Friday, September 20, 2013

The Honor of Being Present

LoneStarStateDad -- my father -- died 14 years ago this month. The anniversary of his passing was September 12.

I thought about him on that day. And he came to mind again today, when DairyStateMom pointed me to this essay at the New York Times website, by Joan Marans Dim, on the long journey she and her husband took over the course of his dying.

My father had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He had been in and out of the hospital with pneumonia more than once over the previous year. Sometime around Labor Day of 1989 he was readmitted, treated, then released back home.

I was still married to my first wife, then. She and I had planned a week-long trip to Pennsylvania that September in connection with her work. She would be in Philadelphia for most of that week, and so we had already decided I would spend those days with my parents. After dropping her off at her bed and breakfast, I drove out to the southwestern corner of Chester County.

Exactly when that was, and what happened between when I left Philly and when I found myself at my parents on the evening of Monday, September 11, I no longer recall for sure. I do know that sometime in that Monday afternoon or early evening, I had a chance to speak with my father. He was in bed, sleeping somewhat erratically, too tired and uncomfortable to respond much, but still essentially coherent. And I was able to speak to him, tell him I loved him -- and tell him of the many things for which I could be grateful to him.

Then I remember sitting with my brother-in-law in the kitchen. His own parents had died not that long before, after lingering illnesses; he warned me that my father could, like his parents, linger for quite some time.

I sat up most of that night, often with my father. I read the John Mortimer play, A Voyage Round My Father, which had been sitting on the bookshelf. (Some time before, my father had read it and commended it to me.) I probably dozed some, in the chair in his room, or perhaps on the couch in the living room, or in an adjacent spare room.

At one point in the middle of the night, he spoke some incoherent words. They were the last that I heard from him. The next morning, we called his doctor and the hospice nurse. The doctor pronounced him dead. Within a few hours, an employee from Johns Hopkins hospital in Baltimore, where my father had arranged for his body to be donated for research, arrived and took him away.

My mother called my father's sister, his closest sibling (they were the two youngest in their family, and so she was "Sissy," for Little Sister, and he was "LB," for Little Brother). My mother said to Sissy, "Your little brother Harold has gone on his next great adventure."

That's when I wept.

I have always been firmly convinced that my father, knowing he was near death in those last few days, nonetheless hung on to life until I could be there in person.

Joan Dim's essay in the Times begins with her sharing her angst at having to endure the slow death of her husband and envying Joan Didion, whose husband died swiftly and unexpectedly. But by the end, Dim comes to the opposite conclusion:

We were married 52 years. What reasonable person could ask for more? And yet, if I had one wish, I’d add just five more minutes. Even though the last decade was a misery, I feel luckier than Joan Didion.
In my bereavement group, a participant mourning the death of his partner talked about the “honor of being present on the last journey.” I understand what he meant.

So do I.