Death of a Child, Birth of an Adult (Part Two: The Last Hour)
The Last Hour
It was just the two of us in the small room.
You and I.
They had pushed your bed into the corner,
to allow room for the monitors and IVs.
It was painfully fitting, your bed in the corner,
trying to keep a dying man 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 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.
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 day was cold though the sky was perfectly clear.
The eighth floor windows displayed only a joyously blue sky.
Why wasn’t the sky as cold as the feeling lodged in 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 continued 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 raced. I didn’t know what was happening, but,
I also knew that It was happening:
Death was sucking 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 beaming through 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 had 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 house 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.
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 click, click, click of the rotary phone
as it returned to its starting place seemed
aggravatingly in sync with
the tick, tick, tick of the clock,
audible reminders that your life was now
measured in ticks and clicks.
My mom’s friend answered, then passed the phone to my 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 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 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.
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 I don’t recall.
In my memory, they’re just silent sentinels standing watch.
I kept walking back and forth
from bed to the 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 led 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 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 captured 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 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.
Maybe it was my imagination, my wishful thinking, but your struggle to breathe 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.
Then one more.
Within sixty seconds, the heart monitor stopped, blaring out its single, mournful, monotone note.
Your icy body was there but
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 broken 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 too fast.
I can never say goodbye to you now
or I Love You
or Thank You.
You’re gone, thirty-nine years now (more than the 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.
Part One of this story was the original version, written a decade after my father’s death. The original story was, to use a photography analogy, a look at my father’s death though a wide-angle lens. It’s the story, briefly, of the last part of my father’s life, from his heart-surgery in December 1978 to his brain surgery in April 1979 to his death in February 1980.
I wrote the story for myself, really. I wasn’t writing about his illness and death in particular; rather, I was writing because there was something I needed to explore. I had never written about my dad’s death, even in my journals. I was uncertain I knew what to write about. At 14, even though we think we know everything, we really don’t know as much as we think. I didn’t know much about death though it wasn’t something our parent’s shielded us from. We’d been to funerals. We’d known people who died. Mom and dad were open about dad’s illness and that the doctors had told him after his brain surgery he had five to eleven months to live.
Dad was dead; he was gone. At fourteen, that was all I needed to know. I was angry. I grieved. I did not understand then the impact his death would have, continues to have, on me.
When I submitted the story to the school journal, at the encouragement of my college English professor, and the editor said he would publish it if I concluded the story with a resolution, a summary of what I’d learned. I added the resolution, and while I hate the resolution (even though the editor liked it and published it), it stuck in the back of my mind.
About every three or four years, I’d pull out the story, copied first from the published pages, then hand-copied from each subsequent draft. As I was copying the sentences, I added words, and deleted and changed other words. There was something, a meaning, that I was trying to get to, but I still didn’t know what it was.
About thirty-odd years after my father died, and after eight or ten re-workings of the story, it morphed into something resembling what’s written above. It looks like a poem, but I don’t think of it as one. I needed the tools of a poem to make the story work. Breaking sentences in the middle to start a new line gives me a way to emphasize details. Also, the use of space, as in writing ‘One breath/One breath/One breath on three separate lines, with a space between each line, let me illustrate the breathing visually, instead of having to describe it at length.
Instead of being the wide-angle look at my father’s death, it became (to continue the photography analogy) a macro-lens-look, a close-up of the last hour of his life. The memory was so painful and so personal decades passed before I could find the words to put it on paper. It took even longer to find the meaning I had been searching for on paper for so long: the power of love.
I don’t know how I knew at fourteen that my mom would be heartbroken for the rest of her life if she wasn’t there when dad died; I don’t know how I knew he had to wait for her. The moment I realized he was so close to death, the only thing that mattered was making sure that mom got to the hospital room and that dad didn’t die until she got there. The constantly talking to him, telling him she was on the way, wasn’t anything I consciously thought of. The words spilled out. Once I said “please wait, mom’s on her way,” I had to keep repeating it. Maybe it was only for me, words to soothe a scared teenaged boy, though I really believe they were words for him. The doctor’s had told us that even though he was in a coma, he could still hear us. I needed him to know mom was on her way. I needed him to know I didn’t want him to leave until she arrived.
Did he hear me? Did he wait? I believe so even if it’s scientifically unprovable.
Do I want to believe he waited?
With all my heart.
I need to believe love has that power.
That is the meaning I had been searching for all those years, through all those story drafts.
The resolution that the editor asked me to write all those years ago wasn’t “learning to make the most of the current moment because it can all change in an instant.”
I finally understand the meaning of what I learned in that last hour of my father’s life.
I understood the power of love.
(Friday, February 8, 2019 was the 39th anniversary of my father’s death.)
I believe he heard you and waited.