Death Can't Steal Love
My father died alone, surrounded by all of us who loved him. His beloved breath was labored for the last, long, eight hours of his life while we hung on every whisper of air that kept him alive. In the living room, my mother, brother, sister and I talked quietly about the past and a future without him. I'd known him all of my life. He was as familiar to me as my own face in the mirror each morning. His impending death was incomprehensible, even to a Christian soul. Funny, we intellectually expect the arrival of death someday, but emotionally we're never prepared. I didn't know how it would feel to lose anyone I loved. My dad was the first.
In the early hours of that Sunday morning, before the light had a chance to illuminate the room, my father took his last breath. Gently. He just left and for the first time in my life, he didn't take me with him. I touched his face, but his eyes didn't open. I remembered his scent like a cubby bear when I used to crawl into my parents' bed as a child, instinctively lumbering to the side he slept on. It smelled like comfort, like strength. I remembered when he taught me to drive a car. I remembered how his mustache smiled when I showed him my first business card with my name on it. I remembered those treasured Saturday mornings. We all slept in while my dad drove to get freshly baked donuts, dripped in sweetness and still warm from the bakery. As kids, we'd gobble them up and sit and talk for hours around that kitchen table, safe and happy like little chicks in a nest. Now I saw him motionless on the bed we'd prepared lovingly so he wouldn't suspect he was dying.
In the old European fashion, my brother, the only son, washed and prepared my father's body for the final journey. I removed the satin pillow from my dad's head so he could lie straight and proud, the way he lived his life. My mother spoke to him softly about their long life together, their love, and their long-past youth. My tears flowed when she told him how proud he should be of his children who honored him even through death. I hope he heard her.
The wind chime in the backyard was a little church bell. Throughout the last four days of my dad's life, the breeze gently kissed those chimes and they played a melody that will forever surround my home. Whenever we get together now for holidays or family dinners, we hear that melody and we like to think our father is reminding us that he never really left. I suppose we never die as long as someone remembers us.
Someone called the hospice nurse at the end. I don't remember which one of us called or when, but she appeared divinely at the door. I knew she was there before she rang the doorbell. She was so kind. As a family fiercely proud of taking care of its own, we were unable to enter the crevices she filled for us, leaving us with pride intact. Yet, we didn't always think she was an angel. When we first met her, we thought she was a Nazi, dictating realities when we wanted only a new fantasy. Our hearts couldn't comprehend her approach to death; we'd never been here before.
Initially, the nurse refused to lie to my dad about his imminent death, even though my mother could wear down the devil himself with her logic. My mother was adamant about protecting her husband from the truth. She said he inherently knew he was dying; why proclaim it loudly to remove the space in time he, alone, made for his soul. My mother is a dragon who would kill to save you. It only took an hour for her to convince Mary Jo, the nurse, to lie to my father. Mary Jo was God's ambassador. She spared us the coroner and the police, but not the angel of death.
I will always hate the white hearse that drove slowly up the driveway to take my father away forever. As long as he was lying there, even breathless, among us, where our eyes could see him and our hands could touch him, he was just sleeping. The big, white hearse told us exactly what fools we were.
I stayed with my mother when they took my dad away, but my brother and sister escorted that merciless, white crane right up to the backdoor of the mortuary. The processing dock, they call it, where they polish the shell that once held the pearl. I don't envy them their trip that day. The hierarchy of siblings is that the oldest paves the way and the younger ones mop up.
My dad said something to me before he slipped into a coma, something that will always stay with me. He was looking up at the skylight in my ceiling where the light was coming through. He said, "It's so beautiful. I'd like to get up. Look, thirty-three horses and wagons are coming to take me."
My beautiful father. I know God agrees.