So, it's over now. After the intensity, and drama, and action and inaction in waiting, and the struggle, the absence of all of "it", and him, seems impossible and bizarre in its own way.
On Thursday morning, after an unbearable night of realizing it was easier to be in the room with him than at home and in my own head (and after some late night texts assuring my mom that if there are ghosts there, she's really not interesting enough for them to bother) I packed a bag and moved in to hospice; my mother and I creating the saddest sorority of wondering and worrying and waiting as we helped care for him, the most dramatic and often horrifying slumber party of all time.
I ran home to shower and out for Starbucks only once before realizing that the outside world was even more difficult than that darkened room. Seriously, people playing tennis at the country club next door? You can just PLAY A GAME at a time like this? Under that traitor of a shining sun? Do you even know what some people are dealing with while you enjoy your sunshiney day? Bastards. Everywhere.
It was just too cruel "out there."
So I stopped going out. My husband brought my children to me and we enjoyed dinner at the dining room in the hospice house each night before retiring to the formal living room to wrestle and snuggle on the couches while watching Cartoon Network. I came up with plans to slay evil cheetahs with my 4-year-old nephew who happens to be the real Spiderman. I checked up on homework projects, because little kid dressing up as George Washington was of paramount importance during this time. I would hug and kiss them goodnight in the lobby and return to the room I snuck back to at least twice during this "family" time.
The days all run together, the endless hours, and I want to forget them and never forget them all at once. I'm not sure what my brain is going to do about that, I hope it works it out satisfactorily.
At one point I feared death with an intensity, and it was a concept that never really bothered me previously. It seemed so unfair that the heart could continue once the body had given up and as I looked down at what was left of my dad, I told myself that there was no God. I believe there is something but there could not possibly be a benevolent, all-knowing being out there looking out for each of us. I felt alone, I felt like we are all alone, and life really is just what we make of it and that's that. I made plans to convince my husband that I could never let myself end up like this, to make sure I never ended up like this, to have the courage to help me not ever end up in this kind of diseased purgatory if I couldn't take care of the situation myself.
It was grim.
Things shifted though and I eventually decided it wasn't that bad. That I was in no hurry for him to go because I could sit here and hold his hand for a few more hours, a few more days once I realized how final the end would really be.
That there was a sacredness in this time of waiting.
The nurses would make me promise to get some sleep and I would promise that I would and they would promise they would wake me if there was any change and I promised that my fear that there would be change was exactly what prohibited sleep. THAT I COULD SLEEP FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE but could only hold his hand now. I was sleeping just fine on these two upright hospital chairs with a sheet, my hand jammed through the metal bars of the bed rail, there was really no reason to retire to my hospital bed (that many people have died on), thanks.
So we would listen to country music and hold hands and occasionally talk about whatever, and I know he could hear me even though he wasn't really there, and my brain would tell me this was scary and my heart would tell me this was my dad.
On the last night I knew it was the last night and after dinner I asked the boys if they'd like to say goodnight. little kid wanted to but was afraid, so he stood behind the curtain. I went around to my dad to loudly tell him that little kid wanted to say goodnight to him and heard the little voice from the other side of the curtain say, "Goodnight, Gramps. I'll see you--uh, hmm, I love you. Goodnight," and my heart broke into 9 million little pieces.
A nurse came in that night and shaved my dad's face and washed and combed his hair, a final act of kindness for a condemned man, and one that I will never forget for as long as I live. To give him that dignity, and to give us the chance to see a shadow of his former self was such a thoughtful and compassionate gift. Instead of the vague non-answer most nurses gave when asked for an estimate, she told me that we were in the last quarter run here, probably hours, and I told her I knew but was so grateful to hear her say that.
When I reluctantly, exhaustedly retired to my own hospice bed that night, I told my long-dead relatives that since they'd waited this long, a few more hours wouldn't hurt. I selfishly hoped he'd still be there in the morning, and he was.
I was up that Sunday morning at 5:30am. The sky was pink from the sun rise and it was reflecting off of the lake outside of his room, which had fog skimming over the top of it. I knew today would be the day. I opened the blinds and tidied the room and played our music and washed his hands and tidied up his nails. I told him that Steve Jobs said "Oh wow" three times as he passed and that I was excited about whatever was next for him. I told him to say hello to certain lost relatives of mine and to send me a sign from the other side, preferably in the form of making his lotto number finally win. I told him that we loved him and knew he loved us. I read the relevant Psalms scriptures. I held his hand and my mom and I rested our feet on his bed and talked about family memories while we drank coffee.
When Ralph Stanley's "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" started, the pause between his breaths deepened and we knew. We said our goodbyes softly, calmly, with me still holding his hand. He took his final breath to the song, "My God is Real" and the whole scene felt holy and beautiful.
An answer to my question doubting God's existence? Maybe so.
As his breath left, mine returned. He immediately looked at peace and more like his real self. I felt deep relief for him, even while feeling great sadness for us. We sat for several minutes, in awe of how peaceful and lovely it was, how very perfect it was, before I went to get the nurse.
"He...went," I told her, unable to say anything else.
"Your dad?" She asked, knowing.
Yes. My dad.Went.
We later asked her to help dress him. Being a long time Willie Nelson fan and a lover of shock humor, my dad used to tease that we should roll him up and smoke him when he died, inspired by the song of the same name. We insisted that we would most definitely not be doing that, but I did buy him a shirt that says that for Christmas, which he loved. I guess we should have explained that to the nurse because she came out looking rather concerned.
"Thank you so much for doing that," I said.
"You're welcome. So...is that a new shirt?"
"No, I got it for him for Christmas."
My mom and I had a quiet fit of laughter in the room afterwards and then a minute of panic as to whether it was too distasteful. The whole scenario was right up his alley though, I have absolutely no doubt that he would have loved it. We decided not to change it or explain it.
The guy who picked him up was my dad's type of guy--a little rough around the edges, funny, an ironic and worn tattoo of a devil on his forearm. He liked the shirt. In our brief time together, he happened to bring up the fact that he had scattered his parents' ashes in the same place my dad requested...a logistically tricky, not quite legal place. We appreciated the advice and felt he was in good hands and gave this stranger a warm hug after saying our final goodbyes.
As we stepped back into the sunshine and back into the land of the living, I turned to my mom. "That was good," I said as we hugged. She wondered how often people said that upon leaving there but agreed that it was.
And I went home and cried my eyes out, for the loss of him, and for everything he went through, and for everything we experienced, and all of the emotions and the unfairness of it all. I cried and asked my husband, "How will I do this?" meaning how will I manage all of these thoughts and memories and emotions for the rest of my life...and then I slept for 18 solid, blessed hours.
The human body is an amazing thing. And I'm not afraid of death as much as disease, and I know I am not alone, and I know I can do anything, and I need another nap or ten.
I will miss you, dad. It was an honor to spend the last week, and such a spiritual experience, with you. I'm so sad that you've left us, but I'm glad that you got on the road again and are going places that you've never been, and I feel so grateful to have seen you off on your journey.