It’s been twenty-four days. And still, I’m raw.
My father hadn’t eaten or had any fluids for four days, and even then it was minimal. I found myself Googling how long a person can live without water. The consensus seemed to be five days maximum. How was Dad hanging in for so long? Not that I wanted him to go. I didn’t. But I knew it was inevitable, and despite all the medication, I feared he was suffering.
The hospice doctor prescribed Morphine (pain), Ativan (anxiety), Haldol (tremors), and during the last two days, Phenobarbital (tremors). He was comatose. But there did appear to be moments of lucidity.
On the last day, Wednesday (the fifth day in hospice), his eye was no longer cloudy. His pupil seemed to be following my movements. (His left eye was covered by a black patch, like a pirate, due to recent eye surgery.) Having watched over him night and day with only two breaks (for a shower), I was sensitive to changes. Changes in his breathing. Changes in his facial expressions. Changes in his skin color. His hand strength. His anxiety level. On the fifth day, he was calm, and his eye was clear. It was late afternoon, and everyone had gone home for the day but my mother. She stayed late that day, although she shouldn’t be driving after dark because of cataracts. She’d been putting the surgery off because she was caring for my dad, who couldn’t be left alone since the Alzheimer’s had progressed.
His eye was clear. He was following my movements. I told my mom I was going for a walk and that it was a good time for her to talk to Dad. I told her I was certain he could hear her at the moment. I left the room to give her some privacy. I walked out the back door and into the parking lot. It was a clear, cool beautiful day. I hadn’t been outside in some time, and it was a bit startling. I walked. And sobbed. And walked. When I went back into my father’s hospice room, my mother was sitting quietly, holding his hand. I looked at my father, and could feel he was gone again. But out of the corner of his eye, a single tear had leaked.
“He heard you, Mom. I’m certain.”
“I know,” she said.
She hadn’t seen the tear until I pointed it out to her.
Perhaps it was coincidence. Maybe he’d had tears before and I just hadn’t noticed. But I don’t think so. I was noticing everything. Hypervigilant.
I told my mother to prepare herself. It was going to be that night.
“No,” she said. “It’s going to be tomorrow, when I’m here.”
She left me to the sound of my father’s breathing.
His breathing had accelerated that day. It was much faster. It was rhythmical, like a pant. It became a part of the room and filled it. I turned on the television to drown it out. I muted the television so I could hear it. I sat with my father, holding his hand. I retold all the stories I’d told him over the past four nights. This time, I wasn’t as certain he could hear me. But I sat with him, holding his hand, and repeated them. And cried. At 1:30 in the morning, my nephew arrived after getting off work. He is the first male grandchild, and named after my father. And his father; my brother who died six months before in April. He held his grandfather’s hand and talked quietly to him for some time. Then he pulled up a chair and we talked into the early morning hours. When he left several hours later, he urged me to get some rest.
I took my father’s hand and told him I was going to try to sleep for a little while, and that I’d only be a few feet away on the sofa. I kissed him. I told him I loved him.
I listened to my father breathe, as I dozed.
I was awakened by the sound of my father wheezing, or gasping for breath. I was frightened at first, and then I relaxed. I knew, shortly before 6:00 a.m. on Thursday October 18, 2012, it was time. I rushed to get the nurse. She was dozing. I put my hand gently on her shoulder and woke her.
“He’s breathing different. Very loud.”
She grabbed her stethoscope and as we entered the room, my father exhaled. I took his hand. The nurse took his other hand. She listened to his heartbeat with her stethoscope for what felt like minutes. I waited to fall apart. I waited for the inevitable breakdown. But I didn’t feel broken.
She looked up at me.
“Is he gone?”
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“Will you call my sister?”
She nodded her head and left the room.
I expected to fall apart, sobbing. But I was filled with joy. The heavy oppressive feeling in the room lifted in a whoosh. It felt as if energy swept toward the ceiling in a great rush, leaving me calm and filled with peace.
I sat there, holding my father’s hand, wondering why I didn’t feel broken. Why I felt blissfully happy. Was it relief? I didn’t think so. The feeling was much greater than relief. It was euphoria. It was utter joy. And the energy shift in the room. What was that? My experience was ineffable.
I knew suddenly that I’m not as smart as I’d always thought. I don’t know everything, after all. There is something more to this life than what I can grasp with my rational mind. What happened at the moment of my father’s death, I’m not sure. What I am sure of is that it was a good death. I am sure that death isn’t a horrible end filled with nothingness. I have no idea what happened in that room as my father’s heartbeat faded away. But I am certain now, there are mysteries I cannot comprehend.
My father’s time of death was exactly 6:00 a.m. on Thursday, October 18, 2012. I held his hand and watched the sun rise. I imagined that his sunrise on that day was infinitely more spectacular.