November 11, 1998 dawned grey and cold. I had been staying with my brother and mother in Ellwood City, Pa. off and on for six weeks since my father had been diagnosed with acute leukemia. The doctor had given him six to eight weeks to live. It had been a long twenty-two years since my father had had a heart attack, years littered with health problems, years of caregiving for my mother. My father was eighty years old and proud of it. His brothers had all died before him, mostly of heart disease, one at the age of thirty-six. The day before he died was my parents’ fifty-sixth wedding anniversary, something that he was unaware of. We crossed our fingers that day, hoping he would live through it.
A few days before his death, my mother and I received a call in the middle of the night from my father’s nurse. She said he was restless and afraid and that we should come to the hospital. When we arrived, he was not afraid at all. In fact, he was smiling and more alert than he had been in many days. My mother and I stood by the bed talking with him. He joked that a beer would taste good about now. At one point he asked my mother to kiss him, which she did. Then he asked me to say a prayer, so the three of us held hands while I prayed.
That was his last lucid moment. He was unconscious most of the time after that.
I knew he was dying, but I did not recognize this as his goodbye. We had been making daily trips to the hospital for weeks and had fallen into the dying routine with its waiting, and watching, and remembering, and lunches at the hospital café, and stories, and laughter, and sadness, and silence. I realized later that I had assumed that my father would just go on dying, but never actually die.
On the morning of November 11 I took my dog, Abby, for a walk in the school yard near my parents’ house. We stopped and talked to a neighbor who asked all about my father. When I got back to the house, it was a little after 9am, a later start than usual. My mother wasn’t quite ready. My brother was on the road, his trucking job not allowing him time to be with us that morning, although he was with us emotionally throughout. I told my mother that I would go to the hospital, see how things were, and then come back to pick her up.
When I got to hospital, I checked in with the nursing staff at the desk to see how my father’s night had been. Then I went to his room where he lay on his back, his mouth open, his breathing slowed. I spoke to him as I always did, reporting on the weather, talking a little about how the Steelers were doing. I put some water on a tiny sponge and dabbed his lips. I cleaned his nose. Then I sat on the naugahyde lounger beside him. His breathing was labored. I listened to him exhale and waited anxiously for his inhale. I counted the seconds between each breath. One, two, three, four, more anxious now, five, six, seven, finally another inhale and I felt relieved. Again, and again, and again. This went on for several minutes. Around 9.20am----one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine--- I stood up and looked at Dad. I listened and watched. I placed my hand on his chest. By then I knew he had died. I held his hand, his fingers still soft and warm.
I had the strangest sensation (perhaps my last moment of denial) that my dad would wake up and tell me all about dying, what it was like, how it had gone, as if having triumphed over the last of life’s challenges, he could give me some wisdom about what to expect.
I was forty-eight when he died. I am sixty-three now. I carry his pocket knife with me every day. At one time I lost his knife for two years so my brother bought me another one exactly like it. Now I can carry two. I have his watch on the night stand beside my bed. When my wife and I watch our two little granddaughters (ages four and two), they love to play in our bedroom. The two-year old, Makayla, always stands on the bench beside my nightstand and puts my father’s watch on. It slides up to her armpit as she holds her arm up high. When she is done, she puts it back exactly where she found it.
When I was forty-eight, I hoped my father’s death would teach me about dying. At sixty-three, I think it has taught me mostly about living; that life is short but beautiful; that even though time is measured, there is enough, if you pay attention; and that everything that matters in life is here, now.
Much of Seaburn's fiction focuses on loss, healing and hope. Check out his novels by clicking on "more..." under his picture above.