This essay is a working draft from my forthcoming collection Someday All This Will Be Yours.
“Guilt and love both flow out through busy hands.”
As we traded shifts, Mom and I spoke in hushed voices in the darkened kitchen. A soft lamp burned in the adjacent room, once a dining room, now home to my father’s deathbed. There was very little chance we would wake him, but we kept the main lights low and our conversations low as a concession to the hour. It was only just becoming clear that we were conducting a vigil.
The three-hour shifts passed quickly enough when he slept, glowing light from my phone or Kindle, on but unread. The sound of the oxygen, its Vader sighing and gentle, tidal exhalations the soundtrack to a constant monitoring, counting breaths. Were the breaths speeding up? Slowing down? Most hours they would do both.
When he woke was a different story. Occasional nonsensical cries, made otherworldly by circumstance. Softly spoken but urgent conversations only partly planted in reality. Those stretches on-shift felt eternal and made me deeply uncomfortable. In the past weeks of his hospice care we had grown closer than we’d ever been, hours of lucid conversations, reminiscing and laughter. Although his chest was devouring itself from the inside out his mind hadn’t missed a trick. This night was different, he was confused in ways that reminded me of my grandmother’s dementia. I longed for him to fall back asleep.
And so two months of hospice and coughing and draining and laughter and tears bore us a cold February Thursday. As frantically as we had spent Wednesday trying to organize care and nursing and skilled help, we spent Thursday drawing inward. We played him recordings of his grandchildren reading stories. We read him farewell letters from family. We took our turns at his side, remembering and reassuring and sometimes just quietly, numbly sitting. And then while the grandchildren ate pizza at a generous neighbor’s house, while my wife waited in a drive-thru for our dinner, while the Winter Olympics began on the television, he began to breathe his last.
In his final moments, while I scrolled listlessly through my phone and half-watched Olympic skiing on tv, he lost control of his ability to swallow, saliva from his mouth and mucous and cancer from his lungs beginning to collect in his throat. It was ending.
I called for mom, puttering in the kitchen, reviewing the day’s medication logs. Morphine drops into his mouth every hour for the past several hours.
“Something’s happening! Come here! I think this is it.” We listened for a moment.
Something was definitely happening. His breathing, having progressively slowed throughout the day, wheezy and labored since he hadn’t been awake to take his inhalers in many hours, became suddenly, noticeably audible, like stones being polished in a tumbler.
This was his death.
I fetched the Atropine and dripped it into his mouth, as our hospice nurse, Laura, had asked us to do at the end, to quench the rattle. It subsided, though not completely.
“Pray,” she said.
It wasn’t a request. It wasn’t a command. Something in between. I moved the single chair aside and we both dropped to our knees, Mom to my right. She began to recite the “Our Father.”
We stopped momentarily, thinking he was gone. He breathed again, long and slow and loud.
Hail Mary, full of grace
The Lord is with Thee.
Blessed art Thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit of Thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners…
We stumbled, in tears.
Now and at the hour of our death.
As if on cue, melodramatic in a way he had never been in life, as we spoke the final words of the prayer he sighed a final sound of such unburdening and release we gasped ourselves.
Mom and I looked at each other. Her eyes held panic, no doubt mine did as well. The thing we had dreaded, feared, and could not fully comprehend — life’s Greatest Mystery — had unfolded in a repurposed dining room where six weeks previously we had shared Christmas dinner. And we were suddenly, profoundly alone.
Mom kissed his forehead while I removed the cannula from his nose. She repeated his name with such pleading, such sorrow. Relief would come, but much later.
“You don’t need this anymore. You’re free,” I said, casting the oxygen tubing aside. Mom picked it up. I flashed to the story my wife told from her father’s deathbed, tearing the pneumatic compression sleeves from him as they started to mindlessly squeeze his legs only minutes after his passing.
I felt wide-eyed, astonished, any interior monologue was replaced with a repeated stutter, ohgodohgodohgodohgod. Like many children, I had feared and envisioned any number of ends for my parents. I never imagined it would jump states from the possible to the extremely, graphically real.
I kissed his forehead then too, a bristly prickle of short stiff hair near the top of his forehead. His mouth hung open, and I could see the white sore on the top of his palate where I had inadvertently hurt him earlier that afternoon, swabbing his favorite red cream soda into his dry mouth.
He had cried out as I wiped the sponge along the inside of his mouth. I’ve never stopped wondering if one of his last living thoughts was some delirious variation of “goddammit, Michael, that hurt!”
We both repeated our names for him like prayers, “oh Phil,” “oh Daddy.” In the last worst days I had taken to calling him Daddy again, something I hadn’t done for thirty years. Whether it was caused by my reversion or his I may never truly reckon.
It had been barely two minutes since the last breath and already the skin of his hands was cooling. It hadn’t far to go, his circulation was so poor, with so little oxygen moving through the gray arteries. Holding his hand, I felt his wedding ring and immediately went to work removing it.
In planning for the inevitably of his death at home, I had read everything I could on the subject, following personal form. The night my wife informed me were expecting our first child, I drove off to the bookstore to buy parenting books while she called her sister.
Like my father, I’m a habitual list-maker, and as I read through book after book on hospice care, cancer, and the dying process, I formed the basis for a personal plan of attack, a mental checklist that, had it needed a title, might have been called “What to Do When One’s Father Dies at Home to Be a Strong Dutiful Son Lest You Become an Emotional Wreck of No Use to Anyone.”
The books ranged from the scientific (“TKTK example quote”) to the mystical (TKTK example quote TKTK), from the painfully pragmatic (“TKTK example quote”) to the blessedly obscure (“TKTK example quote”).
More than one cautioned that the moments following a death at home can quickly progress from peaceful to chaotic, as the quiet of departure recapitulates into the tumult of getting on with life, of washing the body, of funeral arrangements, calling relatives and more.
According to Ginger Alvarez in The Hospice Walk, one such detail that families overlook is to remove any jewelry from the deceased before leaving the home, so as to safeguard their whereabouts and have something to hold on to once the body has been whisked off to the funeral home. For some reason, this detail returned to me at that moment and was the only clear instruction my body could follow.
If consciousness persists, as some scientists now propose, for moments or minutes after the initial signs of physical death, I fear that our tender expressions of love and loss were quickly overshadowed in his dying mind by a rapid move to relieve him of his effects.
As near-death-experience (NDE) proponents often report, if dad’s spirit looked down on his newly bereaved family from above, he would have seen me struggling to pull his simple gold band over the swollen knuckle of his ring finger and transplanting it from his loose, papery skin onto my own.
I felt disembodied myself, awash in odors of sickness and death, sweat and urine mingled with repeatedly laundered sheets (the scent of the laundry detergent my mother uses haunts me still).
Sometimes the most mundane details are what surface in times of crisis. They will appear as if to remind you that the world is still made of things. Even while the realm of the spirit may be closer at hand than you ever thought possible, we still live in a world of cloth and stubble, of gold and glass.
Wedding bands for men are a new phenomenon, as recent as World Wars I and II when GI’s would go overseas with unobtrusive mementoes of their young brides back home. Rings are such a simple human symbol: continuity, infinity, an opening unbroken and inviting of an unknown future. Ancient Egyptian brides wore them (made of hair or reed), and the evolution of the practice lays bare the things we find precious — decoration or simplicity, precious metals, ownership, romantic love.
I slipped the ring onto my finger, above my own, joined white and yellow gold, nicked and worn in its decade on my finger: my own most prized possession. His ring was too large for my finger. Everything about him was too large for me. Left untended it might slip away.
This was, in fact, his second wedding ring, purchased in May 1971 in a jewelry store on 57th Street in Chicago known to my family as Mike’s, after the jeweler who worked there, and whom my grandmother would stop by to visit on her daily walks through Hyde Park. I’ve wondered if Dad’s first wedding ring was purchased there as well. One of very few relics kept from his first marriage, that first ring sits hidden and nondescript in a box with never worn tie tacks and cufflinks.
Easier to remove was a larger golden circle, his watch, a simple plated Timex from another era. The stretch band slipped over his wrist with ease, had grown loose as he wasted away. A slight tug of arm hair pinched between bands would have made him jump a day ago. Not now.
The only time I had ever seen the watch off his wrist was as a young boy brushing my teeth before bed while he sat in the bathtub behind me. The watch would be set next to his glasses near the sink, and I would stare at them hard so as to avoid the temptation of glancing at him in the bathroom mirror.
I put this on too, and we went about the terrible business of What Next. I called Laura, who seemed to be expecting the call, who would come to pronounce him, remove the catheter, and help us prepare him for the arrival of the funeral home van.
I wanted to feel something profound putting these objects on, a passing of the mantle, the newly crowned Man of the Family. But there was nothing. Only a stinging numbness, a bulky cold mass in my gut that would last for much of the next year. That still sends me into a sweat as I share these moments.
I took the stairs to my parents’ bedroom in twos, pulled the plug to Dad’s oxygenator from the wall, and took the crucifix from the wall above their bed. Plaster and wood, this same crucifix had hung on the trellis above their garden wedding 43 years earlier, not a mile from where I live today. Mom had crossed his hands over his chest in the traditional cross shape, and I slipped the crucifix into his hands, his transition from father to corpse well underway.
Not even feeling the 5° air, I went in my sock feet to the driveway to wait for Jennifer. I stood in the same driveway, in almost the same spot, where I took the call where she told me of her own father’s passing five years before.
The ring lives back where it began now, with my Mom in the split-level a few miles from here. I only wore it that next day — it was too loose and my fear of losing it was too great. Mom wanted it, and for awhile wore it on a chain around her neck. I gave it back to her before she went to bed on our couch, unable or unwilling to spend the night alone in the house.
The watch is still here with me. I wore it for weeks, uncomfortable but unable to set it aside. It felt like a penance as much as an honor to wear it, a constant reminder of what had gone wrong. I still wear it from time to time when I want him near me.
I’m wearing it now.