My father died on May 4th, one year ago today. It only took me a year to write this.
"What do you mean?" I asked, scurrying down the stairs and hopefully out of ear shot of both my daughters, one of whom was long since asleep, the other just starting her turn at hosting the merciless stomach bug that had been plaguing our home, like a serial sadist, for weeks.
"Cindy just called me. He's not breathing. The ambulance is on the way."
Nancy, my dad's primary care giver, at this moment hours away from where this was all going down, was crying. Now I was crying too. No matter how much you are expecting to get a call like this one day, which, considering the circumstances, I was... it still blindsides you when it comes.
"What should I do? Should I go there now?"
"I don't know."
"I'll hang up and call the house."
I heard the sound of Esther, 13, throwing up into a basin, upstairs. Oh my poor child. Knowing Ian, my husband, was taking care of her, I stayed downstairs and called my parents' house. My brother answered the phone.
"What's happening?" I asked.
"I don't know. I just got here."
"Is the ambulance there?"
"I better let you go, then. Please call me when you know something."
I paced the living room manically. Back and forth. "What do I do? What can I do?"
It was nearly 11 o'clock. We would have normally all been sound asleep if it weren't for this stomach bug. I was aching, every fiber, to go to my family, my first family. But I didn't have the heart to explain to Esther why I was disappearing. My child needed her mother. I needed mine.
The phone rang.
“Daddy’s gone,” my brother’s voice over the phone floated into my ear.
“Daddy’s gone,” he said again.
“What do we do now. What do we do?” I asked, not sure, entirely unrehearsed in the act, the art, the language of letting go of a loved one.
"What do we do?"
What an odd question and one that most often comes to people's lips in times like these. What do we do? The real question is, how do we be? And the answer is not what anyone wants to hear. There is nothing we can do, but be, and feel the crush of it. Face the loss, the dark hole, the sucking vacuum, that now appears each time you try to conjure up your father.
I’m a grown woman. A mother of two. And my father is the first person who was close to me, so close as to be a part of me, me a part of him, to die.
I am lucky. Blessed. Spoiled. Inexperienced. Lost.
With Esther so sick upstairs, I was paralyzed with maternal ambivalence. What do I do? I cannot tell this poor retching teen that her favorite Papa, the only Papa she got to meet, died just minutes ago.
Ian came downstairs and I told him, with my blubbering face pushed into his neck, my father was dead, that he had stopped breathing, then his heart had just stopped. Just like that, he was gone. We heard sounds of Esther throwing up again. Ian went upstairs.
I paced some more, then went upstairs and sneaked into the bedroom and sat down on the edge of the bed, my bed, where Esther lay. I put my hand on her back as she moaned. This particular stomach bug doesn't quit until it's turned you inside out and wrung your guts dry. I looked at Ian, my eyes searching for a clue how to handle this, how to be the consoling mom at the same time I was being the heartbroken daughter, the baby.
"She knows," Ian mouthed to me. Esther had guessed what happened, not one to miss any nuance, and he confirmed it.
Freed from the confines of pretense and normalcy, I gathered a few things -- a sleeping bag, some extra clothes-- how long would I be gone?--and drove off into the balmy spring night.
It was 11 o'clock. The night was black, warm and breezy. Rain spattered on the windshield and I thought about something Esther had said just recently, about the way it's always raining in movies when something bad happens. We both love the rain and don't like to see it get a bad rap. The rain that fell on my windshield and blackened the road before me wasn’t ominous. It was gentle and soothing.
The road stretched, relentless and dark, before my headlights. I drove slowly. Fragile. Insecure in my new world. I was shaking. Adrenalin galloped through my veins. My heart was rushing, but my mind was not. I was wary, unsure of what I would find on the other side of my journey. I was not convinced the physical reality of my lifeless father was something I wanted or needed to rush to.
I played the radio loud. Every song seemed good and cathartic, fitting. I tried to cry, but my eyes stayed dry.
I arrived on Cottage Street, my childhood home, to find two police cars in front of the house. I parked across the street, grabbed my things, and walked slowly past one of the policemen--why was he there? up the front walk. Light spilled out of every window. The front screen door was ajar. Even though it was early May, it felt like summer. Finally. The winter my dad had cursed for the past six months, had officially ended.
The window shade in my parents' new downstairs bedroom was pulled two thirds of the way down. The window was open. I could see his bed and the shape of his body lying in it, through the screen.
I walked into the front hall, put my things down on the floor and turned the corner into the bedroom hall. I saw my oldest sister standing over my father at the edge of the bed. Another sister standing beside her, and my brother in a chair at the foot of the bed. My mother was in a chair next to the far side of the bed.
Averting my eyes from the sight of my father, lying, mouth open and so still, I went straight to my mother, leaned over, buried my head into her neck, and cried. I felt self conscious doing this, as if I was asking my mother for comfort and sympathy, when it was she who was suffering one of the biggest losses of her life. Father. Husband of almost 60 years. Can we quantify?
I don't remember what I or anyone said. I remember my oldest sister crying and kissing my father's forehead. I remember my sisters working together to put my father's pajama pants on. The atmosphere in that room was surreal. Like being encased in a fish bowl filled with water.
And we stayed in that tiny fish bowl for most of the night. We laughed, we cried, we talked, we planned, we waited for my sister Nancy, my father's loyal companion for the past three years, to arrive. She was three hours away. She had left my father's side to go back to work, at our urging, for the first time in over a year.
In hindsight, it makes sense that Dad had to wait for Nancy to go away before he went.
My brother went outside to tell the police and the funeral director to stop hovering and go home. No one was taking our father's body anywhere until all of us had said our goodbyes.
We made Mom go lie down on the couch.
Nancy finally came screeching in around 2 a.m., playing Chuck Mangione's Feel So Good, one of dad's favorite songs, on her iPhone. We could hear her talking to mom in the living room before she came into the bedroom.
"Did you drive too fast?" my mother asked her. "Like a fucking rocket," she responded.
We all laughed. Dad would have laughed too. He appreciated a well-timed F-bomb.
She came to Dad's bedside and put the iPhone, still playing his song, up to his ear.
"You won, Dad," she said. "You beat the Alzheimer's and you beat the cancer. You won."
No one's eyes were dry.
We kept him all night. We put mom to bed. Andy went home. Sally and Cindy slept on the couch, and Nancy and I slept on the floor of the bedroom where he died and still lay. As weird as it felt to spend the night in that room with my dead father, I couldn't leave him. Not yet.
The next morning, I watched the men slide him from the bed where he died onto a gurney.
I watched the men carry the gurney out of the house, carefully zipping the forest-green bag all the way closed only just before they slid him into the back of the long black car. Then they closed the door and drove away with him.
But I know it wasn't really my father. It was only a shell. An old tree trunk which had been hollowed out from the inside, its bark thin, no longer being renewed from within.
The sapwood and heartwood, what had been inside, the part of my father I could touch and feel and know, had already left in the night. I swear I felt it pass over my head as I lay in a sleeping bag on the floor of his room.
The windows were open and it had been calm all night. Except for that moment when I was snapped awake by a banging sound. A whoosh of air came through the room, strong enough to send the notebook--open and resting on the radiator in front of the east-facing window-- fluttering open like birds wings.
Then it was calm again. (The next morning Nancy confirmed she saw, felt, heard it too.)
Having heard, felt and witnessed what seemed like a departure, I felt kind of numb seeing my father's body taken away in a bag. "He's not really in there," I thought to myself. "That's not really my father."
But having him gone, spirit and body, means a hole has been left behind. A hole big enough and deep enough I can hear my own voice, and often his, echoing inside it.