The Last Gift
Originally published in Tin House
January 20th, 2000, The Netherlands
Believe it or not, nobody objected. Not one of us stood up in the bedroom and said, “Don’t kill him.” Neither did anybody else in the house for that matter, the cleaning lady, the unobtrusive nurse. We all accepted my father’s fate with eyes wide open and mouths shut. Imagine us grateful, if you can.
It was logical that the undertaker never made a fuss. He was accustomed to death and more, made a living from it. For him to say, “Don’t kill him” would be counterproductive. The minister would have objected, surely, if we had invited him that day. But the minister had only been welcome the previous day or the day before that—in the end I lost track. The man of God had come into the bedroom to bless my father’s second marriage, which hadn’t taken place in a church. My father’s second wife, a lapsed Catholic, imagined that the blessing would somehow console (save? validate?) her after her husband’s death. And perhaps it did. Who knows what luminous thoughts hold back the dark?
On a different day, before or after the blessing, my father picked out his coffin. Nobody objected to this either. An emaciated, bed-ridden man, fifty-three years old, flipping through folders, demanding prices. Strange, yes. Unjust, of course. But we accepted the situation, because taking control of his death sparked something inside my father we thought had long died. Now we saw he was not beaten. Not yet or not anymore. There was a niche, however small, in which he could be in charge, making decisions. As we planned the brief future together, we tried to match his manner by remaining light-hearted and rational. There would be a small-scale cremation and a large-scale memorial party. We would have balloons and mimosas! (But not with fresh orange juice or real champagne for that would be a waste of money.)
“All these sweet people,” my father said, “what a shame I can’t be there.”
Without too much effort, I could see my own mouth in his.
Naturally, our victory was short-lived. At the hour of truth, nerves ran every which way, but they ran invisibly. As nothingness approached, we kept our cool. We waited like Blue Helmets, peacekeeping soldiers, searching for meaning in the absurd. We wanted to fight but where were our weapons? I remember sighing under the weight of missing words.
The doctor arrived on time. She put her black bag on a wicker chair and explained the process calmly. First this, then that. We nodded like apt pupils. Two types of drugs through intravenous injections. Sleepiness. Breathing would cease and eventually the heart. Objections did not exist; they were wiped off our planet along with our hopes for his survival. Did anyone offer the doctor a cup of tea?
We took our places. The wife pulled up a stool and claimed her husband’s head. She would share the head and the left hand with their twelve-year-old son. I formally requested my father’s right hand and climbed on top of the marital bed. My brother made do with a foot. As did my grandmother. She would object years later, softly and confused, though not about the foot. When her son was already ill, she had lost her daughter to cancer in the U.S. She had witnessed the slow, bitter demise from wakefulness into morphine coma. Was her son’s speed date with death any better?
Yes, grandma, I would tell her, it was better. He was in pain, physically and mentally, and he wanted out. Not wanting to be cared for like a baby. Not wanting to be rushed to a hospital for an emergency. Not wanting death to carry him off when we weren’t there. And we were there, remember? Wanting what he wanted. We could have objected, I suppose, we could have said, “Don’t kill him” but we knew he would have died anyway. Our objection would not have changed the inevitability of his death. Only the hour.
With all of us in place, holding his limbs, stroking his hair, the doctor asked my father a question in a gentle yet clear voice, the voice of an angel. “Are you ready?”
We are free to choose yet not free to avoid choice.
Yes, he was ready. But wait. Don’t forget the glasses. He took them off and put them on the side table. It was the last thing he did before he said he loved us. The glasses were smudged. They would not need to be cleaned.
Time slowed, stood still, took up again, and having lost its relevance now, it was anyone’s guess how much of it went by. Let’s say: the moment lasted a while.
Did we look at each other or at the instruments the doctor took out of her bag? Did we stare into the dying man’s eyes to witness his fall into timelessness? After my father closed his eyes, I kept mine on the artery in his neck, and watched how it pulsed and pulsed, slower now, and weaker, but with a discernible beat, until his heart finally stopped.
Again, nobody objected.
We sat there quietly, in grief and gratitude, as though killing someone was the last gift you could grant that person in life, and of course it was.