The Hardest Thing
The Hardest Thing: The phone was ringing and he knew who.
“Please let me speak with-”
“Your father’s breathing has become extremely shallow. I have seen cases like this before, I don’t expect he’ll live more than half an hour.”
“I’m on my way.”
He hung up. A small bowl of porridge was put hastily in the fridge. He grabbed a coat from the hallway closet, sitting near the kitchen door he put on shoes, then exited, locked the door, got in the car, and started the engine.
Backing out of the driveway he thought of just the other day, the last time his father was conscious. He’d gotten up in bed crawling forward calling out to him as he was leaving, “Please forgive me.”
What did his father mean, forgive him? For what? Because he wanted to die now, that he was leaving his son behind? His son felt terrible about this plea and at the time told him,
“There’s nothing to forgive. Everything’s okay. I love you dad and I’ll see you in the morning.”
But now he felt he should have said more, should have told him,
“Dad you are the most important person in my whole life and I understand your wanting to go now. I wish I had done more to make you feel useful and loved and needed. I should have done more. So please forgive me.” But he didn’t think of that. He thinks of it much later, when nothing can be done, nothing but feeling sadness and remorse.
Traffic was medium. He found a space in the free two-hour parking section located a little walk from the hospital and began the downhill trek to its entrance. Soon he was climbing the stairs to the 4th floor, soon walking down the hallway to his father’s room. He entered and went to the bedside. His father was still, eyes slightly open, tongue semi sticking out the side of his mouth. His poor dad he thought. What a sad end. Was he still breathing? He dashed out to get a nurse, who followed him in with a stethoscope. She checked for respiration several times, then looked at the son.
“I don’t hear anything. Let me find his nurse.”
She went out, he soon joined her in the hallway where his father’s regular nurse came up to them.
“I’m afraid he has already passed. I clocked his time of death at 4:30 pm.”
He’d arrived at 4:35 pm, just missed the last breath.
What could he have done if he had been there? Nothing, but watch his father die. He was just like his dad in so many ways, and now just as his father missed his own mother’s passing by minutes, so had he. This nurse wanted to make something clear to him. She said,
“I’d asked your father if he wanted more pain killer. He went like this,” she demonstrated a single nod of the head.
The last time he’d seen the nurse was a little over an hour ago. He went up to her and asked,
“My dad’s so dehydrated, would it be possible to put him back on a water IV?”
Noticing his dismay and concern she said,
“If I put him on the water IV it will just prolong his life and discomfort. Your father said he wants to die, are you going to respect his wishes? Are you ready for him to die?”
Ready for him to die!? Of course, he wasn’t ready! He didn’t want to lose him, not now, not ever.
The son didn’t answer the question and said instead,
“My dad has some tears rolling down his cheek. He may be in pain. He may want more painkillers. I am going home to eat dinner and I’ll be right back.”
The day before the nurse gave his dad the first pain injection, causing him to be unresponsive for 18 hours. Late that night the son received a phone call from the hospital.
“I’m coming right down,” he said.
He did. It was tricky figuring how to get to his father’s room since the main entrance was closed. He had to go the long way around. It seemed forever getting to where he needed to go, long passages, and many sets of stairs, uncertain turns, and getting lost once or twice. Then sitting at his father’s bedside holding his hand and rubbing his shoulder, talking to him, he tried in vain to get a response from him. The next morning, back at the bedside, his dad seemed to become conscious again, but he couldn’t talk, he was so dehydrated. With his condition, Dysphagia, he was unable to eat or drink without it going into his lungs. What a terrible way to go. His dad had told him when they arrived a few days before,
“I just want to go quickly without pain.”
The son had promised he would watch over him to make sure that he would get what he wanted.
After that pain injection, his father had been either unconscious or semi-conscious as he tried to communicate with him. The son asked him if he would nod his head for yes and shake his head for no. He kept feeding his dad little sips of water from a paper cup, trying to moisten his mouth, it looked so terribly dry and uncomfortable. Then he would seem to go unconscious again, then after a while, he seemed to come to for a bit. It was so hard to tell, to be sure. There came a moment when his dad raised his left arm up, as though trying to reach out for something and like a fool the son didn’t grasp the meaning—he should have reached out and took his father’s hand! Just another regret he’ll have later, that he didn’t understand, that he didn’t know what to do.
Oh Christ he thought, we’re surrounded by events and in the middle of all this sometimes all we can do is bear witness. If only we had acted, done this, or that, damn it—done something! Now he knew he should have gotten his dad to a doctor sooner. The coughing fits he had after some of their meals was a sign something was wrong. If he had taken him in to see his doctor the condition, Dysphagia, could have been diagnosed sooner and with a change in diet and some exercises it might have been possible to keep going awhile longer. Maybe another year or six months at least. But now he’ll never know and always wonder. He’d done a good job taking care of his dad, but he had his faults and sometimes he didn’t measure up to the responsibility. He should have done better. This mistake he would have to live with, another one.
Now his father was gone. The nurse said, “If you want to collect your father’s things and spend some time at his bedside the body will not be moved for a few hours.”
He walked back into the room where his father lay. This is it! He knew this was coming. He knew his dad had left forever, like his mother 8 years before. Yet his parents went through this loss of their parents departing, most people do. They survive, they go on, live again, but he felt he could not live again.
Going through the bedside drawers, the son collected a few of his dad’s belongings, pants, sweater, shirt. He missed the old shoes under the window sill, which his dad had called his barges, because they were big and easily slipped on without having to bend over. Grabbing up his dad’s little radio from the table, it was still chattering a talk-show. He thought of all the times this little radio had driven him nuts, blasting away, inches from his dad’s ear. His father was so lonely he had to have, as he called it, his little friend, this damn radio by his side constantly.
It was a reminder that he, the son, wasn’t a good enough companion, wasn’t talkative enough for his dad to not feel so lonely. Well damn it—he wasn’t good at small talk and his dad mostly just wanted to talk and talk about anything, and he wanted someone to listen, to give him attention. Oh, why hadn’t he given him more of that attention? It may have made a huge difference. His dad might still be with him. Then he remembered the time he told his dad that he couldn’t see well enough to wash the dishes anymore. There was always food left on them and the son had to rewash them. He remembered the hurt expression on his dad’s face. It was wrong to say that to him, to do what he did. It was so wrong to deny his dad the right to physically be part of the household chores.
Okay, so they weren’t clean, find another way to do the damn dishes, just let your father be part of the process. He wanted to contribute, do his share, not have everything done for him. You were concerned with not wasting time—precious fucking time! YOUR time! For those hobbies, as dad used to call them. Those artistic hobbies that kept you sane, gave some hope for a productive future. You’d felt resentment dropping your career to move north and take care of him. This selfishness was just another reminder you were all too human, all too concerned with yourself and not him. Him, in his 90s, near the end. You damn fool! Live and learn. Live with the memory of what you did or didn’t do. He needed more from you especially in that last year. Mom had known how to listen to him, yet she was able to keep up with her chores and interests, but she knew the secret to keep dad company. The son just wasn’t any good at it. Just add it to the list. God damn it, another thing to feel bad about.
Cleaning out the old newspapers, he found notes on scraps of paper his dad had written while in the hospital bed those last days. One note, a message to him asking where was he? His dad’s mind had been starting to go with the dehydration and lack of food, the son had arranged to come later one morning, his dad had forgotten the arrangement. There were crazy notes to the nurse and doctor asking them why he was being kept captive there, was it because he had changed his name when he was 21, during World War II, from a German name to an English name? He tried to write his phone number to have them call the son at home to verify this, but he was unable to remember all the digits, or instructions to the staff to give him sleeping pills, put him in a car, plug the exhaust pipe and let the carbon monoxide do the job. He actually wrote he wanted them to kill him.
He couldn’t bring himself to remove his dad’s wristwatch, it felt wrong to do that, so he didn’t. Then he stood looking down at his father. Tears rolled down his cheeks. In a wavering voice he said,
“Oh dad, this is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. To say goodbye to your body. To say goodbye to you for the last time. Oh dad, I love you so.”
After a while he left. Hugging his father’s belongings against his chest, he passed an older east Indian man, a patient in the next bed, who looked at the son with deep frightened eyes that knew what had been lost. Two east Indian women who had come to visit the man stood by the doorway. Knowing his father had passed, they gave the son a little bow and namaste as a caring recognition of his sorrow.
The son went home, home to an empty house. The same house he lived in with his dad for almost 5 years. On the phone his cousin offered to come to stay with him, he thanked her but declined. He knew he must go through this time alone. He cried every day for ten days straight. Deep sobbing, gut-wrenching, and through the sadness, through the terrible longing for his father, somehow he felt closer to him as he paid this emotional tribute. What else could he do? He knew it was the right thing, what he needed to do and now it is one of the few things he looks back on and is glad he did. The other was spreading his parents’ ashes on a beautiful vista by the sea, a place they both enjoyed going to on their drives.
As the executor of his father’s will, there was much business to attend to settle the estate and it took the whole year to complete. The funeral home, the cremation, the obituary in his father’s hometown newspaper, hiring the attorney to help with probate, and later the time he had to fight with the banks to get the stalled paperwork processed for the accounts. His tax consultant had warned him about the end of the year coming, to settle the estate before then. Then came tax season and the great difficulty he faced dealing with the financial impact of the estate. The business, the emotions, the ever-pressing feeling of loss, the sense that life must go on and that he must go on, that he must find a way to move ahead. So much had happened in one year. So much lost and what was gained so hard to accept.
A year later, on the anniversary of his dad’s passing, he still feels the loss, and added to it, a renewed loss of his mother. Both of them gone and he living alone in their small retirement home. After confiding in a friend his feelings, the man replies “You’ll never get over that. You will always miss them, wish they were here again.” Surprisingly his friend’s remark helps a great deal, to know he is not alone in his grief, that others feel the same.
The son stands again by the sea vista looking out at the beautiful view. Overhead cotton colored clouds float across a cerulean blue sky, to his right the channel islands far in the distance with the mainland bordering on the left separated by a glittering cobalt blue ocean, below, the sandy seashore, its tide stretching far out to rolling waves. Nearby, just on the other side of the railing, he can see evidence of his parents ashes, still visible, still there a year later. Green grass has grown up around and through those ashes and it gives him quite a feeling to see them, knowing what they are. It was not his special place, but theirs. Now he realizes it’s special to him as well, that he will be back every anniversary of their passing, that he will go on, live again, live until his time comes until it’s time to join them.