This picture is from the other side of a sharp dividing line that separates life with my dad and life without him. When I poured those three cups of tea, I was still buoyed by hope that I could get him to eat, that I could comfort him, that we would have beautiful moments together that would sustain me when he finally died.
It's hard to know exactly when the dying begins. I don't mean the incremental dying we do from the moment we're born – I mean the serious business of the spirit preparing to leave the body and all the focus and determination it requires. It sneaks up on you. You read it on the faces of friends – their astonishment at all the things you've dulled yourself to. Sometimes you dread their visits, the hushed conversations in the kitchen that force you say things you never imagined saying, things that leave you feeling bewildered and desolate.
Even when my father, lying in pain on the chaise, wished aloud that we could do for him what we did for our ancient, crippled dog, my mother and I couldn't fully accept the inevitability of his death. Instead, my mother stroked his hair and told him that a course of mild chemo would make him feel better, that he'd have some good days again.
"No," my father said. "I want to die." Later, when things got really bad and we moved him to a hospital bed that smelled of plastic, his impatience grew stronger. Launching himself over the edge of the mattress, he pleaded with us, with the gods, with nature. "I have to get out of here," he insisted. The spirit wanted out of the body, and there was nothing stopping it.
His oncologist concurred. My father lay on the stainless steel examining table wrapped in our coats, gray and shivering and small, while my mom and I took in the word "hospice." I hammered the doctor with questions to avoid seeing my mother's valiant, radiant face crumple. He asked if I was a nurse. In the midst of all the devastation, I remember a perverse moment of pleasure: Finally, recognition for my pretend internet medical training! And then: Why didn't he think I was a doctor?
My father became more animal than man. The pain of his back breaking vertebrae by vertebrae made him snarl like a wounded beast. He stopped reading, he stopped eating, he stopped communicating beyond basic commands. He shed his characteristic refinement and politesse, his shy affection, his insatiable curiosity, his endearing charm, his unwavering sense of propriety. He couldn't bear people - people who wanted to love him, feed him, comfort him. My brothers and I overwhelmed him with our tall, strapping bodies that brimmed with vitality and distracted him from his new purpose: to go ahead and get on with it.
I made myself small. At night, I camped out on the floor near his bed, resisting the urge to curl up on the corner of the mattress to be closer to him while he slept. My mother and I spent hours every day in an elaborate rearranging process, trying to make him comfortable. I wept in frustration at my clumsiness and ineptitude, my lack of physical strength. The failures mounted: I couldn't lift him, I couldn't get him to take his painkillers, I couldn't alleviate his constant anxiety, I couldn't convince him to eat or drink.
And yet I was one of the few people he could tolerate, the one who knew how to position the pillow, the one who discovered that foot massages were the purest form of relief. My heart swelled when he called for me, when he let me wash and shave and perfume him. These small victories filled me with a pride and purpose that had always eluded me.
The night before my dad died, my oldest brother convinced me to go home and get some badly needed sleep. When my dad noticed I was gone, he panicked. "How will I sleep tonight?" he fretted. I weep every time I think about this - not so much out of guilt for not being with him that night, but from the honor of knowing I was capable of giving him momentary peace. Peace was all I ever wanted for him – and what I hope for him now, on Father's Day.
Love you and miss you more than words can say, sweet Dad. Your memory is eternal.