A Meeting with Death
“I’m not afraid to die,” my father said to me when he was diagnosed with stomach cancer.
But he was. Perhaps he was not afraid when he said it, but as he lay in the hospital bed, the monitors silenced and morphine slowly dripping through the I.V. lines, he was afraid. I could feel it.
Perhaps I ought to have said something. I think of that now. They say that, after the passing of a loved one, we all reflect on what we more we could have done or said so that they knew we loved them. I could have spoken. I could have said it was ok, and that he could go, and that he wasn’t alone and there was no need to be afraid.
But I didn’t. He didn’t want me there. After the realization that he would not be leaving the hospital this time, he called me, he said his goodbyes over the phone, and he asked me not to come, not to trouble myself. My sister was there, and my step mother. “Don’t come,” he’d said. “I don’t want a fuss.” He never did. But here I was.
My father was just a few weeks shy of 82 when he died. Despite all his body had been through, four bouts of cancer, a heart condition that was at last regulated with a pacemaker, a hip replacement and three knee replacements, he did not look his age. But as I slipped into the hospital room that late October evening and saw him, his gray-white hair, his waxy skin, his sunken eyes unshaded by the glasses he usually wore, and a toothless mouth that hung a little open, he looked his age and more. My intention was to enter silently. I didn’t want him to be angry I’d come. He had asked me not to make the trip from Virginia to Washington State. He didn’t want the fuss. He wanted to die in peace.
When my father called me to tell me the news, and to say goodbye, he had not been expected to survive the next twenty-four hours. But here he was, nearly a week later, holding on with everything in him. He hadn’t wanted a fuss. But the dying should never die alone, and the living want as long as time will allow. My stepmother had sat beside the bed. She had always been kind and loving to me, but she and my sister had a tenuous relationship based on jealousy and a strange sort of territorialism for my dad’s affection and attention. My stepmother escapes pain by worrying over the insignificant. My sister escaped it by drinking. They had spent the last several days at each other’s throats, until at last, lacking sleep and proper nutrition, my stepmom had to return home, 90 miles away, and my sister had taken as much time off of work as her employers would allow. On the last day of my father’s life, he was alone. And that was why I came. No one should have to die alone.
Only it was possible he wanted it that way. He liked his time alone, and resented it when it was disturbed. As quietly as I could, I set up what I needed for the night. I knew I would not sleep, but I could make myself as comfortable as possible and prepare for a long night of meditation. There is rest in meditation, and sometimes it is more valuable than sleep. I hoped it would benefit him as well. I intended that it should.
At last, dressed comfortably after my long journey from one coast to another, I put on my most comfortable clothes, brushed my teeth, and settled myself onto the chair that unfolded into something not quite like a bed. And then I began to pray. I did. I asked God to grant my father peace. I asked that he would be aware of those around him who had gathered and were gathering to guide him home. Now, looking back on it, I think I perhaps ought to have offered the prayer aloud, but my religion was never something I was encouraged to discuss within the family circle. It was my own thing. I had strayed, in a way. It had benefited me, but I was not welcome to share it. And so I prayed silently.
Shortly after I had said my “amen”, the nurse entered, an older gentleman, who was clearly surprised to see me there. I found that an explanation as to what had brought me and why I’d chosen to come, might be offered to the nurse and to my father in tandem. My father was not lucid, he was barely conscious, but I could sense that there was some awareness in him yet. And so I told him. My stepmother, who struggled with diabetes, was unwell and had to go home. My sister has taken all the time off her employers will allow her. I flew in from Virginia to be with him. I looked to my father as I finished. Would he be angry or relieved. “I’m here to take care of everything,” I finished. I’d said more than the nurse needed to hear. No doubt he was aware already of the reasons why he had been left alone. My stepmom and my sister had sat as long as they were able. They said their goodbyes. There was nothing more to be done. But in truth, I had wanted this time with him. Our relationship had not always been comfortable or easy. In the last few years, as he had struggled with this cancer, we had been given the opportunity to mend things. And I felt we had. There really wasn’t anything more to say, but I wanted to be with him. I wanted to be able to offer a peaceful and calm, and perhaps less fearful space for his passing.
When the nurse left again, I began my meditation. I alternated observing my own breath and listening for his. It was light and shallow and sometimes took a great deal of focus to perceive at all. I fell in and out of awareness. I suppose I must have drifted off to sleep. I woke up each time the nurse came in, and then I’d resume meditating, resume listening, when he’d leave again. I hated all the interruptions. I’ve never understood how people get any rest at all in a hospital with all the constant comings and goings of nurses and other staff.
With the room quiet again, I dropped back in. I suppose I must have fallen asleep, but I woke up again with the sensation that the room was no longer empty. In fact it felt quite full. I knew we were alone, but, at the same time, we were not. I didn’t open my eyes to look; I was afraid to. Whatever was happening was happening for my father, not for me and I feared if I looked, it would dispel it. There was a sensation of love that was so all-encompassing, so expansive and penetrating that I felt in that moment, that if this love had been available to him—or perhaps if he had been able to access it—he would never have had cancer, that it was enough even then to heal him. I felt him healed and whole. And then…little by little, the sensation went away. I did not want to know. I heard no breathing. I heard and felt nothing. And when the nurse came in again, I did not sit up to greet him. I just lay there, pretending I was asleep, wishing I was asleep.
“I think he’s gone,” he said.
Slowly I sat up. Was it wrong to be asleep as he passed? I hadn’t been, but something like it. Was it wrong not to be aware and vigilant? To wait for someone unrelated to make the announcement?
A second was called in and at 2:10 am, they called it. But he had gone ten minutes before. I knew it. I had been there to witness it.