Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Long Goodbye

I just cracked open my book of writing prompts to see if I could strike a spark tonight. The page I turned to said "write from the point of view of a person on their deathbed." I'm taking a liberty and writing about my point of view at my father's deathbed. This seems right tonight because there is a new baby in the family, and from the looks of him in photos...the old man might be back.

My dad was sick for a long time. By the summer of 2003, he was wasting away and it was getting harder for him to walk. He was getting weaker and thinner.I came home every weekend to a different person. It was a shock to me seeing how much a person, this person, could change from week to week. I didn't know how any of us were going to be able to let him go.

When he slipped into a coma, I went home to New Jersey and stayed for two weeks. I was in a staff meeting when the phone rang. It was my parents' number. They never called during the work day. I answered and heard my sister's voice. "Come home, it doesn't look good." Thank God for my coworkers who managed to call my boyfriend, get me home and take me to the train station in what felt like one huge gesture. I barely remember the train ride, but I remember Mike and I walking through Grand Central Station and seeing an exhibit of work by film students. There, in the middle of this horrible moment, in the middle of Grand Central Station, was an installation that reminded me I was still here. One lamp post, one umbrella and a screen playing Gene Kelly in Singing in the Rain. As I watched the scene Leonard Bernstein called "an affirmation of life," Mike squeezed my hand and told me it was a sign.

By the time I got to the apartment, it was full of people. Neighbors, family, friends, all crammed into the living room of my parents' tiny one bedroom and that's how it was all day, every day for seven days. My dad was in the bedroom, in a hospital bed, eyes closed, breathing deeply.I had always known him to be a big guy, but now he was literally half the man he had been for most of his life. In spite of the steady stream of visitors bringing food, stories and comfort, I spent most of time with him. I rubbed lotion on his feet, cleaned his face, gave him water and medicine through a syringe I imagine people use to give kittens milk. And I talked to him. I told him who was in the room, who had visited that day. I kept him informed because I knew he would want to know things. And I knew he could hear me. That's what I tell myself anyway. The hardest thing I had to tell him was that it was OK to let go. I assured him that we would take care of my mother and each other. I told him I would be OK without him (not that I believed it at the time, and not that he's not with me every day). That is the toughest one-sided conversation I have ever had. I didn't want him to let go. I wanted him to open his eyes and ask me for something, anything. I wanted him to tell me to turn the television on because he was missing the Yankees game. I wanted him to ask me why I wasn't at work. I would have settled for a "hey, there's my girl."

At the end of the first week, I thought I would come back to New Haven, catch up on a little work, pack some more clothes and get back to his side the same day. When I went into my parents' room that morning to give him his 6am dose of morphine, I heard it. That sound they call "the death rattle." He had been breathing quietly for about a week...this was a totally different sound. I knew I wasn't leaving that day, or any time soon. I closed the bedroom door to keep my mother from hearing it.

It was Monday, September 29th. For the first time in a week, the only people in the apartment were my father, my mother, my sister, my mother's best friend and me. The hospice nurse had been there earlier in the day to see how things were going. She was surprised he had lasted so long, especially since he hadn't eaten in over a week, but she also said it wouldn't be much longer.

When my brother came home from running errands, he went into the bedroom. It took me a minute to realize that it was quiet in the room. I didn't hear the breathing anymore. I looked in and saw my brother bent over my dad, listening. When I walked in,I looked at my father and saw him exhale for the last time. My brother turned to me and said, "That's it." I said "OK," and then I lost it. My sister walked in, saw us and went to get my mother. This is where things get mystical and strange. My mother, her friend and two other neighbor ladies walked into the room and started crying and praying. At that same moment, there was a bolt of lightning and a crack of thunder. As the women prayed, it began pouring. By the time they said "Amen," the rain had stopped, the sun was shining and the sky was clear. And he was gone. When the women took my mother out of the room, my brother said, "That was fucking weird." It was, but we all agreed later that there was no way he was going to go quietly. That just wasn't his style.

No comments: