When I was 23, I completely shaved my head. In part I was inspired by Sinead O'Connor and Ani Difranco. I also was suffering hair loss from stress and a vegan diet. So i decided to embrace it like the hard core 90s feminist that I was and give the middle finger to beauty standards. I had just enough hutzpah to flip the bird to the entire world...but not to my dad. I had moved back home with my parents post college, so there was no hiding the loss of my crowning glory. He loved my long golden hair, and called me Buttercup. I stayed out late, calling my mom to let her know what I had done, and to not let Dad know until the morning.
I sat cringing at the breakfast table the next day like it was judgement day, steeling myself for the furious response I was sure would come. Dad entered the kitchen with a scowl and, without looking at me, proceeded to fix his bowl of cereal. Coffee and flakes in hand he approached the table and looked up for the first time. His eyebrows lifted. His eyes twinkled. He snorted and said, "You look like Peter Pan.". My dad became the biggest supporter of my new style, letting it revolutionize his own ideas about how a woman could be in the world. That eyebrow lift became part of a secret communication between us, one I would receive through the decades of adulthood, his way of acknowledging that I had startled him by changing, and that he liked it.
I thought that I would write about my last moments with my father long before now. The memories and words that belonged to them rolled around in my mouth like marbles for months. But instead of sending them skittering across the floor of this blog or social media, I have kept them in an invisible treasure box that I carry with me everywhere I go. No one knows that I'm not empty handed. I might be carrying groceries, an errant chicken or my exponentially growing daughter, but my other arms, the ones you can't see, hold this box in front of my heart, in a reverent pose, like a zen monk walking meditatively with a rice bowl.
Each morning I awake with a jaw sore and tired from the effort of clamping my mouth shut all night long, my tongue glued to the roof. So much left unspoken, but where is the space for it in the face of a Trump presidency and the seeming unravelling of the world? I still write...stories that I don't share, and I still speak...but the most important words are whispered in ritual and prayer, in private moments when I take counsel with my ancestors, continuing conversations that are only for us to hear. But those last moments with my father, they clatter about in the box and every few days I am startled to realize that I haven't told our story. The one about the culmination and confirmation of that most blood and bone deep relationship, the one about the terrible beauty of bearing witness to the death of a parent, and being left with nothing but a love that blots out every untruth.
My dad had been dying, actively dying, for a year, but it masqueraded as normal dementia. Physical symptoms were hidden, and we were all filled with dread that the suffering of both my parents...my dad trapped in the jail cell of paralyzation from stroke and my mother in the jail cell as sole caretaker...would go on indefinitely. Two months before he died, my mother hit her limit and decided it was time he move to a nursing home. The transition was chaotic, filled with medical emergencies as his health suddenly deteriorated as his true decline came to light. The conversation rapidly went from "Is a nursing home really best for Dad" to "You should get on the next available flight". My daughter and I were at the river when I got that phonecall. 45 minutes later we were driving to SFO.
We had some of the best conversations of our relationship during that last year. My dad and I had many talks throughout my life, on topics about his experience in WWII, the parallels between Christ's teachings and Buddhism, how to find one's path in life, the values of being an old school fiscal Conservative and many, many stories from his childhood in Maine. I often loved our talks, which could be expansive and deep. I also avoided getting locked in conversation with my dad, because they had a tendency to be lopsided in one direction...I would do the listening and he would do the talking. He was never the best at truly listening to what was happening in my life, and would quickly turn the conversation back to himself. However, when it really mattered, my dad did listen to my troubles with a wisely compassionate heart and keen insight. He was a master at the pep talk and his favorite saying, "illegitimi non carborundum" became a lynch pin of my confused crawl in navigating life, relationships and career search in San Francisco as a young woman.
But our last few handfuls of conversation were different. Dad asked a lot more questions, about things he had never been curious about before. How was my garden? How were my chickens? Did I like living on a horse ranch? Did my daughter like school? Deprived of the highly intellectual faculties that sparkled with his genius and wit, instead he asked questions from the heart and he really listened with interest. And then he would ask me the same exact question one minute later with renewed curiosity. He told me new stories about his past, some hard to verify, others completely fabricated, but also as real to him as dreams are when you're asleep. Sometimes he would call me in distress. He knew something was wrong, he felt crazy or maybe everyone else was, but he couldn't find his way through the confusion. For weeks he was on a train, one he couldn't get off and couldn't get to stop. I ran interference for him, letting him know I would call the train company and find out the schedule, or order a different sleeping car or meal for him. I would call him back with the updated information, and the news that my mother would bring him a complimentary cocktail from the dining car. It felt stupid to lie to him, but it was better than trying to argue with his reality, which only made us sad and made him livid. I also understood on a feeling level exactly what was going on. My dad WAS on a train, speeding towards a destination that he was not choosing on a schedule he did not like. He was stuck in his seat, out of control and the whole business was being operated by inept morons. I think anyone would feel the same if their world was relegated to a paralyzed body and mind, marooned in bed or in an armchair in front of a tv., while the end of our life bore down on us.
Each time, before I hung up the phone, my dad and I spent several minutes telling each other how much we loved each other. I told him over and over until I knew that he really got it, that he really knew. Each time I told him I loved him like it would be the last, because I knew that it could.
By the time I was able to be with my dad in hospice, he was already wandering inner caverns, kept down in the depths by morphine. When he heard my voice, he stirred for the first time in days, but then quickly slipped below again. Thus began the vigil of waiting and watching, sometimes with acute, unbearable presence, sometimes with sorrowful boredom. I sat and held his hand as much as I could, letting my heart stretch and break to hold it all. He went for days without food, five days without water, his tongue shriveling with dryness. They gave us little sponges on a stick to bathe his mouth with, and though seemingly unconscious, he would bite down and suck all the moisture out of them. I questioned the use of morphine, I railed internally against his advance directive that said we were to let him die. Were we letting him die, or killing him? I didn't know, and still don't. But I do know that I sat there, that I cared about his comfort and I witnessed, available for every last moment.
He awoke. I said, "Hi Dad, it's Mary. I'm here with Fern.". He smiled. I told him I loved him. He said, "I love YOU.". He smiled at Fern. "Love Fern.".
He awoke. He tried to talk to me, but couldn't get out the words, he became distressed. I told him it was ok, that sometimes words just made it harder, that I understood. He nodded his head.
He awoke. I started sobbing. Forehead crinkling in concern, he whispered "What...what...". I realized he didn't know that I was crying because he was dying. I tried to smooth it over. Still holding his hand, I turned my head away to try to get Fern to come over. Although seemingly weak, he yanked my hand with shocking strength, turning me back around. He didn't want me to leave. He didn't want me to turn away. He wanted me to stay. So I stayed.
He awoke. I was wearing a hat. He looked up at the brim, and raised his eyebrows, our secret communication. "I'm wearing a hat." I grinned. His eyes sparkled. "Do you want to try it on?" He smiled as it slipped down over his eyes. I put it back on my head, both of us still smiling. He nodded. He saw me. I had unexpectedly changed, and he liked it.
He didn't awake again. Still I held his hand. I played some of his favorite songs on an iphone, including "Anchors Aweigh", and gripping me he pumped his fist like he would do when particularly moved by a piece of music, playing the part of the great conductor, the maestro. My brother brought in a world class hawaiian slide guitar player, and with ukulele accompaniment, they gave my dad a fond Aloha. He didn't respond.
Almost a week without water and still he didn't die. The hospice nurses checked his feet for signs of organ failure, but everything still looked normal. They gave him more morphine. My mom went home to feed the cat. My brother and daughter sat coloring in a corner. I wandered the room, feeling lost. Then I felt another yank, like the one he gave my hand, like a lift of the eyebrows, a secret communication. I looked over at him, and he wasn't breathing. This was it.
The breath returned, but in shorter, more infrequent intervals. Long enough for me to pick up his hand, for my brother and daughter to gather around. Long enough for me to call out over and over, "I love you dad. We're here. It's ok. I love you dad. We're here..."
The very last specifics, I can't share, those last moments of here and then pause, of nowhere and everywhere at once. But what I can share, is this...
All my life, I was afraid of my dad's death. Having a father as old as a grandfather brought with it significant gifts and also a sense of imminent departure. From the time I became aware of death as reality, I dreaded my father's passing. All daughters see their dad as an enigma, but I'm not exaggerating when I say that mine truly was. He had a brilliant mind and a sharp wit. Coming from a long line of generals, he had leadership qualities that sometimes strayed into dictatorship. He told wonderful stories, and loved to receive a good yarn, especially if it was funny and maybe a little bit dirty. He played by the rules except when he thought they were stupid and he didn't suffer fools. Being in my dad's presence was like stepping back in time, to an era when things were done in a proper way, when the world made more sense. He was a keeper of knowledge and lineage, of different ages and sensibilities. I knew that when he died, he would take all of it with him. All I ever wanted, and I prayed for it over and over, was that I be there when he packed his bags and left. I wanted to be by his side, holding his hand, for him to know that I was there. While it doesn't make up for the loss I feel, I am forever blessed for having this one wish fulfilled.
The day he was cremated, it was nearly two weeks after he passed. We hadn't been told when it would happen, but I knew the exact moment when it did. I was sitting outside with the chickens under the shade of a tree, sketching a plant and researching herbs. Just a moment before the air had been still, but suddenly it kicked up, swirling around me and rattling the leaves on the tree. My dad was here, but he was also everywhere. flowing into and out of my heart, suffusing every molecule, spreading out across the countryside and over the horizon. Then the wind stopped, and I knew that a threshold had been crossed.
Since then, his presence is more diffuse, occasionally arising in an acute manner, like when I took my MFT exam, or while researching geneaology. Mostly now, I am left with the sense that he is gone, that he was, but not is, that we were, but no longer are. Still, every morning I sit down with him here at my desk, light a candle and look at his picture. And mostly I try to not let the bastards get me down. Because I had this Dad that really loved me, and the certainty of that blots out all the untruth of self doubt.
It's an unexpected change, and he would have liked it.
*One of my dad's favorite jokes.