I whispered to my great-aunt, “How’d he do last night?”
And she whispered back, “He was a little restless, but he settled down.”
We both gazed at my father, his six-foot-two-inch frame stretched out in the hospital bed. The bed looked out of place in the lavender room where I’d spent my adolescence–we’d moved it in the day before, right before he was discharged from the hospital.
He hadn’t wanted to die in the hospital. So, eleven days after I left him in the emergency room for pain management, an ambulance brought him home. In prior days, my aunt had cautioned me, “What will you do? You’ll have to go back to work sometime.” But that night, I had wept in the dark and when my husband had reached for me, asking what was wrong, I sobbed out the words, “I want to bring him home! He doesn’t want to die in the hospital.”
And my husband had said, “Then bring him home. We’ll figure it out from there.” So we did.
We drove in a makeshift caravan home from the hospital. My stepmother brought a thick foam pad for the bed in her truck. My husband and I followed the ambulance. A friend of my dad’s brought the aunts with her.
The stretcher couldn’t reach the last bedroom on the right, so the ambulance driver yelled, “MR. MARTIN! MR. MARTIN! YOU HAVE TO WALK!” right in his face. My dad, ravaged by cancer, finally said with annoyance, “I KNOW!”
And he teetered one baby-step after another into the lavender room while I stood in his old room, the master bedroom, watching with tears in my eyes and a pillow clutched in my twenty-four year old hands.
We settled him into his bed. The catheter bag hung on the side, dark urine collecting in a small puddle. I could see his pulse beating fast near his collarbone. His mouth parted, just a little, as he slept. His face looked unfamiliar without his wire-rimmed glasses.
His three aunts had flown out from Wisconsin to be with us. We took turns sitting in the green recliner we’d moved next to his bed. His friend stopped by to simply sit with him.
In the evening, around dinner-time, I went in to the room with the list of medications he needed to take. I pushed the buttons to move the head of the bed so he was sort of sitting. I tried to wake him, but he responded with nonsense.
“Dad! You need to take these pills.” And I placed a pill in his mouth. “No, no! Don’t chew . . . swallow.” I stuck the tip of the straw into his mouth, but he chewed it, reminding me of a goat. I laughed. He chewed up his pills and I reclined the bed flat again.
When the night came, I went to bed, leaving my aunt, a nurse, to sit with him. The next morning, when she reported that he’d had a good night, I said, “Do you think I should go to work?” She nodded, so I showered and off to work I went.
I called around noon to see how he was. He’s had a quiet day, she assured me, so I told her I’d stay until 4 p.m.
I drove into my driveway at 4:30 p.m. and my aunt met me on the sidewalk. “Go get your sister. He doesn’t have much time.” He’d taken a sudden turn for the worse.
My 17-year old sister worked at KFC a mile away. She had worried aloud about who would get her or tell her or pick her up. I told her I would. I turned and drove straight to the fast-food restaurant. I parked. I walked in, asked for her. When she pushed through the swinging doors, I couldn’t speak. I just stared at her and she knew. I choked out, “It’s time.”
And I held her in my arms and we cried a little by the case of fast-food delicacies.
We drove home. Before we could enter the house, my aunt said, “He’s having seizures. Don’t go back there.” I pushed past and went straight to my old bedroom. His body was rigid and shaking and his blue bloodshot eyes were opened.
I turned and rushed my sister away, back down the hallway to the living room. A few moments later, an aunt walked in and quietly said, “He’s gone.”
From the doorway, I saw my mother on the other side of him, crying and saying, “In Your hands, we commit his spirit.” My aunts were hugging, crying. I touched his bearded cheek and said, “Poor daddy.” And then I went back through the house to tell my husband and my stepmother and his best friend that he was gone.
I hadn’t even met the hospice nurse, but she soon arrived and began to make arrangements. We called the funeral director. My other sister arrived and began to wail when she heard he was dead already.
People filled our house. Aunts, friends, family . . . we sat by the dining room table, uneasily making quiet conversation while the funeral director and his assistant tried to maneuver my dad’s hulking frame back out of the room, down the hallway and away from us.
I imagined him zipped into a black bag, like a suit in a garment bag, but I never saw his body again, so I don’t know if this is imagined or true. My husband helped them carried the body out while our conversation around the table grew more desperate and surreal with grim laughter.
And that’s what I was doing seventeen years ago today, when my 47-year old dad’s body fell victim to malignant melanoma and his spirit flew away, free.