I woke suddenly in the early morning darkness out of a deep sleep and immediately looked to the candle I’d left burning for my father. It was out. The room was dark.
I had slept soundly that night from the exhaustion of the days, weeks, and months of caring for Dad and his illnesses, but when I stirred in the night I had been soothed by the warm glow of candlelight in the room.
“He’s gone.” I said to myself.
I laid back down in the dark and felt for my husband in bed and cuddled up to him. I exhaled an out-breath and thought about my father’s last out-breath. Then I reached for my phone to see what time it was. 5:17. As I was looking at the time, my phone started to ring. It was my mom.
“He’s gone,” she said.
I know. I replied out loud or to myself. I already knew.
My dad had been on hospice care for ten days and falling progressively into a deeper state, finally allowing himself to disengage from his anxiety, his illnesses, his humanness. He had suffered for many years from slow-growing prostate cancer and COPD, which in the end, was what made him suffer the most. The night before I had a strong intuition that he wouldn’t make it through the night. So I huddled with my husband and two children on the floor in front of the fireplace and lit a candle for Grandpa Bob. We said our goodbye prayers. I uttered the words from a Buddhist love prayer and said: “May he be well. May he be safe. May he be loved.”
After I hung up the phone, I went to my mom’s house to be with her. And to say one last good-bye to Dad. As I drove I wondered, how many times have these words been uttered on this planet? He’s gone. She’s gone. How many times have these words been the welcome or unwelcome gift after the waiting? The waiting for a loved one to pass on…to be relieved of the grip of an illness… to depart the hospice bed… to recover from a brain injury…to come out of surgery…to weather a heart attack…to survive a violent crime…to emerge from the NICU… She’s gone. He’s gone.
I wondered, how do people know what to say? how do we even access the part of the brain that assembles words for use in these moments? Then I wondered how many times I had heard those words myself. He’s gone. She’s gone. I quickly counted seven. seven times. seven lives. seven loves. shit. And, there was the hardest time, the memory of it rising up like fire. The one, my first love, where words were never uttered. No one had to tell me he had died. I intuitively knew. The news was a shocked, pained, unutterable spilling out of indecipherable words. But that’s another story for another time.
Mom’s house was quiet. An eerie and final silence filled the house with his departure. Dad’s oxygen machine was off. Its constant whirring white noise and gasps of pressure regulation had been our constant companion. Mom and I sat quietly. We didn’t know what to say. He was gone. We were exhausted. We were sad. We were relieved.
My dad was a life-long alcoholic, a smoker, a gambler, a womanizer, a troubled soul who outlived and outsmarted some of life’s most difficult offerings. In his last year I often made a joke of calling him an asshole, and he would laugh knowingly and say “You’re damn right, Leslie Jean. You’re damn right.” And, he had a heart of gold. And, he had a charismatic personality that made you feel like you were the most important person on the planet when you were in his favor. His infamous greeting “Hey Baby-eeeeeeee!” made each of us feel super special: my mom, my two older sisters, me, his granddaughters, and countless other women I’m sure.
It was April 7, 2015. We counted up the days and were shocked. He was on hospice for only 10 days. It felt like it had been an eternity since the day he came home from yet another hospital stay, and we set him up in the back bedroom. Ten days of pure presence and agonizing waiting.
We had waited through Easter Sunday. Mom thought he might pass on Easter. He was still talking to us that day. Just a bit. Squeezing our hands. Surprising us with a gust of passion, an outburst. A request for a drink.
On Easter Sunday while my mom and my sister were at mass, I sat alone with my Dad in the house. I sang to him. I sang one of my favorite songs from my Buddhist community. He squeezed my hand and uttered a tiny, quiet “Again.” So I sang it again. We were surrounded by love and light and calmness. He was nodding his head slightly. He heard me.
No coming. No going.
No after. No before.
I hold you close to me.
I release you to be so free.
Because I am in you,
And you are in me.
Because I am in you,
And you are in me.
Mom said, “We always said we didn’t want to be buried in the rain. That was something he and I both always said.” Mom was full of stories during those last few weeks. My sisters and I were full of many conflicting emotions.
Coroners came and business-y things were exchanged, papers signed, questions answered. They were dressed in their Sunday best even though it was a Tuesday morning at 7:00 am. They were respectful and kind. My mom liked that. It felt reassuring that they knew what to do and were dressed and ready for it: the business of death. Our job was done.
A light rain started falling. We were surprised at this turn in the weather in the midst of our severe California drought. They carried him out in the gentle rain. Mom was sad about that, but also moved by the sudden strangeness of this rain. It seemed to be Dad saying everything was OK now. I thought of this quote by Thich Nhat Hanh: “The tears I shed yesterday have become rain.”
As I prep to post this on my blog I realize that my last blog post was February 2014, which was about the time Dad’s health began a rapid decline. A shocking marker of time passed. A void of time where no writing happened. A void into which went a lot of love and family connection. A time where I finally had a relationship with my father. A time of stripping away pretense and resentment and criticisms. A time of true love.
Later that morning I took a slow quiet walk around my neighborhood in the heavy mist. It hadn’t rained in so long. It was more of a heavy mist than a rain. The day held a tinge of hope alongside its sadness and release. He’s gone. He etched in me the deepest grooves of love, of pain, of fear and acceptance. The imprint and the original map from which my heart navigates. I walked through an open field near where my mom and I live. I visited my favorite old barn. I thought about how much my Dad would have liked being on this walk with me, looking at this beautiful old red barn.
And instead of him being gone, he was there with me.
RIP Dad. May you be free. ♥