Friday, July 18, 2014

Greatest Loves

I wasn’t in the room when my father died.

We knew it would be that day. We could tell the night before, when his breath was rumbling up as if from deep beneath a gravel swamp. When he could no longer move his right eye, or blink with his left. His mouth hung open, his chest heaved in quick pants. He lay on his back with his ankles crossed, knees bent, legs splayed. They were so thin beneath the sheets, you could hardly see that they existed. Just a torso. 

Six of his seven children sat around his bed that day. I was on his left, holding his hand. His eyes, for the most part, didn’t focus on us, but, with effort, he could turn his head. My youngest sister came around to my side, to try and be near him. I watched her face. I could see the sick feeling well up, the naked fear and understanding of who and what she was witnessing. The strength she was desperate to muster against the terrible shock of that dreaded moment that was so quickly approaching. She paused, not breathing, and his good eye moved to her face. She said in a small voice, full of selfless compassion, “Hi, Dad…”, then slowly turned and left the room. His eye moved to mine, a flash of fear and concern, a father’s panicked demand mixed with helplessness, to help him take care of her. I whispered, “She’ll be ok. She will. I promise.” His focus drifted again, as if something was hovering near the ceiling.

We took turns then, each having a moment alone with what was left of him.

The night before, I was desperate to do something different – to feel alive and taste air that didn’t taste like hospital. My friend was in town. We had a night out planned for some time. Before meeting up with her, my sisters and I and our mother were in his room, talking about who would stay there that night. To keep watch for final moments. My older sister couldn’t, she knew, and was gently clear. It was Liz, or I, or Evan. Evan hadn’t yet, up to that point, and as strong as he had been through it all, I saw the little brother, first born son, resistant to being alone with it. I have deep regret now, to have stood for what I wanted and thought I needed to do, telling Liz I couldn’t. Her face was so defeated, open, childlike. My big sister.
I suppose mine looked no different.

She stayed the night. Mom relieved her in the morning, called us all to come around lunchtime. It was a perfect sunny summer Sunday. I had been up until 5 or 6am, in a random hotel room with a couple friendly guys my friend and I had met. At one point I stood, I would imagine to them, quite strangely – staring out the window across the harbor, to the hospital. That was the moment dawn decided to break. You could see the other side of the harbor, soft light on buildings and trees, but somehow the sky remained dark, and the brightest stars still shone.

That’s what limbo is. Here and not here. There and not there. In-between everything – death and life, child and adult, innocence and tragedy. It is being at the edge of a cliff, the blackness of an unknown transition all that is visible. That’s what I talked to him about in our last moment. Tried to share with him, I suppose. So he’d be less alone, trapped inside like he was, unable to move and speak. That moment, before a great change. I told him I watched the last sunrise for him, and it was beautiful, and full of a strange clarity.

After we each had some time, we sat on the hospital balcony, quiet, together. Liz spoke with nurses, Laura, the youngest sister, wandered in and out, back and forth from each of us. I was outside when he left. Laura came through the balcony door and released this sound… something akin to a slow break. Almost tangible. She choked on the words that I heard instead through her eyes, while our eldest sisters Andrea and Alayna embraced each side of her. Buried in their arms, her eyes drilled into mine, and the sight of that moment has stayed vivid in my mind like a postcard from another time and place, with colours too bright, too saturated, to ever dull:

He’s gone.

I held her face in my hands, I’m not sure how long, maybe only a second, then moved towards the room. It was so quiet inside. No rattle. No panting. I asked someone to call the funeral home. I remembered that Cyndi was coming, Dad’s on-and-off-again girlfriend, so I took a breath, and made the call to her. I told her I loved her and hung up, when my heart jumped – Where was my brother? He was there, in the room with him. Is he ok? Where did he go? I went back to the balcony, where he stood, apart from the rest, hands on the rail, eyes to the sky. I wrapped my arms around his back and gripped his forearms tightly. I felt him slouch, exhale, choke, then gently pull my arm away after a moment, to stand straight again.

That was the second time that day I felt my heart leave my body for a sibling. 

I turned, hearing our oldest sister let out a sob, like the weight of how much her younger siblings were feeling suddenly slammed into her, mixing cruelly with the part of her that felt separate, different. The part that didn't allow herself permission to feel her own mixed loss for a man she had such a different experience of. I held her too, because I knew those sobs being unleashed from the bottom of her big, beautiful heart held her own personal confusion, but mostly were not for her. She was among her siblings, who just lost their Dad, and she couldn’t fix it. She kept saying, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry you guys have to go through this.”

Then I was outside the hospital, hugging my knees on the curb, smoking. I called to tell the person who had been my partner – a relationship that, from that last close moment over the phone, came to the end of its final disintegration. I texted a friend, who had just lost his own father two days before, who knew like no one else could just how much was behind those words on the screen, “He just left.” I saw the others walking in slow motion towards their cars, like they were dreaming, and their minds were awake in some alternate universe. A question would be posed, that would wake them for a moment, long enough to mumble an answer. "Where should we go now?"
Words wandered between us, something about mom’s house, and I didn’t want to go but I said nothing. They left. After awhile and a few cigarettes, I went back upstairs burdened with the sinking knowledge that I would never see him again after this day.
In his room, soon to be someone else’s, they were getting ready to prepare him. 

"Did we get all of his things?" I asked, realizing they saw someone lost, wandering in, without purpose, and it wasn't their job to deal with one broken person who stayed behind.
"Yes" they said.
... I couldn’t move away.
“Do you need a minute?” the older nurse asked me.
“No… it’s ok…” I said, still not moving.

I stood silent, taking it all in. His face, so different without life. The quiet. I finally pulled my gaze away from him, and said to the nurses, and maybe to him, with all the sincerity my heart has ever held,

“Thank you. For everything.” 

The ten minute drive to mom’s took me over an hour. I kept stopping, pulling over, driving down side streets, trying to think of something or somewhere else, someone that would bring comfort. I kept finding only empty.

It’s been a year now. A year of tumultuous discovery, aloneness, and alarming numbness - Except for an intense admiration and love for my family. I've been simultaneously rife with an opening so complete to life and being alive, and an emptiness that is indescribable - as if I'd severed from myself to survive. Somewhere in all of it, the confusion and piecing together of myself, is a lesson in self-forgiveness. Of beautiful humanness, and imperfection. An understanding that time provides the means to feel what cannot be felt all at once. I could only look to those around me, who grieved more openly, and fall in love with their courage, while aching to relieve it for them in any amount, any way possible.

I didn't know how big my heart was, but it is becoming so clear. As are the things that are important, and have become solid priorities in my thinking and actions:  Staying humble, accepting, grateful - all of which lead to a compassion of indescribable depth, which in turn, leads to being truly free.

The tears I've cried this week, are more than I ever did then, and are profoundly beautiful.

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