For readers: I wrote this short essay in 2009. Dad passed away on December 7, 2012. When I wrote this piece I was living with my Dad, helping him recover from pressure sores on his heels after surgery.
Being with Dad
He is not up yet. I think gloomy thoughts. Usually he rises before me and struggles past my bedroom door. I hear the heavy breathing and the cranking noise of his walker.
Should I go check on him? I decide to wait until 7 a.m. It is 5:45 now.
What would I do if I found my father dead in his bed? I envision the scene: opening the door and listening intently for his breathing, made audible by emphysema.
Hearing nothing I creep down the hallway past the bathroom and as I turn the corner there he lays, mouth open, eyes closed, withered into his pillows like an old wrapper.
The birds are munching happily now at his feeders, a cardinal’s clarion call pulls on my heart. For over twenty years my father sits at the front windows in the condo’s watching birds, smoking his pipe, and trying to complete the NY Times crossword puzzle.
For many years my mother lived here, too, until she passed away in 1996—thirteen years ago. Dad has lived a peaceful albeit lonely life since then. Her struggle with cancer, over so many years, drained him of all his mental and physical resources so that these years have been an island of tranquility.
Retired Air Force pilot… During “Saving Private Ryan” on TCM a couple nights ago he came out of his semi-awake fog with an emphatic “Seeing all those gravestones fills me with rage!”
He led his crew on low altitude bombing raids over Tokyo in the B-29 they named The Three Feathers in his honor. Lt. Col. EB Feathers recalls the smell of burning flesh that haunts him now. “Will I burn in hell for that?”
I can tell he worries about dying and wonders what will happen to him, or worse, nothingness…oblivion…
My journey to living with Dad in these last days and months of his life was not planned nor is it heroic by any standard. I shipwrecked at a job that was completely wrong for me and he invited me to stay here until I can get back on my financial feet.
Even in his nineties he is still taking care of his four daughters. But that is not entirely true: lately we have become his caregivers and decision-makers as we see that he has given up trying to live and is just waiting now.
Being with Dad at this juncture on his life’s path has caused me to reflect on my own. We never know what may become the defining event of our life while we are in the midst of it but later it emerges like a fulcrum on which before and after impinge.
For Dad the memories of war haunt him. He finds no glory in the carnage and has lately become a true pacifist.
I listen to the stories of his early life—how Lindbergh inspired him to fly and how it felt to be airborne on his solo flight, the fear and excitement mixed with the sheer magic of winging high above the green rolling hills of Tennessee.
I see him tall with a full head of dark brown hair and real teeth.
He is stirring. I hear him go into the bathroom…one more day, then.
I recall a beautiful poem by Crowfoot on his deathbed:
What is Life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night.
It is the breath of a buffalo in the winter time.
It is the little shadow which runs across the grass
and loses itself in the Sunset.