What will happen to me?
My father often asked this question. Like answering a child who wonders where babies come from, I gave the simplest answer. I knew that money had been a concern of my father’s for as long as I could remember, so I summarized his financial position and told him he did not need to worry. I even went so far as to write out a statement of his monthly income and expenses for him to carry in his breast pocket. For a while, that was enough.
After a time, his question what will happen to me took on a different tenor. He wanted to know how he would die and how he would be cared for. He was the man who had figured out how to load a battle ship (put in last the things you need first). He thought in scenarios. What was the plan, he wanted to know. But this wasn’t a briefing. He was asking me, his daughter, to acknowledge his death and dying. How to even talk about it? Did he want reassurance – don’t worry, Dad, we’ll take care of you – or did he want a contingency plan? Should I use the word “death” or something sanitized: when the time comes? Did we really have to talk about this? I told him the truth: that I didn’t know what would happen. He could have “the big one” and die suddenly, felled by the heart disease that had plagued him since he was forty-six. He could fall and have to go to the hospital, in which case we would get him home to my house as quickly as possible. Or he could slowly lose ground, in which case he would be at my house with hospice. Whatever happens, Dad, we will work to get you home and you will not be alone. And for a while, that was enough.
He was thinking about his death. But he did not seem frightened. As hard as it was for him to lose my mother, first to dementia and then to lung cancer, he did not rail against the heavens. I asked if he believed in God. He said he wished he could. But he was angry, angry that my mother had feared her own death – a woman who had been devoutly religious, a mother who had been sustained by her faith when her little girl was taken from her by leukemia. He placed the blame on God. If there was a God, how could he let her be afraid, he asked. The Just God was unjust. Then he said, “I hope it doesn’t shock you but I look forward to being with your mother again.” So you believe in the afterlife, I asked him. He replied, “What’s the alternative?”
Six months before he died, he had stopped asking what would happen to him and started predicting his own death. On a visit in July, my brother Bruce called, choked up; hearing our father talk about dying unhinged him, he said. Initially Dad’s phrasing was playful: “I don’t have long before the big jump.” He made it sound like an adventure. He was plummeting to earth.
It was summer then, when the trees drooped from the heat that pressed down from relentlessly blue skies. In better days we would have walked in a lazy serpentine from one circle of shade to the next. Dad would have summoned his breath to recite a passage from The Ancient Mariner, intoning in his best imitation of Richard Burton, “Alone, alone, all, all alone,/ Alone on a wide wide sea!/ And never a saint took pity on/ My soul in agony.”
Instead I watched him pant in his chair, his lungs crunching inward at the end of each exhalation. He interrupted his sentences to breathe. For a while he said I don’t think I can pull through this. Finally he began to say I’m not long for this world.
I didn’t want to believe him. I even found a word for people like him, people who survive long past every prediction, people who teeter on the precipice time and time again, but always pull back from the edge. People like my father are called “biologically tenacious.” On the day that hospice came to evaluate my father, my son told me that he didn’t think Papa could die, would die within six months, as the nurse had to conclude for my father to be admitted in the program. My son was angry at the hospice nurse for her matter-of-fact statement about Dad’s prognosis.
My friend Jim wrote me: “Remember, the descent is like going down stairs. Sometimes one by one, and sometimes several at a time. Nothing you can do about this but be present and loving. His spirit is trying to discard his human body so it can move forward.”
I wrote this prayer:
Help me, God, to be fully present
Help me to feel calm so that I can calm my father
Help me to radiate so much love that it warms him
Help me to support the others who love him on this awful journey
Help me to understand
Help me to love
I knew I had to say goodbye, to say the words that might help release him. I told him my brothers and I would be okay, that he had raised us well. That we would do the best that we could to help him be comfortable. I told him I wished I could make it easier. He told me he was proud of me.
On New Year’s Eve, when we watched the festivities on television, we did not know he had only twelve days left. He turned to me and said, “In my next life I’m going to come back for you.”