‘Were you afraid of the body?’ she asks.
It’s an odd question I think, coming at this time; just as I return from the hospital and find myself standing on her front step, wanting a hug or a whiskey or something. Anything. There are a lot of questions I expect she might ask but this is definitely not one of them.
But no matter, I think, loving her still, for best friends can say anything, and never offend, not when they have a heart as big as hers.
I tell her I’ve never been frightened of my father, not while he was living and certainly not once he was…you know. ‘Dead’ is such an ugly word, harsh somehow, like a swearword. But no, I wasn’t frightened, I go on. Not at all. I just stroked his hair, his fine, wispy hair, which never quite managed to go completely gray. It wasn’t ready to go, you see, anymore than he was.
That’s why I couldn’t leave his bedside, I explain to my friend – to make sure he wasn’t frightened, as I knew he had been all these months, years really, while fighting the brave fight. He held off the Grim Reaper long after most of us would have laid down our swords, exhausted…vanquished. But not my father, my gentle knight, my defender and protector. He was both courageous and afraid – for what is courage without fear? In the end, he was outnumbered by his foes – by the cancer, the anemia and finally the leukemia that laid him susceptible to so many attackers from within. We don’t even know which of them struck the fatal blow. I think it was a random marauder, an opportunist come to join the melee, sneaking in like a common thief and taking him by surprise.
My father’s fear of death pierced my heart as if it was my own death I was facing; as inevitably we all do. I cried helplessly for the frightened little boy inside him, deciding way back then, while he was still at home, that every warrior should die with his hand over his heart, and if he couldn’t do that for himself, then I would place my own hand there instead…to mark his leave-taking…and his final home-coming…with honor and respect. Yes, every warrior deserves that.
‘The last days of that battle nearly took us all with him, you know’, I say, turning back to my kind-eyed friend. He fought and fought; too hard; too long; till we all wept with the sheer wanting for him to be at peace; as much as we wept with the longing to hold onto him for just one more day. The battery of machines to which he was attached, kept up their steady, metronomic pace – a blip here to announce that more IV fluid was needed; a pulsing light there to warn that his blood pressure was dropping. That was the moment we dreaded most – when his blood pressure would fall and not stop. Each time the needle on the blood pressure unit began to fall we held our collective breath, my mother, my two brothers and their wives and sometimes our children, as they ghosted in and out, leaving exams and work schedules to be with their adored Pa.
On the fourth night, after sleeping days and nights on waiting room chairs or resting my head on the cold bars of his bed in the Intensive Care Unit, the nurses sent us home to get some rest. It had been days since they’d switched off life support – it should have taken minutes; hours at most. We thought his heart would give out long before this, they apologized, as if they could help it somehow – so sorry, they intoned, patting our arms. He’s fighting so hard. Such an ordeal for you. But they didn’t understand my father’s warrior heart, or his unrelenting terror of death. Who can? Perhaps only a daughter who has always felt her umbilical cord was attached as firmly to her father as to her mother. We are alike, he and I. Or were. No! We are. It was the thought of him petrified, locked inside his own mind, unconscious and unresponsive, feeling and thinking God only knew what, that drove me mad with my own grief and horror.
I couldn’t go home to rest…it was too far…even the room at the lodge across the street seemed too distant. Indeed, ten steps from his room were impossibly far. So I went back to the threadbare, brokenly-furnished room that had been made available for ‘family’ and couldn’t rest there either.
But at least I could close the door and do the thing I most needed to do, and which my father most needed me to do – to commune with his spirit. This is the part of the story I keep from my friend, at least until later. Right now she feels (I can tell by the way she looks at my scrawny and ragged form with such compassion), that my hold upon sanity is tenuous enough.
But it is the crucial point, both for him and for me. If only I could reach him in his unconscious state, speak to him spirit to spirit, he would know his belief in the afterlife, in the existence of his own consciousness beyond the physical, was founded in truth. Then he would be able to let go of his body in peace and surety. He need no longer fear ‘non-being’, his own extinction. He need fear nothing; and without that fear, he would be able to ‘let go’…if only I could reach him.
Some part of me remembers my own connection to all that is. Some part of me, pieced together from fragments of childhood (before I forgot, as all humans do, who I really am), has always known and comprehended the great expansiveness inside us, which is timeless and endless, and infinitely protected; and that is the part of me that reached out to my beleaguered father from that drab, lonely room. It reached out and curled its way along the now dimly lit corridors, past the nurses’ station, through the heavy, stainless steel doors that led to his isolated ward, and entered directly into his heart.
Exactly what passed in that last earthly communication between father and daughter is too private to share in detail; but I can tell you he heard me and answered. I felt it in the profound peace that suffused my own being and was assured of it unshakably when, ten minutes later, the final call came from the ICU nurse.
‘Hurry!’ she urged. ‘His blood pressure’s plummeting.’
I flew on clumsy, unshod feet, falling over chairs and bumping shoulders with other half-panicked hospital visitors. It was an unfathomably long journey.
Entering the ICU, my eyes went instantly to the needle on the blood pressure gauge. Zero. I was too late! I had let him down. I promised! I promised he would not die without my hand over his heart, feeling his last heartbeats and encouraging…easing… his passage.
My legs somehow took me the last few steps to his side. I placed my right hand over his still chest…hoping. It was then my father answered me – three beautiful, peaceful breaths rose up out of the chest I had cuddled against as a babe; and three gentle, fading heartbeats petered out under the pressure of my grateful palms. He had waited for me.
They say my father’s heart gave out at last, but what really happened is that his soul took over; free at last and unafraid.