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I’ve been blogging since 2004, at various places, under various banners. So, in a sense, this is not my 500th post. This is my 500th post on this particular blog, this particular version, this particular incarnation: John 5.0
Five hundred posts seems to be a milestone of sorts, and, it seems that a milestone needs to have a milestone story.
I looked at some things I’ve been writing, but, none of it really seemed milestone worthy. Though, truthfully, a milestone is often something subjective — my milestone and yours aren’t always weighted the same way.
I thought about the many milestones in my life, and decided that I’d share The Milestone of milestones, the few moments that have had the biggest impact on my life: the last hour of my father’s life. It seems to me that just as our world history is divided into two periods, B.C.E. and A.D., that my life has a demarcation line: life with dad, and life after.
I’ve been working on something since April, a telling of that last hour. It’s a story I’ve tried to write many times in the past thirty-odd years, and, always, it never seems to come together. In fact, some of my tellings of this tale have been too clinical, too boring to show anyone.
I know some of my struggle with the telling comes from my closeness to it — the most painful moments are the hardest to write about, or, at least, to write about in a way that people can relate to, even if they’ve not lost a parent.
I thought I’d try a new voice, a new form. Gone are the long, wordy sentences. Instead, its ended up looking rather like a poem, but, it isn’t. It’s meant to be, like the big, black clock in the story, a ticking away of moments, a telling of last moments. It’s not finalized, and it’s still pretty rough around the edges. But, I think the time is right to share, flaws and all. The words have sat in a notebook for several months, and have sat for years in my mind. It’s time to utter the words, to give them life outside of the notebook. Perhaps, then, I’ll be able to see it with new eyes, and be able to give it the glistening polish I can’t seem to find right now.
The Last Hour
It was just the two of us in the small room.
You and I.
Your bed was almost pushed into a corner,
to allow room for the monitors and IVs.
It was painfully fitting, your bed almost in the corner,
trying to keep the dying from being proudly displayed in the room’s center.
It was quiet, as all hospital room seem to be,
with just the muted noises from the corridor:
footsteps passing by
carts rolling down the hall
brief snippets of conversation.
Only the muted noises in the room:
the beep-beep-beep of your heart monitor (the beats having gotten slower over the past few hours)
the strangely hypnotic, rhythmic sound of the oxygen flowing through the tube and into your lungs
the tick-tick-tick of the big, black clock that hung on the wall, across from your bed.
God (I still believed in him then) I hated that clock:
its deranged placement, across from your bed, as if a dying person would want to count his last moments slipping away,
and those ticks — each tick a reminder to me that time was no longer being counted in months, weeks, days, or hours.
Your coma kept you from seeing, talking, actively being a part of your last moments.
But, did you hear the ticking clock?
Were you counting your last moments?
The room was bright.
It was the eighth day of February.
Winter. It should be cold, cloudy.
You are lying in a bed, comatose, dying, and the row of windows was letting in the brightest sunshine imaginable.
The eighth floor windows displayed only a joyously blue sky.
Why wasn’t the day as cold as the feeling that was spread across my chest, icy as the grip that held my heart?
I couldn’t seem to stay still.
One moment I was standing by your bed, holding your hand; the next moment, I was standing at the window
…watching the cars drive in and out of the parking lot, circling, looking for spaces.
The sight of all the people, going about their business, filled me with an indescribable sense of rage: how dare their lives be continuing without incident, while I was there, with you, knowing your death was imminent.
Life was going on around me, and my world was ending.
I didn’t know our time together was just about to be over, only that when the doctors came by earlier in the morning, they expected your death to occur in less than twenty four hours; more realistically: by the end of the day.
I was at the window when you made a noise: a gasping, gurgling sound.
I turned from the window and strode back to the bed.
I reached out to touch you, and, for the first time since you’d been in the coma, your fingers felt like icicles.
The reassuring warmth of your hands had vanished.
My heart began to race. I didn’t know what was happening, but, I also knew that It was happening: Death was beginning to suck the warmth from your heart and soul.
Then I noticed your breathing —
between the intake of breath……….and the outlet of breath.
All these years later, I still cannot say what made me lift the blanket off you and look at your legs.
At first, I thought there must be a reflection, coming from something, I didn’t know what.
The blue wasn’t a reflection: it was the color of your skin. Your legs were blue, bluer than the sky that was plastered across the windows.
Your legs looked like the blue ice packs we kept in the freezer at home.
A luminescent blue radiated from inside your legs, making them look shiny and smooth.
I reached out to touch them.
Icicles. Just like your hands.
And then I knew.
It wasn’t just happening, it was nearly through happening.
I leaned towards your ears and said, “Hang on daddy. I need to call mom. Tell her to come back. Hang on. Please wait!”
I picked up the phone on the table next to the bed –
it was green, the same dark green that was everywhere in this hospital on the Army base.
I dialed the number of my mom’s friend, the one she’d brought my younger brother to, after the school day was over.
I’d begged to stay home from school, to be at the hospital that day. I had just turned fourteen, and my brother had just turned nine.
Fourteen was old enough to be at the hospital, to understand what was going on.
Nine seemed too young, so mom took him to school, then to her friend’s after school.
I knew mom would be there, having a cup of tea with her friend, taking a few minutes for herself, gathering her strength.
Though she’s long gone now, I remember the phone number of my mom’s friend, dialing it on the old, Army green rotary phone.
Like every other moment of that last hour, the details are thickly scarred across my soul.
My mom’s friend answered, then passed the phone to mom when she heard my voice say “Hi.”
“What is it, sweet?” Mom’s voice was calm, tense.
“Come back here. Hurry. I think he’s going. He’s turning blue.”
She didn’t reply — she just hung up the phone.
It would take her fifteen or twenty minutes at least, before she was back in the room — driving, parking, walking.
I hung up the phone, and turned to you,
“Hang on daddy. She’s on her way.”
I went out into the hall to find someone, and encountered some family friends exiting the elevator.
“I think he’s going”, I said, “Mom’s on her way back. I told him to wait for her.”
On my way to the nurse’s station, another family friend walked by,
And I repeated the words again.
I found a nurse, and we walked back to the room.
The nurse looked at your heart monitor, listened to your breathing,
felt your cold hands, and saw your blue legs.
As gently as she could, she confirmed what I already knew:
You were almost gone.
Your breathing grew more ragged, as if each breath were a titanic struggle–
Your nose wrinkled, and your brow grew deeply furrowed with each intake of breath, as if it took all of your remaining concentration to muster the strength to draw the breath.
I grabbed your hand –
and repeated my mantra:
“Hold on. She’s on her way. Just a few more minutes. Hang on.”
The family friends were all standing quietly around the room.
They’re the only thing in that hour I barely remember –
I remember meeting them out in the hall,
I remember them standing at various places in the room.
But, if they said anything to me, I don’t recall.
In my memory, they’re just silent sentinels standing watch.
I kept walking back and forth
from bed to window, with its clear view of the main street leading to the hospital, with the parking lots on each side.
I’d spent so much time in the hospital rooms over the months of your various hospitalizations:
triple heart bypass
the brain tumor surgery that has ultimately lead you to these last moments
I’d become an expert at picking out friends’ cars as they arrived, or were circling, looking for a spot to park, on their way to visit you.
Each trip to the window gave me a chance to quickly scan the area, looking for mom driving the green station wagon, with its peeling fake wood panelling.
After the quick look out of the window, I’d go back to you,
grab your hand
repeat my plea to hang on
repeat my assurance that mom was on her way.
Every breath seemed more difficult than the one before it:
the wrinkle in your nose more determined
the brow more deeply creased, more intent, more focused.
But, each time you finally managed to get the breath.
Again, I looked out the window, just in time to see the station wagon turning into the closest parking lot
and into a very close space that someone was just backing out of (Fate? God? Coincidence?)
I looked back at you, nearly shouting “She’s here!”
I was back at the bed, holding your hand.
hold on daddy.
just a few minutes more.
Perhaps it was my imagination, my wishful thinking, but your struggle to breath eased –
the breaths were still an effort, but they seemed less desperate.
And then mom was there.
I moved back a few steps so she could get to you.
She grabbed your hand, and I heard her say, in a tone of voice I’d never heard before, or since:
“I’m here love. It’s okay.”
She kissed your cheek, and I saw her grip tighten on your hand.
You took one more breath, easy, no struggle.
Within sixty seconds, the heart monitor stopped, blaring out its single, mournful, monotone note.
You were gone.
I know you know this story daddy
since it is your story,
since you were the one who hung on.
But you went too fast.
I know you waited for mom, to hear her voice tell you it was okay.
But you went too fast.
I never got to say goodbye.
I was so busy telling you to wait, to hold on
that I never got the chance to say “I love you” –
never got the chance to say “goodbye.”
Mostly, I wish I could have said “thank you for waiting”
I knew mom would have been forever heartbroken had you gone while she was gone.
I knew she had to be there in your last moments
and you knew it too, because you waited.
But you went to fast.
I can never say goodbye to you now
or I Love You
or Thank You.
You’re gone, thirty-three years now (the same number of years you and mom were married).
After all this time, I suspect that even within your tomb, you’re gone
ashes to ashes
from someone to nothing, such is the cycle.
For thirty-three years I’ve longed to say goodbye, I love you, it is okay for you to go.
Yet, more than that, more than anything,
I wish I could tell you thank you
for letting me witness, during the most horrible moment of my life, the most beautiful moment of my life:
a moment of incredible love and beauty.
Thank you, dad, for waiting
for teaching me, for showing me,
The ultimate definition of love.