It is the third of December. I sit by my Dad’s bedside holding his hand and watching him breathe, holding my breath as his stops for several seconds, only exhaling when he finally takes another faltering breath. I count: ten seconds of silence followed by a gasping breath, then fifteen seconds of shallow noisy breathing. Over and over the cycle repeats. His mouth opens and closes with a little pop on each exhale—“guppy breathing” the Hospice nurse calls it.
His left hand reaches up, as if grasping for something—or maybe pushing something away. I read to him: Jonathan Livingston Seagull, The Five People You Meet in Heaven. I wonder if the stories penetrate his mind, if even my voice reaches him. There is no change in his breathing and no apparent response. Still, I read because at least it feels like I’m doing something.
I see both of my brother’s faces in his, but I do not see my own. I used to see my eyes in his, but his eyes remain closed most of the time now. Even when open, the once clear blue eyes are now cloudy gray and focused on some other place and time than the room in which we sit. A few weeks ago, when he was still somewhat communicative, my Dad insisted that my brother Ray had been to visit. Ray died in August 2000. I tell my Dad Ray’s gone, he’s been gone a long time. “Gone where?” my Dad wants to know. When I suggest he may have visited from “the other side,” my Dad rolls his eyes as if I am the demented one. But this day, and for the last many days, there is no communication. Just this labored breathing.
A part of me is impatient for this to be over. This is not living. What part of him still holds on and why? I have recently been reassured that Cameron will be there for him when the time comes to cross over. I tell my Dad this—that Cameron will be there, that Ray will be there, that everything will be alright. I tell him he doesn’t have to fight anymore. He can relax. His work is over. I tell him—promise him—that it will be wonderful and peaceful where he’s going. I don’t know if my words get through. If they do, I imagine once again I’m getting an eye roll.
And then, remarkably, he rallies. For the past few days, he’s been more alert. He’s been able to eat a little. He’s been able to communicate minimally with one-word questions and answers: What? Why? Yes. No.
Perhaps I have been pushing too hard for him to let go. Perhaps he’s not as ready as I think I would be in his position. I am not expecting him to “recover”—his dementia is too far along for that kind of optimism. But maybe he’ll still be here for my birthday. Maybe he’ll still be here for Christmas. Who knows?
This watching and waiting, not knowing from one day to the next how he’ll be or if he’ll still be with us, is so draining. I wish there was something I could do that might make this easier for him.
I remember a fall evening when I was 13. I was really a wicked child at that age, all full of rebellion and contrariness. My mother and I fought constantly and I thought nothing of swearing at her and calling her every foul name I could think of. Somehow, my Dad always managed to stay out of it. I was already drinking and smoking at that age, unbeknownst to my parents.
This particular evening, I’d gone to a neighborhood carnival about a mile away from home with a friend of mine. We weren’t really interested in the carnival, but it made a good excuse for getting out of the house. I’d been there about an hour, hanging out and smoking cigarettes, when it started to get a little windy. I was just sitting there with my friend on a parking curb with a cigarette dangling from my hand when I heard my Dad’s voice behind me. “Do you need that to keep you warm?”
I jumped and dropped the cigarette. Shit! Caught smoking. And here was my Dad making some sarcastic remark about staying warm. I figured I was in for it now. I stood and turned to face him, and found he was simply holding out my sweater. He’d made a special trip over just to bring me my sweater because it was getting windy and chilly. I don’t know if he’d seen the cigarette in my hand, but it would have been hard to miss. At any rate, he never said a thing about it. Just handed me my sweater and went back home.
Somehow that evening stands out in my mind as one of my warmest (no pun intended) memories of Dad. That was his way—to gently provide simple comfort and security without getting caught up in the angst and drama of my teenage years. He was watching me make a transition from his baby girl to this wild and angry teenager. He was watching me make mistakes and bad decisions, but biting his tongue and letting me find my own way. He was letting me go and bringing me a sweater to keep me warm, all at the same time.
Oh, Daddy. I wish I had a magic sweater for you right now. Some perfect combination of holding on and letting go that could keep you warm and safe as you make this final transition. Because I can’t go with you, any more than you could go with me during those painful teenage years. I can only stand behind you, watching, and offering the warmth of my love.
Wishing you peace on the journey. . .