week my father was dying. Three days before my father’s death I played the Brahms for him. He loved Brahms. I thought they might bring him some small comfort. I never imagined he’d really know who was playing or why. But he knew. He opened his eyes and said, “Oooohhhhh….” And nodded his head. I was horrified. My only comfort during that time was believing that he was unaware. But he wasn’t. He knew he was dying.
Nothing prepares you to watch your parent die.
In the moments before his final breath, I was writing an email then heard my mother say, “What honey? Are you leaving me?”And he was. He opened his eyes and his last ragged breath escaped his disease-addled frame. If there were ever a time to quote Marlon Brando from the final scene in Apocalypse Now, it was then. “The horror. The horror. The horror.” I used to say that and laugh. But at that moment I recognized the truth of it. No more laughs. Into the heart of darkness I go.
He may be in an afterlife, he may have ceased to exist
I stared at his corpse to remember it. I just needed to know what death looked like. It looked sort of like my Dad, but not really.Temple Grandin, when she first saw a cow die cried out, “But where did it go?” That’s what death looks like.
Tonight, it’s silent and still. My father used to wander the halls with his insomnia. I’d hear the floorboards creak beneath his feet. I’d slip out into the darkness and meet him in the kitchen, occasionally. We’d eat pretzels and talk. Sometimes there wouldn’t be much to say, we’d just munch.
I give up on sleep and creep downstairs to forage for something, though there are no more pretzels. I pass his office. He had a bed there where he lay when he was sickest. It’s still there, but for the first time I don’t expect to see him in it and instead of great sorrow, I know relief. His agony is no more. He could be in an afterlife, he may have ceased to exist. I may never know, but I can find comfort today in knowing his pain has ended.
A stillness fills the rooms.