On the night my father died, I was knitting a scarf.
Behind me, the door whispered open and the hospice nurse approached my dad’s bedside. We made eye contact, she clearly aware of her own intrusion and me feeling oddly embarrassed. I don’t know if I can explain the feeling. There is something about watching someone close to you die that is extremely personal. It’s like being sick in the bathroom at a party – it should be done behind closed doors with a guardian staged at the outside: she’s fine, she wants to be alone, I’ve asked her already if I can help and she doesn’t want anybody around.
Before me, my father lay stretched out on his back, his face heavenward. His body was more or less catatonic, but I imagine his mind was as active as it could be after a few weeks of pureed nursing home food and the steady application of a morphine patch.
I had a strong urge to make him laugh.
He had always managed to make me laugh.
Once when I got bailing wire caught in my throat in an unfortunate church Youth Group incident, he took me to the emergency room late at night wearing the most horrendous pair of jeans. They were hip-hugging patchwork bellbottoms acquired in Italy circa 1965. It being the early 90s, the world was not yet ready for their return.
Having worked in college administration most of his life, he regularly wore three-piece suits and ties to work — every hair of his silver coif sprayed back into place, his shoes shining like hubcaps. I associate the smell of shoe polish with him. But when the weekends would hit and leisurewear was required, he would apparently become confused and start grabbing anything he had worn at one time or another over the previous decades of his life, no matter how outdated or threadbare.
Those patchwork jeans were evidence of his confusion.
To add to my teenage embarrassment of his outfit choice that night, Dad insisted on ‘cool walking’ down the hall to the examining room. Do not be fooled. ‘Cool walking’ is nothing if not a tragically ironic misnomer. He’d sort of strut, dipping his hips as he walked, swinging his arms. Usually he only did it at home for our benefit, my sisters and me giggling from the kitchen table. But that night, his courage bolstered by his hipster patchwork jeans, he did it in the wide inappropriate open. The teenage bailing-wire-stuck-in-her-throat version of myself should have been horrified. But really. What could I do but laugh?
My fingers gathered up a yard or so of scarf and compressed it into a ball around the needles, little pink and orange hairs sticking out through the creases of my fingers giving me the knuckles of a Jim Henson’s Muppet. From the bed, his breaths didn’t change with the nurse’s approach. They barely sounded organic – the deep, raspy mechanical sound of bellows running on automatic. She stared at her watch, bobbing her forehead to the numbers in her head.
Earlier that afternoon she had stood in the exact same spot with another nurse. The sheets were thrown back from the bottom up, landing on him mid-chest to expose a pair of cancer eaten bird legs. Skin coating bone like a shroud. Notice the mottling pattern on his knees, they said. He doesn’t have long. It’s one of the signs, they said. I looked away from a pair of legs I did not recognize and wish I could forget.
This was not worthy of my father. My father was a dignified man. He was an educator. A traveler. An ambassador. A hard worker, a singer, a hummer, a whistler, a lyricist, an artist, a speaker, a laugher, a storyteller, a mediocre golfer, a horrible trumpet player, an even worse driver, but he was a doer, a believer, a hug-you-close hugger, and the coolest cool walker ever to walk this planet’s crust.
They put the sheet down.
“It won’t be long,” she whispered again after recording her secret numbers. Counting backwards to zero.
I nodded at her with a smile as if she had just informed me that she had spoken with the chef and that my poached salmon was on the way. She hesitated as if there was more and I reinstated the smile on my face for her clear benefit, my closed lips holding in questions about numbers and time. Go check on the salmon, my eyes pleaded.
The corners of my mouth went slack upon her exit and I resumed my task.
Knit one, purl one. Knit one, purl one.
Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe…
We were in a nursing home – a location I detested. My mother had put him there when she she could no longer take care of him. There was no choice. He had been wandering the house at night and running into things. Missing things like corners and toilets. Even then, he did not believe he was dying, becoming more and more disconnectedly zealous as the cancer gnawed away his brain. Jesus was healing him. He would tell anyone who would listen: restaurant servers, friends, bagboys.
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of the table beside his bed and turned to examine its contents for the hundredth time: A bottle of hand lotion. A glass of water with a sponge. A hymnal. A pen and pad of paper. A wrapper left over from one of his morphine patches. I took a deep breath in and let it all the way out in deliberate syncopation with his. Put my hand on top of his. Looked over at his eyes, still focused steadily beyond the cabinet in front of him. I wanted to do something for him. If I couldn’t make him laugh, then at least make it easier. Tell him that it was OK – that we would look after Mom. He did not even know about her bypass surgery two weeks before. I told him we would take care of her. She couldn’t be there, but we would take care of her and her broken heart.
Breathe in, breathe out.
His mouth looked so dry. Earlier that day, I had attempted to sponge a little water into his mouth much like I imagined the people must have done under the cross with the vinegar for a dying Christ. Since he didn’t move his lips, I sort of parted them for him and gave the sponge a tentative squeeze. Nothing happened at first. I was feeling very apostolic when he suddenly erupted into spasms. He was choking. Horrified, I stood there with the sponge poised guiltily in my hand. It died down as quickly as it had started. I returned the sponge to the plate.
I picked up the needles and sang a little while I knitted.
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.
I had been singing him this song all day. Earlier in the week, I had a much broader repertoire – maybe a dozen songs that I had been cycling through: It Is Well With My Soul, Swing Low Sweet Chariot… When Doves Cry.
I may have been grasping.
After a week of wracking my brain for something new and interesting, I had finally given up and had settled on Amazing Grace. It happened naturally. Nothing else felt appropriate.
I once was lost, but now am found. Was blind but now…
I thought that I could detect something different about his breathing, and stopped for a moment to listen mid tune. I wondered if perhaps he was trying to talk to me through his breathing pattern.
I love you. Tell your mother I love her. Tell your sisters I love them.
What if he was trying to tell me that he was sick of me singing the same song over and over?
Knit one. Purl one.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
I tried to keep up with him so that I was matching him stitch for breath. I had to put the scarf down for a while when at one point, after having fallen behind, I caught myself hoping for a split second that he would slow down so that I could catch up.
Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.
I had begun singing again. By default.
Somewhere behind me, I was aware of the hospice nurse taking up her station at a chair in the back of the room. I kept singing, in spite of her.
I finished another row. Something was definitely different about his breathing now. When I set the scarf down on the table beside his bed, I knew that the end was near. The hospice nurse said, “Hm,” behind me. The gap between breaths was widening. I rested my hand on top of his, wondering if he could feel it there. And then, the borders of his breath released and his breath became free.
In that moment, it was paramount that I record the time. Feeling remarkably clearheaded, I stood to my feet and faced the whiteboard, jotting down the time with a red marker that squeaked. I had experienced a similar level of clarity after a car wreck I had been in once. I had just totaled the car and all I could do was reach into the center compartment for a Tic Tac. My breath had needed freshening. I would be talking to paramedics soon. I needed fresh breath.
Five minutes until the next day and I wanted to make sure that nobody got it wrong. I could imagine the nurse saying that it had happened after midnight. But it hadn’t. It had happened then. Right then. The nurse approached the bed. Took his vitals. Nothing. I stared at the numbers I had written on the board. They were clear. Completely legible. There would be no confusion. I should try to close his eyes.
They wouldn’t close.
I imagined then that he was up there somewhere looking down and so I waved at the ceiling, tearing up as I did so. I reached for the scarf.
Behind me, I did not recognize at first that the sounds I was hearing were coming from him. I turned in time to see him convulse violently three times, shaking the whole bed and knocking the table in the process. For a brief moment, a smile lit up his face. He exhaled one last time and then…nothing – the lids of his eyes slammed shut like a curtain dropped at the end of a show.
He had smiled.
I was shaking now, and he had smiled.
I turned back to the whiteboard and replaced the final 5 with a 7. Two minutes had passed. There had been nothing and then nothing again. A pause in the workings. An argument with God. Behind me, the hospice nurse said, “Well, now.”
I picked up the scarf from off the floor where it had fallen in the commotion and stuffed it in my bag, knowing even as I did so that I would rip it apart the next day.