I walk into my dad’s hospice room and I know that rent has come due. I have mortgaged air, and called it hope. There isn’t any home here, for either my dad or I, but we’re both still paying. Mary Doria Russell wrote in Children of God, “And love was a debt, best left unincurred.” The great truths of the world are in our literature and I have read them my whole life but I am unable to truly learn their lessons. I suppose it’s the difference between memorizing the Nicene Creed and believing it.
My sister Terese sits at the edge of Dad’s bed. Her long, dark hair is smudged and wild. Her skin is blotchy and the area under her eyes looks like used tea bags. She has come from Denver to help me with the death vigil. Thanks to Terese, I have spent only 15 hours a day at the hospice the last two days. I’ve been able to, if not sleep, at least lay in my own bed. Hearing my dad’s whooping, fish breath, that sound that the cliché “death rattle” comes from, I know not one of us will be sleeping at the hospice tonight. Terese will sleep in my guest bedroom, I will sleep in my bed next to my husband and perhaps my son. My dad will sleep in a mortuary bag before he goes to a crematorium.
“Soon?” I ask.
She shakes her head. “There’s no telling. That sound in his lungs isn’t good. They’ve come in to check his color a lot.”
“Do you feel like lunch?” My kids are in the family room at the hospice. There are books and movies and puzzles and toys. They have spent the bulk of their summer in that room and in this one.
She nods. “I could eat.”
“Dad,” I say, leaning down close to him, even though he is in a coma and hasn’t responded to me in a week. “Terese and I are going to the kitchen to eat lunch. We’ll come back every five minutes, okay? It won’t take us long.”
“We’ll see you in a second, Dad,” Terese says.
My dad’s hands are clenched, his brow furrowed, his body emaciated. The coma is better than the terminal restlessness where he banged his hands on the rails of the bed, called out to unseen people, constantly tried to get out of bed, picked at his bed covers, heaved his legs over the edge of the bed, causing bruises and bleeding, and the worst, the very worst of the terminal restlessness, when he would call out, “Help me goddammit, Telaina. Help me.”
I smell his fear of death. I feel it in my own heart. This is it, isn’t it? The ultimate test we all face. Is there a loving God waiting for us at the end of a haunted and wretched death or is life a terminal illness without hope of resurrection? My father will soon know and I sense he has no curiosity about this anymore. He wants more time, more beer, more sunlight, more stories, more hope, more old Country and Western songs, more retirement, more cigarettes, more coffee. The great questions of philosophy and religion belong to some other man. My dad just wants to stay.
I get the kids from the family room and we all eat a listless lunch of burritos and chips and salsa. Every five minutes, Terese or I get up, walk back to my dad’s room and check on him, check his color, check to hear the heavy whoop and gargle as he struggles for each breath. Every few minutes, we take a swab that smells like cherry or strawberries and wet his tongue and lips. We put ice in the water to keep it extra cold. He has always liked ice water. He can no longer swallow, so we must be very careful not to get the swab too wet. His tongue is black and swollen. Sometimes he bites down on the swab and I touch his face, the gray razor stubble there. I hope the drugs are doing what the nurses say they are doing. No one deserves a death like this.
The day is filled with surreal moments as my dad’s gasps become farther apart, as his hands and feet turn blue, as his bowels let go for the last time. My children come down from the family room. I tell them to say goodbye to Grandpa.
My son who is six, comes close to the bed, “Goodbye, Grandpa. Have a good life up in Heaven.”
My daughter, more reserved, older, more introspective than my son, does not come close to the bed. “Goodbye, Grandpa. I hope you feel better.” She is ten and at the age where she wonders how we know about Heaven.
“What should we do, Mommy?” my daughter asks. They both do not want to be in the room and I cannot blame them. They remember a different man who walked and talked and cooked. Who bought them Pringles and Little Debbie’s. A man who played Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty, Johnny Horton and Loretta Lynn. A man who kept a neat house and loved Redneck jokes.
“Go to the chapel and say a prayer for Grandpa and then you can go back to the family room,” I say. My eyes are sand dry. It is all too unreal. This is the last time I will hold my father’s hand. He has had his last birthday. I will never see his face again after today. Never hear his laugh again. Never touch his skin, hear him tell a story. I’ll have no need of Father’s Day cards. He is lost, going, gone.
My sister Terese, the oldest of our seven, who got the most of him as a parent, is staggered with grief. She looks as though she has nowhere to put it. I tell the nurse we would like a priest to be called, the same priest who married my husband and I, who baptized both of my children, who came and talked to my dad while here at the hospice.
My other siblings are on their way and I know with deep assurance none of them will make it. I sense that my dad thinks that this is good. His oldest and his youngest are there, we represent all his children. We are the bookends of his life. I was with him when this started and I recognize the scales, the great cosmic balance, that my father would not have died without me present.
I know that this will stick with me forever, stick in the crevasses of my brain, like Teflon from slowly dissolving pans. I’ve read on the Internet (so it must be true) that Teflon floats up, lodges in your mind’s tissue and resides there for eternity. They find pieces of Teflon in your autopsied brain after you die. This day, these moments, this series of indiscriminate clock ticks, will be found within me at my own death.
My dad makes a horrible gasp and then his face eases, his brow unfurrows, his hands relax. My tears come. “Go, Dad. Go. We’ll miss you like hell, but you need to go.”
Terese echoes my sentiment. “Go to Grandma,” she says. “Go to Maxon and Jim.”
“Go to Bill and Syd.”
“Go to Marjorie and Charlie.”
We run out of dead family members to greet him. Terese is at his shoulder. I hold his hand.
My dad dies. The difference between life and death is so simple. A heartbeat. A whoosh of air. A tense change. The difference between is and was, before me, plainly illustrated, like a 2nd grader’s English assignment.
I feel orphaned, widowed, homeless. My dad’s death isn’t just a loss but a series of losses, like that giant fungus they found in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It keeps reaching out with its tendrils, it’s the biggest living organism on dry land. It grows constantly and silently. But it is unnoticeable to the unknowing.
The social worker at the hospice, who has been very kind to me, comes quietly in and puts her hand on my shoulder. She says the priest will be here momentarily.
I can barely hear her, my ears are suffocated by finality. I think the unknowing never know that there are bills and then there is reckoning. That there is incurring, and then there is payment. I know these things and still go on.
I keep incurring. Oh yes, I do.
About the Author:
Telaina Morse Eriksen is a MFA student in creative nonfiction at Antioch University Los Angeles. She holds a B.A. in journalism from Michigan State University and lives in East Lansing, Michigan with her husband and two children. She is currently working on a memoir about her experiences in psychotherapy.