He wasn’t the best father, but he was my father. When my sister called and asked me to accompany her and my brother to his deathbed, I went, even though I hadn’t spoken to my dad in 22 years. I did it, I thought, for my siblings. Turns out I really did it for me.
When we entered the room where my dad lay dying, he looked exactly like his father had 22 years before. His head, covered with silvery gray hair, was thrown back on the pillow, his mouth gaped open, and harsh, irregular breathing filled the room. Though the nurses said he could hear us, he was unresponsive.
Unlike my grandfather, who died at home in his living room, my father began his death in an intensive medical care unit. Outside the unit a sign warned us to wear masks due to a flu outbreak. He was on contact precautions so before we entered his room we added gowns and gloves to the masks that covered our faces. The constant beep of monitors and the intrusion of nurses to empty his catheter, titrate his medications, and turn and position him widened the space between us and him.
It was hard to break that space.
The death of a parent, even a parent that never embraced the traditional role and remained more of a Peter Pan man-child than a King Triton type of dad, is hard. When it’s a father you’ve only seen from a distance for the past 22 years, one you’ve ducked down grocery store aisles to avoid and maintained at least a one room separation from at family gatherings, it’s a little harder.
In Al-Anon they say one can detach with love or detach with dynamite. I’d always seen my choice, dynamite, as irrevocable. As I smoothed his hair, wrapped his hand around mine, and reminisced about our shared past, I realized I was wrong.
Even though it was too late to repair the damage done to our relationship, it wasn’t too late to remember the good times we once shared.
In the time we spent alone, I played him the songs we knew together and the ones I’d grown to love since then. Kenny Chesney sang “Boys of Summer” in the background and I talked about fall in New Hampshire, football games my older brother played in, and towns we had rivalries with. Willie Nelson crooned “Always on my Mind” while I told him about the toast my youngest gave at her sister’s wedding and how it reminded me of him. Craig Morgan sang “Almost Home” as I retold stories of the friends and family that had predeceased him. Over and over, I told him it was okay to let go.
But, he hung on.
The palliative care nurse practitioner said he wouldn’t survive once they stopped the medications, but the medications stopped and he didn’t. Then they said the ambulance ride to the hospice might kill him. One last road trip, I murmured as the stretcher rolled into the Florida sun and bumped up into the ambulance, yet still he hung on. We can keep him pain-free, they said at the hospice, but it might hasten his death. It doesn’t matter, we told them, yet in spite of the pain and anti anxiety medicine, he breathed on. We sat by his bedside and laughed, prayed, told stories, cried. We watched him take one agonizing breath after another and we held our breath each time they stopped. But he kept breathing.
It wasn’t until late the second night, with all of his children around his bed, that he opened his eyes, took one last breath, and died.
My clearest memory of childhood is my father’s lectures at the dinner table. He’d tell us look around this table, these are the only people you can trust. These are the only people who love you unconditionally and will love you even if you grow up to be a murderer, a rapist, or a thief. For years I joked about his low expectations for us instead of focusing on the other part, how much he loved us and how much he wanted us to love and look out for each other.
Perhaps he hung on to make sure we’d learned the lessons he’d taught us. Even me, the daughter who had ignored him for 22 years.
If we get to make our own heaven, I have no doubt he’s in a place where the Jameson flows freely and the stories and laughter never stop and he is surrounded by people who love him.
He wasn’t the best father, but he was my father, and, in the end, I loved him still.