Something shifts in your brain and heart after you have watched someone you knew and loved die. In 2006 on this day I was at my father’s hospital bedside. He was comatose, slipping further away each moment as machines tethered him to the earth. As terrifying as it all was – the wires and tubes, the apologetic doctors who had done all they could, the people I did not know passing in and out of the curtains around the cubicle where he lay dying and the waiting room, the extended family that I had not seen in years and their varying responses of grief, my own uncontrollable waves of sadness – despite all of this, I knew him. Here were the hands and feet I had known and loved my whole life. The physical details of this person, my father, they were still the same. It comforted me.
There was an ugliness to the new life my father built around himself in the years leading to his death. He absconded from our family, fleeing to a new world where he thought he would find the happiness and contentment that had eluded him. In the process he left the three of us, my mother and my sister and I, floundering and trying to make sense of his exit and desperately – and dangerously at times – clinging to one another trying to keep above the surface. On another ocean my father was pulled into his own whirlpool. And now here we were. He was here, but not here. He was leaving for good.
For hours that week I focused on Dad’s hands (even referring to him now in such a familiar way chokes me up). I held his hand. I looked at his hands. It was harder to look at his face. There was injury. They had shaved off his signature mustache to accomodate the breathing tube. His eyes were closed and I was hopeful and terrified all at once that they would open. The monitors hummed and chirped behind me. I did not want to watch their despairing, steady, flattened lines. His hands were safe and familiar, as they always had been. They looked the same. They felt the same. He was still himself in that way and I needed that. I am grateful for that.
When the time came, when he was dying, I whispered my goodbyes and I held his hand. As he stepped into eternity the color began to drain from his hands. It began in his fingernails. It crept up his fingers. I could see the retreat happening. His elderly mother watched his face in confusion. His heart and breathing were quieted and she was surprised and gasping when they told her he was gone. But I knew. I had watched him leave.
The trouble with this now is that I am not alone. I live again among the living, breathing, flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone. My husband asleep in our bed, hands composed on the blanket or pillow sometimes catches my imagination at the wrong moment and I can imagine him in that forever, cold repose. I can transpose one moment onto another. My babies – oh my babies. Asleep safe in their beds. I can see it there too. Death haunts me. I am not afraid. I do not live in fear. But I have the eyes to see it now and I can’t go back.