Tuesday December 18 (really September 16)
I wrote this after my father died.
The day my father died was like every day in the previous week. I awoke early, had a few seconds before reality hit me, then stepped out of bed, groggy and fearful. I walked down the narrow hallway, turned on the kitchen light, and phoned the hospital to see if he was still alive. There would be a pause while a nurse looked for and at a chart. There would be a pause while I held my breath. Then the exhilaration. “No change.” No news was good news. I would then carefully dress for my day in Extended Care. I’d drive to the nearest town, park my car, and get on the Skytrain.
It was September. School had just started and my son was at his first job. A few of those days he went to the hospital with me but there was no sympathy for a young man with a dying grandfather — not at a store that sold chatckes and was named Chatckes. The wealthy must be taken care of. So he’d go his direction and I’d go mine. Neither of us suspected Grandpa would die. It was incomprehensible.
When I’d reach Vancouver, I’d switch from one mode of transportation to another, taking a bus to the busy area of town where the hospital was. Then I’d pause again. I would go for coffee and wait, perhaps half an hour, building my stamina for the day ahead. It became a ritual. The same coffee shop on Broadway, sitting on a high stool at the window, watching the rain, watching the people, drinking the tea, waiting for the inevitable. I’d have to go.
I’d walk through the doors and the dread would hit me. Before I’d even turn to the right and see the elevators, I’d be in the Emergency, the same place they’d brought him by ambulance. The shock that this was really happening. My father — so separate and apart from the world, so king-like — was now just a body some young unknown man maneuvered and invaded.
Up the elevator, pleasant remarks to the nurses, always the good girl, the dutiful daughter, I’d be allowed to enter. And there he’d be. Stretched out, puffy, almost unrecognizable. I’d be so aware of the indignity. This man who was so untouchable, so aloof, now an object on a bed, prodded by strangers. What he couldn’t contain, I did. I held his shame, felt such pity, such sorrow.
The tubes. The glistening face. The stickiness of his brow. Even as his only child I kept my distance. His power was so complete even as an old dying man that I was held back, reserved. The nurses, so jovial — how unlike him, unlike our family. I could do it. I could act the part. But the juxtaposition of the “otherness” of the hospital was one more burden.
It was on the Wednesday he decided to die. The nurses were busy, I came in as usual and he wasn’t in the ward. The priest walked by and I asked, “Do you know where my father is?” “He’s in there,” was the reply. “I’m sure it’s alright to go in.” It wasn’t. Never ask a priest to do a nurse’s job. I know that now. He was in a bed, his open wound exposed, a slash of burgundy guts shocking beyond belief. I froze. A nurse exclaimed in annoyance and ushered me out. The priest was found and reprimanded.
The next day — Was it the next day? — the nurses were discussing his prognosis. He was prone on the bed, the undignified object of the discussion. He was recovering well. He’d need a caregiver. I was saying he’d come to live with my son and I. How this would occur, I had no idea. I had barely enough money for the two of us, having purchased a condo I could ill afford the year before.
The next day, peritonitis set in. He would have to fight. The nurses were amazed at his strong will. One said he was the most strong willed patient she’d had. Would the strong will prevail? No. It wouldn’t.
He was slipping, failing. Even then I knew. He wouldn’t want to live with my son and I, wouldn’t want the reduced life he’d have. It would be his way or no way.
And it was.
The next day, the last day, began in the same way. Same phone call. Same bus ride. Same pause to regroup. The night before I had asked the priest to give him Extreme Unction, the Last Rites. I had done it, not because I was Catholic, or even that my father was Catholic, but because my mother, now so tangible she was almost visible, would have wanted it. As Matt and I had stood on either side of his bed in the hospital gloom, the priest had recited the words that were like an entrance to the Afterlife. I realize now that the presence of God was in that room. At the time, I assumed it was the presence of my mother. Somehow, somehow, she was there. On the other side of the wall behind his bed, watching through the wall. That was what I thought at the time and still, irrationally, think now. There was a sense of impending reunion. A sense of gathered family.
It was a formal leave taking.
The next morning I knew the ritual started must be completed. But not today, I prayed. Not today. Some other day. Some other someday.
He had been moved, was in a private room. I sat by his bed, held his hand. Monitors buzzed. He was connected. Alone in the room with him, I was afraid. I was afraid of my father and afraid of death. I knew death was waiting. I had a talk with him, took on the mantle of the priest from the night before — continued the conversation. “I know you’re going to go,” I told him. “It’s all right. You can go.” (I had read somewhere that you had to free the dying, give them permission. How did I know this? Where had I read it?) “You’ll see Jesus and Joanne. Take their hands. They’ll lead you. Just hold on to their hands. They’ll take you toward a light.” I spoke and stared. Was this really happening? Numb didn’t describe the feelings. Exhaustion didn’t describe it. Hyper sensitive, more reality than reality. That described it. More life in the presence of death than I had ever felt. So intense.
So exhausted. A nurse came in. He needed his dressing changed. I was to wait in the Family Room, a special room reserved for the telling of bad news. Small, cream coloured, it held two ugly love seats and a couple of chairs. How many people had been told in that room, I wondered. What a horrible room. Would they tell me there? I sat and closed my eyes, waited. And then a shocking event. I felt joy. Joy bubbling up from the base of me up through my throat and a picture in my head: My father in his camel coloured sports jacket and that awful pink and blue tie, at Christ Church Cathedral. His hands were raised in the air.
Would he live? Was that the message? What was this? Seconds later the door opened. It was the nurse telling me I could go back.
Back to the room, the death watch. I sat at his side, again holding his hand. The monitors buzzed. I waited in the silence. And then it hit me. He wasn’t there. There was an absence. He was gone. The buzzing monitor said he was alive but I knew he wasn’t. He was empty. I stared. Fear. Discomfort. Then terror.
Outside I found the nurse and told her my suspicion. She wasn’t upset, wasn’t suprised. Simply said I might be right, she’d get the doctor, that the machines kept the body going even after the spirit had left.
I waited. The doctor was called. It was determined. The machine was shut off. And he was dead.
There’s a coldness and an ugliness, an impersonal nature that can’t be disguised in a hospital. It’s a perfect place for the last ugliness of life. I should think of it as a positive, the entrance to the Afterlife. But I don’t.
It’s an ugly sterile, dark, over lit environment. I hated it.