~This essay was first published in The Gettysburg Review (2012).
Early one morning in mid-May, my ninety-two-year-old father swallows three pills--two for his heart and one for anxiety brought on by his declining condition. He insists on taking the pills all at once, so my mother places them in his large, outstretched hand. In his other hand a glass of water trembles, the surface as troubled as if a small storm is brewing. He tosses the pills back, pouring the water after, then he gasps, inhales, and aspirates one, two, or perhaps all three into his lungs. We will never know for certain, and in the end it matters little. The sparse bedroom in their senior-citizen apartment already feels like a small stage, the tall rhododendrons outside the window a shadowy green backdrop.
Agitato--in an agitated manner
Within minutes my father shouts that his chest is on fire. “Call someone!” he tells my mother.
Taped to the kitchen wall is a large sign: Do Not Resuscitate. My father has signed the papers assuring the State of North Carolina that he wishes to forego any heroic measures. His body is worn; his mind wanders distant corridors. His heart malfunctions. Basic daily activities, like getting out of his chair to go to the bathroom, thoroughly exhaust him. A hospice nurse has been visiting for the past three months, providing support for my mother and comfort and pain relief for my father.
Several months ago as my mother was helping my father get ready for bed, he asked her, “Will I always be like this?”
In my family we veer down the nearest side road when such questions loom. My mother smiled and patted his arm. “Let’s get those teeth brushed,” she replied.
Another evening during their bedtime preparations, he stopped her to ask, “Will it be Wednesday?”
“What?” she asked, confused.
“When I die. Will it be on a Wednesday?”
She kissed his forehead and went back to helping him out of his T-shirt and into his pajama top.
He held his arms up for her like a compliant five-year-old. “I love you, you know,” he told her as she hooked up his oxygen and buttoned him in for the night.
For about a month now, he has been asking the same set of questions as evening lowers and the first stars appear. He starts by asking us to find his suitcase.
“It’s in the bedroom closet,” we say. Then we ask him why he needs it.
“To pack!” he tells us, his tone impatient, as if he is speaking to a room full of fools.
“Well, where are we going?” asks my mother, genuinely interested every time.
“Home!” he nearly shouts and looks at me with obvious expectation. I go get his suitcase and bring it into the living room.
From here he can tack in a couple of different directions. Sometimes he thinks he is still in the army and is worried about getting back to the base on time. Sometimes he is afraid he is missing a big acquisitions meeting and will ask me to do some research, report back to him about the company’s status. Most often he thinks we are all going to get on a train and travel back to Kentucky, where he first met my mother when he was sixteen and she fourteen, and his eye sparked over her, and she blushed beneath the warmth of it.
On this glorious spring morning, as he thrashes and flails, fluids are pooling in his lungs, the body’s response to the sudden invasion of foreign objects.
The mechanisms for survival are no less urgent at the end of life than at the beginning. Thus is accelerated my father’s long journey home.
My mother calls the hospice nurse, and she comes at once, her smile a thin ribbon as she plies the stethoscope to my father’s dampened chest. For some time now his waning health has conveyed him steadily downward.
One of his valves has become a defective doorway to the chambers of his heart, refusing to close all the way: a loose lintel, a warped jamb, rusty hinges, something any surgeon could repair if it were not for my father’s advanced years. Now blood flows backward against its own forward, forcing my father’s heart to work harder and depriving his brain of the oxygen necessary to help him hold onto the present moment. As a result he drifts like an astronaut tethered outside his own craft, looking on with confusion while his brain misfires more and more frequently.
His six-foot-three-inch frame and lovely broad shoulders had been a source of manly pride; now his size is his enemy. The vertebrae are compressed, brittle as chalk and veined with tiny fractures. The last time he was able to stand upright was three years ago.
Today he sounds as if he is breathing through a wet sponge, which, in fact, he is. Massive amounts of fluid bubble up from his lungs. The hospice nurse suctions out his mouth, and the oxygen machine labors to keep up. At one point his eyes meet the nurse’s, and she gives him a quick, sad smile. He blinks and looks away.
As we move through the day, from time to time his arms fly out to his sides, and he calls, “Help me! I’m falling!”
One of us comes to put a hand on his arm, his chest, to remind him, “You’re in your bed, Dad. You’re okay.” For a while he is soothed, then his arms go out again, a flightless bird caught in free fall.
In between bouts of being airborne, he sings to himself--“The Whiffenpoof Song,” “Show Me the Way to Go Home,” and college fraternity songs from his days at Brown. He gurgles, and I realize he is trying to laugh. I join in on a few of the songs, the ones he taught me when I was a teenager, when he and I would sing at the top of our lungs, flying down the highway in his XK140 Jaguar convertible, the wind coming at us from all sides.
“Old Mother Hubbard, she went to the cupboard
To get her poor daughter a dress;
But when she got there, the cupboard was bare
And so was her daughter, I guess.”
We run out of songs. I can tell he is exhausted, but his eyes are wide, and every so often he scans the ceiling, peering into the corners. A couple of times he looks dead ahead, his eyes alight with recognition. He smiles and nods, moves his lips. He is conversing with someone he is glad to see. The hair on my arms prickles, and I stare at the empty air that is the focus of his rapt attention.
Morning crosses the threshold into afternoon. My mother and I take a quick lunch break, picking at cheese and crackers, bread and fruit from her half refrigerator in the half kitchen that doubles as the apartment’s entrance.
In the other room my father becomes quiet and naps. We exchange places, he and I. Now I am the one flailing while he becomes more calm. I have to leave the room often, going into the spare bedroom and shutting to door so I can cry into a pillow, roaring gasps that leave me feeling ill.
It is dark now, and we turn on a few lamps, filling the small apartment with a soft glow. My children arrive, stricken. They come to the bedside, take his hand, announce their presence, their adult voices small and sad. He opens his eyes and smiles at them, then drifts away again, but his legs are jumpy beneath the sheets.
As the evening progresses, his breathing becomes more labored, the rattle of fluids like far-off gunshots popping in the night air. We prop him with pillows, but in his agitation he pushes them away. At last the hospice nurse calls for a hospital bed, and within twenty minutes two men, one large and one small, are assembling the parts in the small space between my parents’ bed and their bathroom. It takes four of us to transfer him, sliding him on a double-folded sheet. Even though he has lost a lot of weight, he is so much heavier than we expect.
“There’s still a lot of Walter,” my mother says, watching from the doorway. He doesn’t speak, but he gives the back of my arm a ferocious pinch, and I know we are hurting him.
“I’m sorry, Daddy,” I say and see the confusion, the sense of betrayal in his eyes. As he lands flat in the hospital bed, he gives a soft grunt. The nurse presses a button to raise his head.
We fluff the pillows, tuck him in, secure his oxygen for the night.
My children leave.
My mother finally cries.
We fall into the double bed next to him. At long last we all sleep.
Colle Part--follow the rhythm and tempo of a solo performer,
usually for a short passage
By morning my father is nearly sideways in the hospital bed, his night flights bearing him places we cannot know.
“Can you help us, Dad?” I call out to him from what must be far off. He looks back at me, his expression flat, and we struggle to move his weight.
It takes two of us pushing hard to slide him back onto his pillows and swing his long legs around and into the bed. His respiration is ragged and wet. Now it seems he is learning to fly and breathe underwater at the same time in order to accommodate the new world where he is going,
He puts a hand on my arm and peers at me. “Who are you?” he asks, his tone polite.
“It’s me, Dad,” I say.
“Oh, okay.” He is as nonchalant as if I have surprised him in our TV room back in our old Ohio farmhouse, interrupted a football game, third and goal with the goddamned Green Bay Packers leading. He is glad to hear from me, but he is focused elsewhere. He goes back to watching the ceiling and corners. Watching and dozing.
My children return, greet him with tentative kisses. We pile pillows on the bed next to him and climb in, creating an enormous nest. My mother perches in a chair at his bedside, laying her head along his right knee and draping one small hand over his leg. She drifts in half sleep while he twitches and picks at the covers. His breath comes in rasping gusts, and his eyes flick open and stay closed, flick open and stay closed.
I wrap myself in his favorite old sweater, inhaling his scent as I try to contemplate what my life will be like in a world where he is not. The sweater is rain-cloud gray, a cabled cocoon. He wears it every day. Or wore.
I decide it is time to deliver the speech I have been rehearsing for months.
I tell him what a wonderful father he has been, what a great person and an inspiration to others. I thank him for all he has taught me, for his confidence in me and what I could accomplish, for showing me how to laugh at myself and encouraging me to aim high, for teaching me how to swing a hammer and snap a plumb line. For giving me his passion for reading and literature, for his love of irony and hilarity and his tender, tender heart.
It all sounds different than I expected coming out of my mouth now, interspersed with sobs and hiccups. I am embarrassed at how absurd I sound, how melodramatic, as if I am a bad actress in a hastily thrown-together play.
“I just wanted you to know, Dad,” I tell him and press my lips on his paper-dry forehead. He does not speak. His eyes stay closed, and I feel the tug of him drifting away.
Adagio--at ease; slowly
The hospice nurse suctions more fluid from my father’s mouth, but his breathing is worse. I see by her eyes it will not be much longer. She whispers to my mother, pointing to the oxygen machine. “We could turn this off, if you’d like.”
My mother looks relieved. After hours of sitting, there is something we can do. “He doesn’t really need it, does he?” she asks.
It is shocking how quiet the room becomes. The silence roars, thunders around us, and dead smack in the middle is my father rattling like a percolator.
From seven hundred miles away, my sister calls. My father’s strangled voice is muted by layers of fluid, but with everything he has left he is trying to talk to her.
I hear her voice, tinny and sad through the airwaves: “I love you, Dad.”
He gargles at her and nods, closing his eyes, and I take the phone, return it to the cradle.
After this, he drifts farther below the surface, down and down and away from the light. He will not speak again.
Al Niente--to nothing; fade to silence
By now it is early evening, the following day. My father breathes in small shallow puffs, taking in delicate inhalations, releasing them as if they are clouds, or feathers. My son counts them, twenty a minute, then fifteen. I put my head to his chest and can hear the clear but irregular beats of his heart, like footsteps of a child half-skipping along a walkway, and I am torn between wanting to hold onto him and wishing he would go on and get it over with. In fact, we have been telling him to go, encouraging him, assuring him we will all be all right, promising my mother will be cared for, but it seems he has paid us no mind, and so we stop, moving together to a place that is beyond words, to rhythm and breath and the soft scratching of a bird under the window and my son’s wristwatch ticking away the seconds and my daughter’s small stirring in her sleep as she naps and the blood whooshing in my ears. We sit and watch him and do not move.
Then my mother speaks.
I don’t know what she is saying because I have my head on my father’s silent chest. “He’s not breathing,” I say.
She keeps talking, saying something about something.
“He’s not breathing,” I say again, and we all lean forward. There is the shallowest exhale. Everything is utterly still.
“I think there will be one more,” the nurse says, drawing close, and we wait.
Then from my father’s mouth, which we are all watching as if we will actually be able to see the departure, comes the barest whisper that is so quiet it is like the last drifting snowflake on a field of snow. The silence holds for a moment and then comes a rough jolt as his lungs involuntarily fill.
But he has already crossed over.
In the tree just outside the window, a cardinal gives one loud piercing call, and then all is quiet again.
Con Amore--with love
Nothing seems real. We are weeping; we are like lost children. We look to the hospice nurse for what to do next. She tells us to take our time. I cannot stop weeping, laying my head against my dead father and wanting him back, all the way back, with his long, strong arms and sparks of blue eyes and wide, happy grin, saying, “Let’s take a drive!” and reaching for his suede driving cap, taking us all on a jaunt, far away from here.
“What do we do now?” I am asking anybody who knows.
After a moment the hospice nurse speaks. “Would you like to wash the body?”
I had a friend who did this with his father. When he told me about it, I wanted to push him, hard, and tell him to keep his awful stories to himself. Now my mother looks at me, and I look at her, and we nod in agreement, both of us surprised at ourselves. We say yes and leave the room so the nurse can make preparations.
I think of my father bathing me when I was a child, his hands moving a rough washcloth over my back. I remember how safe I felt with his hand on me and the warm water slipping over my arms. I hear water running and the nurse humming to herself. I peek into the room in time to see her applying a razor to my father’s freshly lathered cheek. She is talking to him in a soft voice, and somewhere I feel a sharp resentment. I back away from the door, feeling strange, unhinged.
A while later the nurse calls us back into the room. We enter and see my father lying naked, his long legs relaxed and torso straight so we see his marvelous full height. His face is clean shaven, and his high, sharp cheekbones are glossy with lotion. The nurse has filled two large bowls with warm, soapy water. She hands us washcloths, and we begin.
I am stunned to see how old and wrinkled my father is, to see the scars and the sagging skin and at the same time to see he is still so beautiful, that his body is still fine and elegant, that even in death he seems powerful, virile. I work hard to pay attention, knowing this is good-bye. From here he will go to the crematorium.
Washing my father, I am flooded with childhood memories--of strong arms lifting me up and swinging me around; of riding on his shoulders through the clear aquamarine waters of the Gulf of Mexico, out to the second sandbar where we gathered conchs and starfish; of running to keep up with his long stride; of my head against his broad chest, hearing his heart and his breathing and falling asleep there, sinking into the comfort of his protection and love.
When we have finished, we rub him all over with a clean-scented aloe lotion and dress him in blue chino pants and a light-blue sports shirt. He looks as if he is napping, his hands on his chest, fingertips just touching. I can’t help myself--I watch for movement, knowing I won’t see any but also knowing I have never seen my father dead before, that it will take some getting used to.
The men from the funeral home arrive, bringing a stretcher with a blue plastic body bag. They are in no hurry and stand in the front room talking with us about the weather and several mutual acquaintances. When we run out of things to say, someone takes a deep breath, and the nurse points to the bedroom. “He’s in there.”
Now things get cloudy. I am unable to watch this part, but when they move my father’s body, the stretcher makes a harsh mechanical complaint. I hear them zip him into the body bag, and then they wheel him out of the bedroom and into the front room. The bag covers everything but his face.
My mother says, “I don’t want my last memory to be seeing him go out the door like this,” but she stands there anyway, looking at him.
My children and I walk with him, out the door, down the hallway, through a side corridor to a private side exit. Along the way three times I ask the undertakers to stop so I can smell my father’s cheek, inhale his scent, remember, remember, remember.
Then we are at the door. Then we are at the stairs. Then we are at the hearse. Then I press my lips to his cheek. Then they close the body bag, and my father disappears.
My children and I stand and watch as they slide the stretcher into the back of the vehicle and drive away with him. The taillights disappear around the corner of the building, leaving us in darkness. There are no stars tonight.
Three days later I go pick up my father’s ashes. The container is heavy, and I have to carry it with both hands. “We’re going home, Walter,” I say, hardly able to take in my own words.
When I get back to her apartment, my mother says, “Should we look?”
“What do you think?” I say.
“I think we should look.”
I put the container on my mother’s lap. We open it and unseal the plastic bag, peering down at the dense gray dust and bits of bone that look like small pieces of gravel. My mother dips her fingers, picks up and sifts through the ashes of her husband of sixty-seven years.
“That’s a whole lot of Walter,” she says, her voice filled with a sad wonder.
I put my hand in, too, feeling the grit. None of this seems real. I think I hear my father cough from the other room, and the earth tilts slightly on its axis.
“Here, you can go ahead and take it away,” says my mother, and I lift the container, reseal the plastic bag, and replace the lid.
“Where do you want him?” I ask. My mother shrugs. Her small shoulders sag, and there are dark circles under her eyes. I put my father in his recliner and wrap his gray sweater around, and my mother nods.
Looking at my hand I realize I have my father’s ashes underneath my fingernails and over my hands. On impulse I go to the sink but stop, realizing I cannot rinse my father down the drain. Beside the sink is some of the aloe lotion we used on his body. I squeeze several drops onto my hands and rub the lotion around, massaging him into my skin, around and around and around until I am certain I have absorbed him completely.
Rebecca Gummere’s work has appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, O, The Oprah MagazineAlimentum, Crack the Spine, The Gettysburg Review, The Rumpus, the New South Journal, the Waccamaw Journal, and Brevity's Nonfiction Blog.She is a two-time Pushcart nominee and has twice been awarded North Carolina Regional Artist Project Grants (2013 and 2015). She has also been the recipient of a Fellowship from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA). She has taught at Appalachian State University, worked for a domestic violence/rape crisis agency, and in another life served three Lutheran pastorates. She blogs at http://www.chasinglight-ajourney.com/, chronicling her cross-country trip in a small RV with two large dogs and not enough books. She is working on a memoir about the trip.