In all honesty, this is the last story I ever wanted to write. For the last two years of my life since my Dad passed away, all I’ve ever tried to do was put that night out of my head. I’ve never succeeded in doing so. No one in my family knows this story or has asked me what happened in the hours since they left the hospice where my father was, nor has anyone asked what happened when I found out he was gone. I guess I can’t blame them. Who would want to carry a memory like that for the rest of their lives? I am, and if I could blank it out forever, I probably would.
When my Dad found out he had cancer, I promised I would stand by him and do whatever I could to help, right up until the very end. I went to every doctor’s appointment, was there for every procedure, and did my best to take care of him. It was never an easy promise to keep, and I very nearly broke it a few times, but whenever I faltered, I remembered the words he’d spoken to me about making promises- “Son, when you give your word, you gotta keep it, because at the end of the day, it’s all you got in this world.” Those words always come screaming back to me.
One day, towards what would turn out to be his remaining few weeks of life, he asked me for another favor. He said, “Greg, when the time comes, don’t let your mother see me go. I don’t want her last memory of me to be dying in front of her. Please, son. Please do this thing for me.” Although it felt like a selfish request to make, I told him I’d do it.
Personally, I don’t like crowd scenes, and neither did my father. The last thing he wanted was to pass away surrounded by family watching. So on the final night of his life, I did what I could to gently nudge everyone home. I didn’t drive anyone away, per se, just kind of prompted them to go by saying, “It’s getting late” or “Don’t you have to work tomorrow?”
The only three people remaining were my mother, my Aunt Alice, (my father’s older sister) and I. My Mom insisted on staying, saying she couldn’t bear the thought of not being there at the end, but I explained that my Aunt was exhausted from flying in from Arizona and needed to rest. As much as I didn’t want to do it, I also brought up the request Dad had asked of me. To my surprise, she didn’t put up much of a fight. I think she understood, perhaps because deep down, my Mom knew he wanted to die with his dignity intact.
Finally, I was alone with him. If I’m being honest with myself, it was the very last place on Earth I wanted to be. I wanted to run screaming away from the hospice. It was hard enough watching him suffer for a year and a half- waiting around for his last breath and not be able to do a damned thing about it was a special kind of Hell.
I’ve never admitted this to anyone, but on nights when I couldn’t sleep, I’d imagine being at my Dad’s funeral and giving his eulogy. Since I’m the writer in the family, I just assumed everybody would expect me to say something eloquent. The problem was, I could never find the right words. I was blocked. That is, until I was alone at the hospice.
The words finally came when My cousin Glenn told me about the weekend before, when I had to go out of town on another emergency and asked some other members of my family to cover for me while I was gone. There had been an informal dinner party at the house, and my father was making everybody laugh, telling one funny story after another. And before you ask, no- my father wasn’t a writer. He just enjoyed spinning the occasional yarn.
Once all the missing pieces were assembled in my mind, I wrote a rough draft of what turned out to be his eulogy. When that was done, I left the lobby outside my father’s room and settled into the elongated chair that doubled as an informal bed and settled in for the night. My father had drifted into a coma at that point, a respirator helping him to breathe. I found his wheezing and the respirator’s clicking to be a little disturbing, so I put on my earphones and turned up the volume. Eventually, I fell asleep.
Somewhere around two in the morning, I woke up because I had to use the facilities. After that was finished, I stood at the side of my father’s bed and looked at him in the dim light. I wanted to cry, mostly because seeing him lying there, weak and small, especially after knowing what a strong man he’d been all my life, was heartbreaking. I felt so powerless. I would have given anything to save him, and there was nothing I could do. Nothing anyone could do. The cancer he had was growing tumors on his liver, and the treatments his doctors recommended were useless and would have only prolonged what life he had left in agony.
I walked away for a moment to get some fresh air, doing a lap around the room to clear my head. The impulse to cry right there and then was overpowering, but I couldn’t give into it because I wanted to be strong the way my father was strong. Plus, I knew that if I let go, I’d never be able to stop. So I took a deep breath, shook it off, and went back to my father’s room.
I laid face down in the chair, and instead of putting my earphones on again, I just cradled my head in my arms and listened to my father softly wheeze.
The thoughts in my head were running fast and furious, not allowing me a chance to blank out and fall asleep. The last thing I wanted was to stay awake- I wanted to drift away, hoping for one of two outcomes- that my Dad would either pass away while I was out or that he’d make it to see another day. But in my heart, I knew his time was coming, and I needed to be there for him. The way I said I would.
In the darkness, my face buried in my arms, I whispered, “Dad… I don’t know if you can hear this, but I want to tell you that it’s okay to let go. Please… just let go. I don’t want you to suffer anymore. The last fucking thing I want is to lose you, but it’s time. You already held on long enough for everyone to say goodbye, and you’ve given death an amazing fight, but the fighting is done. Please, Dad. I’m begging you, just let go.”
And the tears started to well up in my eyes. I began to cry.
Which was the exact moment when I stopped hearing the respirator click. I stopped sobbing and stayed silent, listening for a wheeze or a click. Nothing. I stood up and shuffled closer to my father’s bed, reaching out with both of my hands to feel his chest to see if it was still rising and falling.
Then the lights came on as one of the nurses entered the room. “Is everything all right?” She asked.
On the verge of completely losing it, I mumbled, “My father… I think… I think he’s…”
The nurse checked on him. Then she turned to me and said, “I’m sorry. He’s gone.” She walked out of the room and left me alone with his body.
I sat next to him, leaned over, and took him in my arms. I finally broke down and let it all go. He was already cold, but I didn’t care. My Dad was dead. I don’t remember how long I held on, I only remember that I didn’t want to let go.
At one point, my inner asshole- the part of my personality that’s kept me going this whole time, whispered in my ear, “Come on, man. You’ve cried enough. We still have work to do. You have calls to make.”
I didn’t listen.
In a stronger tone, he said, “Greg, your father is gone. You need to get moving. You have people to call and arrangements to make.”
I tried to block him out.
He snapped, “Is this how you’re going to honor your father? Is this how he would act? GET UP. WE HAVE SHIT TO DO.”
Reluctantly, I gently set my father down and picked up my cellphone. I called home and told my Mom that her husband was gone. Soon after, the rest of my family arrived and everyone began grieving. Not being one to share my feelings, I found a quiet corner and let everybody do what had to be done, helping out where I could. When they finally came for the body, I walked the stretcher out, keeping my promise until the end.
Emotionally tapped out, I drove home and collapsed on my bed. I cried till I fell asleep.
For a long time after that, I had the image of me standing over my Dad, arms outstretched to see if he was still breathing, bathed in blood-red light. It gave me nightmares. Sometimes, I sit and think about what would have been better- to not have been around and suddenly find out my father had died, or appreciate the time I had with him, despite the fact that he was dying?
I truly don’t know. It haunts me a little bit. Now that two years have passed, I can say I don’t regret it.
The funny thing is, not long after, I realized my father had one last lesson to teach me- responsibility. I’ve never taken life very seriously, mostly because I thought growing up meant becoming a stiff. I was wrong. In my life, I have always tried to do the right thing, but it was always with the sense that I could avoid responsibility and my obligations. I never wanted to be tied down or beholden to anyone. Now I realize being responsible has nothing to do with your outlook on life- it simply means doing the right thing for the people you love, and for the right reasons. I may not like it sometimes, but I do it just the same.
It took me awhile to move on and figure things out, but now I know exactly what I want out of my life. And I have my Dad to thank for it.
Happy birthday, Pop, I love you.