My first love, my first hero, my 86-year-old dad died nine years ago this week.
On a Tuesday, like so many days that summer, I drove him for a platelet transfusion to treat his terminal blood disorder. Who could tell it would be his last? He spiked a fever during the procedure, so I rushed him to the hospital, where for the first time he couldn’t stand and surrendered to a wheelchair. Hours later, I left him sleeping and called my cousin for comfort.
She said, “Hi!”
I sobbed, “I’m not ready to say goodbye to my dad.”
“Uh-oh, this is not good,” she said. I should’ve known then. But no.
He had once said mom had agreed to take a long ride to Sugarloaf, “maybe in six months.”
To her, he said, “uh-huh.”
To me, he said, “Will I be here in six months?”
I asked, “Dad, are you thinking about death?”
He said, “I just hope you all take care of your mother.”
I prepared as best I could, but then my brother Mike called Wednesday morning. “We lost dad.”
How do we dodge the clear signs?
I had spotted him pushing away his favorite ketchup-smothered red-skinned hot dogs. He once had the strength of four men, yet now I saw his skinny legs buckle and his spindly arms fail to hoist him from his recliner. My ears had bit by bit tweaked my hearing to tone to his thinning voice. Yet the idea of his fading life force did not match the reality of “we lost Dad.” His death leveled me.
Trembling, I took out the crumpled notes I’d scratched because now I had to compose myself and his obituary. Pulled and stretched by both grief and gratitude for him, my mind fumbled, “Was his father’s father’s name really Eustasad?”
I wished I’d known answers to what I could no longer ask. But those last weeks, my exhaustion sapped my curiosity. I couldn’t probe. Or wouldn’t. So I didn’t. But then the guilt. Did I do enough? Did I give him all I could? Did he know I loved him? Drained, I sat with my four brothers and two sisters, and consoled myself, “We’re here, crying together, helping mom.”
I needed to write deep feelings and profound thoughts into his eulogy. No words came. Though he had been sick for two years, still, I questioned: How did death’s door open and snap shut so fast?
I knew we all age, get sick and die. Yet, even after dad ate mostly red Jell-O, even after he slept day and night, bargaining haunted me. I should’ve tried harder. If only I’d given him probiotics. If he’d just done PT. Pain often unwinds such control tactics, yet my blindness screamed, “What? Wait. Why?”
Inwardly frozen in sorrow yet outwardly bustling with details, my siblings and I called the funeral director. He told us where to be when; he’d drive. We phoned the priest and monsignor. They listened, as if holding our hands.
Then, though we believed no one could know the gale winds of our stormy loneliness, one neighbor brought bagels, a beloved aunt sat with us and a friend took my wrinkled black jacket to the dry cleaners. We are never alone. We open our palms to the caring around us because the grip of grief needs to be shared. Life works best in connection. Death too. I still see his sparkly eyes and hear his greeting, “Hey, Sue, what’s cookin’?”
We lose loved ones, for sure, and we remain, lifted – or maybe encircled – by past memories and the present presence of others. We limp one slightly thawed foot in front of the other. Left. Right. Shaken and teary, we move. Because we must. Because human beings step up and step into our lives again and again. Some mystery and some kind people cradle our hearts. And we let ourselves be cradled.