My father passed away this week. He was sick. I’m really sad about it.
These essays began in December with a lofty description of how I feel about it. Dementia seemed like such a surreal condition. His world was impenetrable. His last, thankfully brief, slide into decline was unexpectedly abrupt. In the end, his disease, whatever variety of dementia-causing brain disorder it might have been, turned out to be a wasting disease.
His last days mirrored his father’s last days: Propped up with a pillow behind his head. A steady stream of morphine keeping him comfortable. His body, a hollow shell of soft, translucent skin covering only bones. Care-takers using a little sponge on a stick to moisten lips he could no longer direct to close around decades-old teeth.
David and I both took our children to see Dad in the days and even hours before he passed. I think the kiddos were very affected, though as bona fide members of the teen/tween class they were characteristically quiet as to if the experience was moving or not. Seeing Dad in that state sure affected me. Much more than I was expecting.
We got the call early on a Tuesday morning. Mom went to pick David up and I met them at the nursing home. I was twenty or so minutes ahead of them. So I sat alone with his body, so clearly bereft of the soul of the man he was. Off-white polyester hospice-provided sheets surrounded his slim form. Someone from the nursing home had placed his hands folded over his chest before I arrived. I don’t know what heaven looks like, but as I sat there, next to him, I imagined his own Elysian fields.
More specifically, I imagined Elysian summer lake days. I imagined perfectly smooth water, little white clouds floating in a sun-soaked sky. I can hear his loud and strong voice yell, “Hit it!” Then his confident lurch, step-starting on one ski out into blue beyond blue waters. His father at the wheel. Though her journey to these Elysian plains will be decades hence, in the boat he can see looking back at him the bikini-clad visage of my mom, youthful and smiling.
I can’t stop crying when I think of his beautiful soul water skiing into eternity. I can’t.
I am surprised by this. We all knew what was coming. We could see it happening. There wasn’t a mystery – plenty of preamble. Yet, the difference between him being in the world, and him not being in the world is profound and remarkably stark. The feeling part of me can’t register that he’s gone.
My earliest memory of my father is him sitting at the edge of my bed, playing guitar and singing to me. I think he did this for David, too. He sang Puff the Magic Dragon, and Little Boxes, and It’s All Over Now Baby Blue. The last weeks before he moved to the nursing home, Mom couldn’t get him to bed, so I would come over and settle him in. We got his blankets sorted out, until he could finally relax his body. Then my mom would go to bed and by the dim yellow light of the bedside table I would read to him until he fell asleep. We read tall tales – Paul Bunyun, John Henry. We read poems by Emily Dickenson. Sometimes he didn’t want to be read to and we’d just be there together, circling through time together, the loop closed when I read and tell stories to my children at bedtime.
I would stay, after the light was turned out, until I was sure he was asleep, just as I did for each of my children once upon a time. In the dark I would try and divine his dreams – a convoluted miasma of images and portends: crouched over a yellow dappled green leaf of a grape vine. The smell of soil and moisture, everywhere. Paperwork, which dominated his life, threatening the peace of his slumber.
And silence. I would sit in the dark next to the fading light of my father and wish for him that the maze of dementia would just be silent for a few hours as he slept. Just a few hours of peace. Now, as much as I wish he could be in the world, I hope beyond hope that he’s there, on the water, tow-rope handle in one hand, floating as if flying – the confines of his frail body left behind. At peace, at last.