by Mark Anthony Signorelli (February 2014)
Five years ago this month, my father died of lung cancer. Several months after his passing, I sat down to record the events of the days leading up to his death, convinced that what had transpired was of some significance, and that by writing down these events I might be able to comprehend their meaning better. What follows is that record as I wrote it at that time.
About two weeks before the death of my father, my sister and I, with our spouses, were visiting him at his house. He looked quite weak and weary, and there was much concern because his blood-pressure had been extremely low for several days, and was not going up. He had recently completed a round of chemotherapy; in the past, these treatments had always left him debilitated for many days afterwards, and I believed his condition on this day was simply a reprise of that adverse reaction, over which he had prevailed numerous times already. In retrospect, I can see how obvious were the signs of my father's approaching end, but whether due to optimism, or due to the incomparable newness of the experience, it was quite a while before I understood – or allowed myself to understand – what in fact was happening.
He was extremely irritable on this day, and lashed out quite unpleasantly at his wife when the DVD player failed to work properly. My father had always been an impatient man, prone to peevish outbursts for small things, but in a way that never betrayed any deep or genuine anger. He could smile mere seconds after railing about this or that. But today was different; today there was a kind of asperity to his outbursts which I don't remember seeing before, and which made us all quite uncomfortable at the time.
My sister and her husband left early, so my fiancée and I stayed with him a bit longer. His blood-pressure still remained low, and at last, his wife decided to take him to the hospital for an IV treatment, which in the past had been effective in raising his blood-pressure. I offered to bring him to the hospital myself, and allow her to rest at home, but my father expressed his wish for her to accompany him. I remember helping him down the stairs to the garage; he was extremely light-headed, and exhausted simply from walking to the door. I held his oxygen tank in one hand, and wrapped my arms around him, as I led him slowly, carefully down, one step at a time. Bearing his body upon mine, I felt quite unmistakably, and for the very first time, just how weak he had grown, and I suspect some sense of what this weakness foreboded must have crossed my mind, though I'm quite sure that I still had no clear or conscious conception that he was soon to die. After helping him into the car, my fiancée and I got into my car, where I fought back tears before pulling out of the driveway. I remember that, because I'm pretty sure that it was the first time I cried in front of my fiancee. When we drove to the end of the block, his wife pulled up alongside of me, and my father rolled down his window to tell me that my headlight was out. I thought that it was strange for him to be concerned with such a thing in his state.
When we reached the hospital, we wheeled him into the waiting area, where he sat for a while. He watched the television silently, even intently. This was unusual for him; typically, he could never watch television for more than a couple of minutes without making some sarcastic remark about the show, or rolling his eyes at the stupidity of the commercials. But he just watched silently then. I sat a few chairs behind him, so he couldn't see me struggling with my tears, and as I observed him, I seemed to notice an anxiety behind the silence. This was the only time in this entire ordeal that I remember seeing my father display anything like fear, and when the painfulness of that period returns to me in my memories, it is always this moment – not the moments of agony in the hospital, not even the moment of his death – that thrusts itself foremost into my consciousness, as the most painful moment of all. I can see him in perfect detail, from the glasses resting well up on his nose, to the pink skin on his head visible beneath the by now quite sparse and disheveled grey hair. I can feel again the same futile, aching desire to comfort him, to assure him, to make everything right which was quickly becoming so hideously wrong. I feel again, as I felt then, that life had reserved this moment for him as its cruelest. I feel again, as I felt then, an undirected, vague, though maddening indignation at a cosmic order which could subject men to such things.
He was admitted into the emergency room for an IV treatment, which began to bring his blood pressure up. His wife insisted that we go home, so we left them there, and an hour or an hour and a half later, after we arrived home, she called me to tell me that they were back home, and that my father was feeling better. I went to sleep that night believing that this was merely one more episode in his long road to recovery, hoping – whether authentically or delusively, I cannot remember – that he would begin his usual restoration from the effects of chemotherapy the next day, or the day after that.
As it turned out, he went back to the hospital the next day. I took off from work, and went early to see him. As I recall, he remained distracted throughout the morning, but as the afternoon progressed he regained more and more of his mental composure, and even said words to the effect, “I must have been quite out of it. I don't even remember how I got here.” This was a great relief to me. At that time, I was teaching the play of King Lear to my classes. I started thinking of the scene in Act Four, when the old king awakens out of his fit of insightful lunacy, to find his weeping daughter watching over him (of course, I gave little thought at that point to how the remainder of the play turns out). By the time I left the hospital that evening, I was quite sure that my confidence in his recovery was going to be justified.
It was around this time that the doctors confirmed the presence of the MRSA virus in his blood stream, which meant he needed to be quarantined. It meant also that his wife, who was undergoing her own treatment for cancer at that time, would be unable to visit him until the virus had disappeared, which would take at least a week. This would prove to be a decisive circumstance, as it required my sister and I to be at his side regularly, as his wife formerly had been. We visited him the next evening, and he seemed to be progressing. In fact, this is the last time I recall him in a decent condition, not overwhelmed with pain or distracted with pain medication. I think this was the evening when he said the funny line to my sister that we still repeat. She was offering some kind of assistance to him, perhaps a little too insistently, and he looked at her with his famously sarcastic gaze and said: “I never beat you as a child. Don't make me start now.” Such moments of impatience and sarcasm, as strange as it may seem, were a great comfort to us, as they indicated the resilience, and possibly the impending restoration, of my father's personality. Nonetheless, I remember that by the time we left that evening, he had slipped back into a kind of incoherence, and my sister and I were greatly troubled to see how much, and how violently, his legs shook as he slept.
The next day, a Thursday, my sister went to visit him; I had to stay around school for parent-teacher conferences at 7 in the evening, and did not plan to go to the hospital this day. Nonetheless, when I spoke to her in the afternoon, she indicated that my father had taken a turn for the worse, and that a problem had developed with his heart (we learned later that it was some sort of arhythmia). She had planned to return to work late in the morning, but she was now unwilling to leave him in this condition. I accepted an offer to have dinner with some friends in the English Department, though I was not feeling particularly sociable; I walked outside every so often to call my sister for an update. About halfway through dinner, she called me to tell me that they had moved him to the cardiac unit, that he was really struggling, that she wasn't sure if he was going to make it. I asked, “should I come up there?” And she simply replied, “maybe.” And with that “maybe” she did more to dispel the clouds of delusion that had gathered around my mind than any single person during this entire period. That “maybe” was the first signal to me that my father’s death was a real possibility. Eventually, she told me to wait where I was until she could gather more information from the nurses. I went back upstairs and joined my friends at dinner.
This was the moment when I first experienced what would be a recurrent phenomenon throughout this period. There was a large group at the bar; I believe they worked together. They had obviously drank a few rounds, and became rather boisterous by this point. I remember the noise of their gaiety seemed abnormally loud, as if it was passing through an amplification system. The music too seemed unbearably loud, and the conversation of my friends at the table, though not particularly loud, somehow seemed excruciating to my ears. I wanted to jump up on the table, bring everything to a stop, stamp, scream out, “Don’t any of you understand that my father is dying?” It was incomprehensible to me that the world could go on just as it had, while my father slowly passed out of it. The horrible weight of this fact left me feeling isolated, as though some invisible partition had arisen between myself and the whole world, looking through which everything seemed foreign, vapid, unreal. Over and over again in the subsequent days, I would feel that sensation.
My sister called back to say that the nurses believed my father had stabilized. I said I would go to the conferences, but she should call me if anything should change, and I would leave immediately. A friend from the department came out to check on me. I told him what I heard from my sister. I remember it being violently windy as we spoke. He asked me how I was feeling, and I answered that it was difficult, because – and I remember saying this exactly – “a lifetime of regrets is just falling down on my head.” I could see the sympathy that he felt, and it struck me that it must be hard for someone to hear such words, so I determined then and there to try to keep tight-lipped, no matter what else happened, so as not to burden others with my own emotional suffering. I don't know how successful I was at keeping true to this intention.
Somehow – Lord only knows how – I made it through conferences, and rushed to the hospital afterwards. They had moved my father to the cardiac floor, and it took me some time to find him. My sister and her husband were sitting with him, and they now updated me on his condition. His heart was being monitored, but he appeared to be doing better. He was groggy and weary, and his legs still trembled terribly, especially when he slept, but he was responsive to us (though I don't remember what he said to us, and he seemed rather desirous to rest), and the nurse assured us that cardiac episodes, such as he had been through, were not uncommon. I left that evening again believing that this was merely one more stumble along the pathway to recovery.
When I arrived at the hospital the next morning, I expected to find my father in improved condition, but when I walked into the room – actually, I could see this from the hallway, through the room's window – he was sitting in the chair, shaking, his head in his hands, obviously in excruciating pain. He was not better; he was much worse. It is hard for me to precisely remember events and emotions from a period that was filled with such relentless intensity, but I am almost certain that this was the moment I knew my father was going to die. It was this moment when I realized – or admitted – that the pattern of decline and recovery, which I had observed in my father for nearly a year, had been replaced by one of continual, unimpeded decline. Again, I thought of “King Lear,” the narrative of which proceeds from catastrophe to catastrophe, at last confirming with devastating clarity Edgar’s dictum, “the worst is not, so long as we can say 'This is the worst.'” I had taught this play to my classes, and went to great pains to emphasize specifically this theme, and yet when I had to face real tribulation for the first time in my life, I was at great pains to resist this truth. But its hard to understand what we know.
The horrifying sight which I discovered when I walked into the room that morning, of my father overwhelmed with his pain, would become familiar to me over the next week or so. He was entirely distracted by it – or entirely focused on resisting it, I could not tell – so that he was nearly oblivious of the world around him, and would barely respond to conversation. I remember being quite disappointed in this fact, since I valued our conversations greatly, and I thought that if these were to be the last days I was going to spend with him, at least we could have a few last good conversations. I am amazed now that I could harbor such an absurdly selfish desire during that time, but its true.
Occasionally, my father would ask to go to the bathroom, since we could not yet prevail upon him to use the urinal bottle provided by the bedside (he was intent on preserving his dignity to the last). At such times, I would have to help him out of bed. I would take his right hand in my right hand and pull him up, while with my left hand I turned his legs off the side of the bed. At first, I did this delicately, but when I came to realize that it was painful for him no matter how careful I was, I tried to execute this maneuver as quickly as I could, to get it over with. When he was attached to his IV, the procedure was more involved, and required unplugging the machine, and getting all the tubes and wires out of the way. I experimented with a variety of postures to help him walk to the bathroom, but eventually I figured out that his arm over my shoulder, and mine around his waist, was the surest one. As he walked, his hospital gown would often fall down one way or another, and at such times I could see the protruding bones in his back or his shoulders, and realize how thoroughly the disease had wasted his body. Once he made it to the bathroom, he would sit there for quite a while – sometimes as much as twenty minutes. I would always keep the door just slightly open, so I could observe him without his knowing; he could still feel like his privacy, at least, was his, while I could make sure that nothing had gone amiss. He sat in the most unmistakable agony, head in his hands, utterly consumed by the torture. Had I come upon the merest stranger and found him in such a condition, it would have broken my heart, but to watch my own father endure such things brought an anguish of helplessness that seemed ready to consume me at any moment.
It was on this day that I decided for the first time to spend the night with my father. He needed constant attention from his nurses to alleviate his unbearable pain, but the care in the cardiac unit clearly lagged behind the oncology unit in this respect, so I wanted to make sure I could be there to bug the nurses whenever my father needed his percocet. I would stay with him every night for the next week, sleeping in a recliner that was by the window. From this point on, I can hardly distinguish the events of one day from the next, and my narrative is bound to reflect this haziness.
Nonetheless, I am almost sure that it was the next day, a Saturday, that the new doctor came in to check on my father. It was the weekend, and his regular oncologist was not making her rounds. This doctor was remarkable for his impassivity; he checked on my father, asking the usual questions – which by this time I was answering for my father – in a sort of sterile or indifferent manner, though my father seemed appreciative of his help (and, in fact, the consistent effort which he made to demonstrate courtesy to his nurses and doctors throughout this ordeal, considering the great burden of his pain, testifies greatly to the decency of his character). After his brief exam, I told my father some sort of excuse so that I could step outside and speak further with the doctor. I don't recall exactly the way the conversation started, or what I said which invited his response, but I remember his telling me, in the most blunt and impassive manner imaginable, that my father did not have long to live. He went through the variety of his afflictions – the chemo treatments, the heart ailment, the infection, the cancer itself. It was all too much for his body. When he finished, he just stared at me, waiting for my next question, but of course, what else was there to say when the death of your father has just been assured to you. I asked him to make sure that my father was comfortable throughout whatever duration remained to him; even then, he had no apparent comprehension of my emotions, and said something along the lines of, “we will do what we can,” and walked away. To this day, I don't know whether that was the doctor's typical manner, or whether he discerned in me someone quite deluded about the reality he was facing, and quite in need of a bracing dose of truth, yet I did feel, and still do feel, a kind of appreciation towards him, for whether he intended to or not, he helped me to steel myself against the coming tragedy I was about to witness. This appreciation resided, and still resides, in my heart besides a greater loathing for the man who was the first to confirm that my father was to die. At one point over the next few days, I made a remark to my father about this doctor which indicated my distaste for him (I did not tell my father precisely why I felt that distaste). My father was exasperated; “I don't understand you people,” he said, “don't you know that we are supposed to love all other beings.” When I told this story to my sister later, we agreed that such an unsarcastic comment as this evinced the full effects of the pain medication on his mental coherence, though when I reflect more on the matter, I suspect that it may have just as well testified to the fundamental amiability of his character, which, throughout his life, he had usually attempted to cloak behind the pretense of a rational cynicism. He was always a far better man than he let on.
We were still at great pains to keep the news of his irremediable condition from my father. We were desperate to spare him what pains we could, and in this manner it seemed that we could spare him the mental torture of knowing that his end was imminent. Also, if there was any chance at all, even the faintest and most unwarranted, that he could recover, we did not wish to quash what resilient optimism he may still have possessed. And besides that, how exactly does one say such a thing to one's father? At some point over the next few days, I met with members of the palliative care team, who are called in to handle the pain in patients near the end of their lives. They urged me to disclose the truth to my father; they even said it might be a relief for him to hear it. I refused; at that stage, honesty did not seem to be the most imperative of virtues.
It was during this time that he started to refuse food. At most, he would take a couple of mouthfuls of something soft, or even a soup, but that was all I could get in to him. Eventually, he stopped taking even that much. He could always get abrasive if nagged too much, and I still felt all the filial reverence for him that I did when I was eight years old, so I pleaded with him as gently as I could at first to get him to eat, always relenting when I sensed his anger rising. After a day or two, however, I determined to push the food upon him as doggedly as I could, but it made no difference. He said he was having trouble swallowing, but I think also he had just given up. I grew exasperated.
Evenings in the room filled me with terror. My family members would stay with my father as late as they could, but eventually the time would come when they would have to leave. I would walk with them to the elevator to say goodnight, almost ready to cling to their leg, like a child on his first day of school, so frightened was I to return alone to my father's room. When I did return, I would settle into the recliner, pull a borrowed hospital blanket over me, and prepare to face the duration of the night. Something, I cannot say what – here words seem especially inadequate – made the room seem darker than it really was. I understood then exactly why men have believed in such things as demons and ghouls, for the room seemed pervaded by some gruesome and malignant force, all the more palpable for its immateriality. In particular, I remember on one of the first nights I spent in that room feeling as though I were deafened by a sort of shrieking or howling, though of course there was no other noise in the room save the beeps of the hospital equipment and the uncomfortable, labored breathing of my father. All of this, I know, is quite easy to mock, and to dismiss as the fabrications of a harried mind; I’ve dismissed it all the same way myself. But at the same time, I wonder if my sensibilities were actually heightened then, rather than distorted, and if I did not catch a glimpse of death’s real malignancy, which I never could have perceived under ordinary circumstances.
What I wished was that death was something I could fight. I wished it were something present, visible; something I could strive with, or throw myself against as a sacrifice. I only felt an infinite helplessness. It was at this time I swore that I would be by my father's side till the end, refusing to turn aside for a moment or to flinch at even the most hideous of the disease's effects, inanely convinced that in this way I might gain some sort of victory over the power of death. Only such pathetic delusions brought me comfort at that time. Still, I was convinced, and still am convinced, that one of these two things – either love or death – is king of this world, and, so far as it lay in my power, I would not see love defeated by the terror of death. I remember one night, when I had rolled the recliner right by the side of my father's bed, I sat whispering to myself, over and over, “love is stronger than death; love is stronger than death.” Pitiful words to be sure, yet to this day, I do not know what wiser thing I could have said at such a time.
One time, helping him back into bed, I fumbled a bit over the IV unit, and had trouble getting him back comfortably into bed. I could tell that he was in tremendous agony. As I wrestled with his shoulders in order to get his pillow into its proper place, a wave of crushing helplessness flowed over me, and I blurted out – the words arising spontaneously and almost without my awareness – “Dad, I love you,” – hoping, I assume, that these frail little words would somehow balance against the onslaught of pain and horror which now made up the entirety of my father's existence. Truly, it was a pathetic moment. I will never forget the expression of pure agony on his face when he replied, “I love you too, Mark,” though whether he found any comfort in those words behind his suffering I will never know.
During these days also, the ministers who worked in the hospital stopped by frequently – at least once a day – to ask if my father would like to pray with them, or receive Holy Eucharist (this is not entirely accurate, since at least one of them – a woman – was not a Catholic priest). The first time a minister entered the room, and asked if we would like his services, my father looked up at me with that expression of gentle and amused scorn, which I had beheld thousands of times, and which, though I will see it no more in the flesh, I will be able to depict it in my mind until my last hour arrives. I knew then that there was to be no deathbed conversion or repentance for my father, so, respectful of his beliefs, and disgusted at the thought of prevailing upon his infirm state to impose my beliefs on him, I declined the offer of the minister. I did the same for each minister who came to visit that week. Of course, I wished very much for my father to admit them in, and allow them to minister to him; I could have almost begged him to ask for absolution. I would have been relieved beyond words had he asked to confess, or to beseech the mercy of God. But this was my desire, not his, and so long as he lived, I was his son, and owed to him a reverence and obedience which compelled me to act in accordance with his wishes, and not mine. Besides, I understood and quite admired his determination to maintain until the end the same principles by which he had lived the entirety of his life, and I also took this as some evidence that he remained composed in the face of his impending end, which perhaps I might had doubted had he suddenly, for the first time in his maturity, shown himself prone to devotion.
I will add in this place that when his wife was finally admitted into his room later in the week, she did prevail upon him to receive Last Rites. The priest came the next day, with only myself in the room besides my father. He was sleeping at the time, and remained unconscious throughout the ritual, which was for the best; I am sure the awkwardness would have been as painful as anything he had endured. For myself, I wept from the beginning until the end – wept more violently than I wept at any other time throughout this experience, with the possible exception of the funeral. The thought that my father was about to be wrenched out of his mundane existence, and transformed into some unimaginable state of being; that he, with all his virtues and his imperfections, was now prone to the judgment; that he was about to encounter the grand and final significance of all things, whatever that might be – it seemed far too awesome a prospect for him – for any man – to endure.
It was his regular oncologist, who finally broke the news to my father that his condition was irredeemable and that his death was imminent. Strange to say, I do not remember what words she used to convey this momentous news, but it was early one morning when I was still half awake. We had been at great pains to keep this news from him, and my first reaction to her words was one of outrage, but as she spoke so suddenly and unexpectedly, and as I was still half asleep, I could not say anything to stop her. Besides, in my heart, I knew the words needed to be spoken sooner or later, and to tell the truth, I was rather relieved it was not myself who had to speak them, so my outrage did not last long. My father took the news with the utmost serenity, as if the doctor had just told him that he was going to be wheeled down the hall for an x-ray. “Okay,” he said, and nodded his head. He simply requested that everything be done to make his passing as quick as possible, as he was in unendurable pain. The doctor assured him that she would remove him from any life-prolonging medications; she then asked him if he would like an anti-depressant. My father looked at her with the last degree of perplexity, the look of a man who had been in the utmost possession of his faculties for seventy-three years, and was insulted at the suggestion that he might now, at the end of his journey, fail to retain his composure. I considered the request to be just as ludicrous. Surely, a man who has just been told he is about to die might fairly be allowed a little sadness, no?
I stepped out into the hallway with the doctor, and she went over his medication with me. She discontinued the order for all the medications which might have a prolonging effect on his life, and only approved those which were intended to keep him comfortable. One by one she went through them, one by one she removed them, and one by one I stood there and approved. “I will keep this medication from your father so he can die sooner,” she seemed to say, and I seemed to reply, “Yes, keep that medication from my father so that he can die sooner.” It was a moment of complete unreality. But God knows I did this too out of love and compassion, and a sense of a son's obedience.
When I returned to the room, I found my father quite lucid, which, due to the effects of the pain medication, he had not been for days. All the veils of pretense were now removed, and he began to unburden himself of the sentiments he had obviously been harboring for a while. I remember that he said (after a preface which I do not recall), “I just hope I did right by you and your sister,” to which I replied, something to the effect, “of course you did.” Then he said the words which absolutely pierced my soul, and still cause me the greatest sadness when I remember them: “I am sorry I will not be able to be at your wedding, but I wish you two a happy life together.” I too, was anxious to express some things to him, and chiefly to apologize for the times when I spoke intemperately to him in the midst of our quarrels. I told him that he had always been my intellectual standard growing up, that I always strove to meet that standard, and that sometimes in my zeal I got carried away, but that I never had anything but complete respect for him, no matter what my words might have indicated. I said that I would miss our conversations tremendously, and he said that he would too. At least, that is what I desired to say, but the words came out so haltingly and awkward that I do not know if the least bit of this was conveyed to him. He gave a kind of smile, and seemed to understand. Of all the hours I have passed in the world, none have been as painful as this one; none have come close, and yet, the strangest thing is, that I am profoundly grateful that I was able to share this moment with him, and it continues to be a source of abiding consolation to me, even to this day.
The families had talked for the last couple of days about bringing his wife up to his room, and affording them one last meeting. By this time, she was staying in the same hospital, one floor below. As my father appeared so evidently lucid this morning, I headed down to her room and made arrangements with her daughter and daughter-in-law to bring her up; shortly thereafter, they wheeled her up to his room. We asked the nurse to allow them their privacy, shut the door, and stepped out into the hallway. In later days, his wife would provide us with a few details about their conversation, that she prevailed on him to pray and to admit the priest to administer last rites, and that my father had apologized to her for his habit of smoking, confessing that he might have lived some more good years had he abstained from it. Whatever else passed between them must remain between them, as it should be, but I cannot imagine that encounter as anything other than supremely heart-wrenching, and I will be grateful if I never have to observe any such partings again in my life. While they were together inside the room, I stood across the hallway with her daughter and daughter-in-law, making small talk about Lord only knows what, as the business of the hospital went on around us – all of this, while just behind the door, two universes were being shattered.
Later that same day, he again expressed his wish to die as soon as possible. I replied by saying something to the effect of, “I would like you to stay around with us for as long as possible.” I said this, I am sure, as an expression of affection, but it had an unexpectedly distressing effect upon him. He began to – I cannot say cry, because he was too weak even to cry, but what would have been crying had he possessed sufficient strength – and said to me, “Don't you think I would like to live longer. If I could get up out of this bed and go home, don't you think I would do it. But this is not living. Everybody has to die at some point, and my time is now.” I was horrified at myself for having upset him in this way, however inadvertently, and I simply replied, “I know, I know,” not really knowing what else I could say to make up for my verbal clumsiness. On this occasion, as on several others, I held his hand, and I was surprised that he failed to grasp mine in return. This happened several times until I finally realized that he was simply too weak to do so.
My father asked me if my sister knew about his prognosis, and I said that she did not know yet. He urged me to take care in telling her this news, because, as he said, “she always gets emotional about these things.” Such words in his condition – such a deference concerning his own importance, such concern for the peace of others – struck me, and strike me still, as expressive of something fundamental about the man, a revelation of the depths of humility which lay underneath his admitted orneriness and sarcasm, and from which sprang so much of the authentic goodness that also was a part of his character. My sister arrived later that day. I told her, through excessive tears, of the conversation I had with my father that morning, and urged her to go into him, and say her goodbyes (at this point, I was under the impression that his death might be imminent in a matter of hours). She did so, and experienced the same moment of excruciating frankness that I had earlier in the day.
Now convinced that his last moments were imminent, I pulled my chair up alongside his bed and sat like a sentinel over his sleeping form. I absolutely refused to let death steal upon him while I was not keeping guard, as though I had some power to ward it off when it arrived. But I am certain that if by some circumstance I could have thrown myself in front of my father's fate, if I could have sacrificed myself even to prolong his life by one more day, I would have done it then without the least reluctance. Whatever else is obscure in my remembrance, this much is certain. I am not saying this to praise myself, since under ordinary circumstances I am anything but brave and selfless, but I want to testify to the almost unbounded power of love, which in its visitations can motivate actions far above the character of those who experience it. My father’s death was not imminent, though as the day passed he sunk further and further into that incoherence which his medications occasioned. When he did wake, he was extremely distressed to find himself still living, one time looking about him and muttering “dammit!” when he recognized his surroundings. Another time, when he was speaking anxiously about something which I did not understand – some phantom in his mind put there by the morphine – I urged him to go back to sleep, and he said, “I wish I could – forever.” My brother-in-law remarked that he had always been an impatient man while he lived, and now he was quite impatient to die. I believe his impatience was not merely a result of his physical torment, but the embarrassment he felt at having said his peace once and for all to everyone, and yet still lingering on. He did not wish to be saying goodbye forever, and I believe it was quite painful to his mind to wake every so often, see us sitting there, and think again and again, “I am leaving them forever.”
That evening, after again waking and again expressing his exasperation at his prolonged tenor in this world, he asked what time it was, and when I told him it was around seven, he told me to put on “Jeopardy.” I laughed a little, and said to him, “What's with you? One minute you want to die, the next minute you want to watch 'Jeopardy.'” He said he had to do something to pass the time (though in fact, by this point he was so incoherent that he could not concentrate on the television at all). I told him that one of the nurses had stopped in earlier in the day to tell us that she was a former student of his, and that she thought he was a “great guy.” He made his typically sarcastic expression, and replied, “she must have got an A.” A little later, when he started from his sleep, he said to me “I think I went a bit,” which I took to mean that he felt himself slipping towards death. I whispered to him, that he should go whenever he felt the time was ready, but he replied that he meant he had gone into the urinal bottle. We both laughed; I remember that even his laugh looked painful. That was the last time I ever laughed with my father in this world.
The doctors had begun administering a new pain medication to him, so that evening, for the first time in quite a while, he slept soundly throughout the night. As a consequence, I too was able to get in a good night's sleep (or what qualified as a good night's sleep under the circumstances). In the morning, I felt refreshed, and my father awoke more coherent than he had been in weeks, a fact at which I rejoiced, as I was still expecting his death at every next moment. Again, he complained that he was still alive. We talked a bit this morning before the rest of my family arrived; I don't remember much of what he said, but I do remember feeling a sense of remarkable relief that he was not yet dead, and even a wild hope that he might hold on for any number of days. I remember too noticing that his face as he rested had retained its handsomeness (many people had noted my father's handsomeness during his life), despite the affronts of agony and disease.
And now I must describe that part of this experience which I find most impossible to render in words, which appears most strange and incomprehensible to me, and will appear most dubious to others. Still, since I have strained my memory throughout this narrative, so as not to neglect the smallest detail of significance, I can hardly omit the moment which has been stamped upon my mind more ineradicably than any other. As I sat by my father this morning, with his emotional words from the prior day still reverberating in my ear, fully conscious that I was engaging in the last bit of small talk I would ever enjoy with him, I felt a tremendous affection surge through my soul, which in its own way seemed as insupportable as my grief seemed insupportable. I remember this distinctly; I did not think about what a loss I was to have in my life, or how much I was going to miss him when he was gone. All of my thoughts were centered on him; as I gazed at him, all I saw, all that filled my consciousness, was him, and his impending ruin. All that I lamented for was him. All that I thought was, “he ought not to die.” Everything particular to him – his facial expressions, his curt impatience with his continued existence, the way his profound concern for all of us kept revealing itself, despite his best efforts to remain stoic – all of it impressed itself upon me like a dazzling light upon the sensation of sight. I was entirely consumed with an awareness of his goodness, and an awareness of his transience, the one kind of knowledge made a thousand times more powerful by the other. Nothing but pure love lived in my heart at this moment, and it carried – however ridiculous and deluded it must sound – a sweetness with it, that I have never known before in my life – no, nothing even remotely like it. I do not say that I forgot the hideousness of what was taking place – far from it – nor, God forbid, will I say that love was then a recompense for what my father had to suffer, for nothing in the world could ever redeem his affliction. I am not sure how to put it, except that when I look back, I seem to have existed consciously at that very moment in two entirely bifurcated realms; in one, I was witness to the sight of my father's disease – ugly, painful, monstrously unjust – and in the other, I was only cognizant of the beauty and value of the life that was still his. And somehow – I cannot say quite how – it was the latter of these realms that seemed the more important, that seemed the more real. All I can say with certainty is that I felt strained with the love in me, and that in a very real sense, it was one of the happiest moments of my life. I am embarrassed to say it, because I know how suspect and imbalanced it must make me sound, but I experienced then a sort of elation, mixed with a great peace – a sense that what was taking place was truly unfolding in the context of some far more sublime event, of which I could apprehend very little. The day before, I had been very desperate to say everything that I wished to say to my father, to make sure that my farewell was just right, but now this struck me as a ludicrous anxiety, as I began to perceive that the power to make all things right was, if it was anywhere, most certainly not in my hands, but that “we must endure our coming hence, even as our going hither.” I was not accepting of my father's death, but hopeful in the face of it. When my sister arrived that morning, I tried to express to her these new sentiments which had taken hold of me, but I am sure I must have appeared quite unsteady to her then, as I fear I must appear now. If anyone wishes to dismiss these reflections as the desperate groping of a mind overcome with weariness and sadness, if they wish to account for them by the restful night of sleep, or the relief I felt at my father's persistence, they have my blessing, for I have very often dismissed them in just the same way. But when all is said and done, I cannot find any reason why I should suspect such consoling thoughts more than the thoughts of dejection, which after all, emerged from the very same mind.
Later that day, they prepared to transfer my father to the hospice center. I remember when they wheeled him down the hall towards the waiting ambulance. It was like a death march. Everyone we passed looked at him and I could tell that everyone knew he was being taken out to die. I was infuriated with them for passing us and then going on about their business – heading to the cafeteria for a sandwich, checking on the lab results of a patient, or what have you – and not acknowledging that here was an excellent man who was passing by for the last time. He deserved at least the tribute of a pause or a sigh. I felt this again when we drove in the ambulance through town; I watched the people passing from store to store, going about their daily lives, and then I would turn around and look at my dying father lying in the back. Again, all the world seemed unreal to me at that moment – all of its pursuits, and all of its values.
Upon being placed in his new room, my father was awake and somewhat alert for the greater part of the morning, due to the trip to the hospice, as well as a number of visitors who came to see him at this time. He tried to converse with us and make part of the company, but he was simply incapable of doing so. At one point, he asked to be moved to the chair sitting beside the bed, but no sooner was he moved into the chair than his face was covered in agony, and he requested to be moved back into the bed, saying, “I guess that was a mistake.” Eventually, as the day wore on, and he began receiving more and more treatments of the morphine, he drifted off again into prolonged unconsciousness. My sister worked tirelessly to make sure he had everything he needed for his comfort in this new locale, and after much work, late in the evening, headed home with the rest of my family.
Now I come to the night of my father's death. As the chair in the room was uncomfortable in the extreme, I simply laid my pillow and sheet on the floor, and went to sleep beside his bed. The television was on, replaying highlights of the day's basketball games. My father by now, narcotized as he was, slept fairly undisturbed, though his breathing had grown shallower and, truth be told, quite horrifying to listen to. I myself, of course, slept very lightly, in unrestful segments of twenty minutes to half and hour. At one point, I heard my father speaking, and I arose to attend to him. He was lost in incoherence. “Where is the camera?” he said. “What camera?” I replied, still half unconscious myself, and not fully taking in the situation. “I told your sister to bring the goddamn camera.” He must have been recalling, through the haze of disease and medication, one of the many vacations he had taken with us in the past, when life was pleasant and flourishing for him. I simply replied, “We don't need the camera here, Dad; try to go back to sleep.” He nodded to me in that gruff and slightly reluctant way he had thousands of times in his life, but never again. I never heard him speak another word in this world.
I went back to sleep and was awakened some time later – I have no idea how much later – by two nurses who came in to clean my father. I was startled by their entry, and they were equally startled to find an extra tenant of the room lying on the floor. I walked outside to let them do their work, and only after several minutes – after regaining a measure of my own coherence – did I realize that my father probably did not want to be disturbed, and would have preferred to sleep unmolested. I reproached myself for this oversight, but as the damage was already done, I let the nurses finish their task. When they finished, they walked out silently and I returned to the room. My father was changed. His eyes were open, but they saw nothing; his pupils were beginning to roll upwards. His breathing was now extremely clipped and shallow, and resembled a choking or drowning sound. I ran to get the nurse. She came, administered the morphine, and turned to leave without saying a word to me. I stopped her. “It seems like he has changed, like he is close to dying,” I said. “Yes,” she agreed, “you can hear it in his breathing.” “Then I want you to come regularly with the morphine,” I replied, “so that he remains unconscious through the process. I do not wish him to suffer.” She nodded in a way that gave me little confidence she would actually adhere to my wishes, and then left. I sat down by the side of my father, in great fear and perplexity. I whispered “Dad, Dad” a couple of times, and even touched his hands, but he did not respond. I turned off the television.
What happened next I find impossible to explain. I decided then to get up and walk down to the chapel to pray. Why should I have chosen to do such a thing at that very moment? I had sworn that I would remain by my father's side until the end, and here, when the end was quite imminent, I voluntarily departed for a moment. I still do not understand what was in my mind. Was I terrified at the prospect of watching my father die? Certainly, I felt great fear that night, but I had felt such fear on many occasions throughout the previous weeks, yet I never abandoned my father's bedside on that account before. My brother-in-law had told me a story about how often times dying men, not wishing to upset their loved ones, wait until they have turned their backs or left the room before they give up the ghost. This story was in my mind, and I knew how desperately my father wished to be done with his ordeal. Did I perhaps want to provide him, by my absence, with an opportunity to release himself from his misery? I thought too that when my time came to die, I would most certainly wish to be left alone to do so, to “have it out with heaven alone,” as Samuel Johnson once said. Then again, at that moment I simply desired very much to pray. But why could I not pray where I was? Why did I believe that a prayer uttered in the seat of a chapel would fly to heaven any more expediently than one exhaled by a bedside? I still do not comprehend what it was that motivated me that night to go down to the chapel to pray; I do not know even if my motivations were laudable or feeble. But I have never ceased, from that day, to reproach myself for what I did, and my constant prayer is that my father did not, in his last minute, feel utterly abandoned or betrayed.
It was total silence as I walked down the halls. Not a noise could be heard; not a person was awake. The chapel, which was entirely dark, was little more than a tiny room filled with eight or nine chairs and a table by way of an altar. I sat there, praying what must have certainly been the strangest and clumsiest prayer imaginable. I could find no words to express myself to heaven, so I only begged God to observe my heart, and take pity on all the prayers that were there to be found in ineffable form. My mind was baffled when I tried to imagine what sort of good I was requesting for my father at that hour, so I simply prayed that whatever good comes to men in the moment of death, and thereafter, might come to my father. It was a pathetic prayer, but I had no other then. I sang a little song, which I often sing by way of prayer, and I remember that for some reason the words sounded clearer and more harmonious than they usually do.
I was not away for more than five or ten minutes. I returned to the room, stopping first in the bathroom (which was located inside the room) to relieve myself. When I emerged, I noticed for the first time that the grating noise of my father's labored breathing could not be heard any longer. I kneeled over his bed. His eyes were half-closed. I thought I saw his hand move slightly, and his jaw twitch, but I am not certain; otherwise, he was still. His color had changed, grown paler. I whispered to him, “Dad, Dad.” There was no answer. I nudged his arm, lightly at first, then harder, and harder. He did not respond. I stared carefully at his mouth and at his chest; no breath came in or out. He was dead. At the instant that this realization dawned upon me, I was like a paralyzed man. Aflood of emotions rushed into my head at once: relief that he was past his suffering (and that I was done with my vigil), astonishment that the thing I had feared the most had now come to pass, pity for the decimated form that I now saw lying in front of me, confusion as to the meaning of what was taking place, and the hard, inexorable knowledge that I had looked for the last time in my life on the living form of the man who was my earliest playmate, who was my favorite companion in conversation, and who lent a thousand shades to my character. It lasted just a moment; then the tears came: violently, debilitatingly, for a very long time.
I left the room – staggered out, to speak truly – and ran into the nurse, who had been alerted by the sound of my weeping. I informed her of what happened; I remember she made a sound like, “awww,” the kind of sound one makes when one sees a child crying over scraped knee. It was a wildly inappropriate reaction on her part, and I am sure I could have choked her, had sorrow left any room in my heart for anger then. She went into the room to verify his passing, and then began the process of calling the necessary people and filling out the necessary forms. I called my family to notify them of what had happened, and then sunk into a chair to wait for their arrival. I did not return to the room; there was no reason to do so. There was nothing in there anymore.
Eventually my family arrived. We sat at first in the waiting room, totally silent, except for our crying, quite perplexed as to what we should be doing. My mother tried to make small talk, to which I responded with great asperity. She was hurt, and asked what she could do to console me at that time, to which, filled with bitterness and weariness, replied, “make my father come back to life.” It was an unbelievably vicious thing to say, and I am embarrassed to have to write it, but I have endeavored to be as truthful as I can be in this narrative, and so this too must be recorded. After a little while, I went with my sister into the room. I had resolved to keep my emotions under check, in order to provide support for her, but that resolution lasted mere seconds, and I instantly fell to weeping and groaning that I no longer had a father, until she was forced to comfort me instead. Our family joined us there, and we made a great lamentation among us. I was struck when my fiancee went over and kissed my father's cheek, since I myself had been so much in awe of his lifeless body that I could barely approach it.
The man from the funeral home came to take his body away, and we – sad, confused, weary, and silent – went out to our cars. I remember that it was remarkably cold outside, the kind of cold which pierces through every item of clothing. I began to shiver. I had been unwilling to eat all morning, because that act appeared to me to be significant, a sign that life continued even in my father's absence, and I refused to let this happen. He seemed to deserve an appropriate measure of grief for his passing. But I realized that I would have to eat eventually, that no amount of fasting could add up to a sufficient measure of mourning anyway, and, after all, I had grown hungry, so when I arrived home, I ate a part of a muffin that my fiancee had bought for me. Then, wearier than I have ever been, weary in a thousand ways, I lay down in bed. I prayed that I would be allowed to sleep for a very long time. And I also prayed that as I slept my father would return to me in some way, to assure me in some way that his soul had found rest, and that he knew now how much he was beloved by all of us. I am not ashamed to say this, nor am I ashamed to affirm that many nights since then I have prayed the same prayer before sleeping. And I am certain that I will pray in this manner oftentimes again in my life, many, many nights, until at last my own eyes are shut forever, and I sleep as my father now sleeps.
Mark Anthony Signorelli's first collection of poems, Distant Lands and Near, is now available. His personal website can found at: markanthonysignorelli.com
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