"You're made of love, Dad," I said to my father a week before he died. "And you're going back to love."
He smiled, preferring to bark about the cracks in Medicare's structure through which thieves and charlatans could sneak. “Seriously, Sal. That company charges me $100 per month for the oxygen because I don’t qualify to have Medicare pay for it,” he groused. “They would charge Medicare $300! For the same oxygen! Makes no sense.”
Even in his weakened physical state with dozens of medicines coursing through his veins trying to strike the equilibrium that would keep him alive, he fussed about the business of health. “But Dad, you can’t worry about this now. You should be calm, preparing for that other place.” He smiled as if he understood for a second that I needed to talk about his inevitable journey. “Are you afraid to die?” I pushed him there.
“I...just don’t... want to die... choking,” he coughed out the words that came out in spurts. He could no longer speak a full sentence in one breath. “I’d like... to die... in my sleep.”
My dad attended Catholic Mass in a dutiful way, even served as a trustee of St. Dominic’s Church in Southington, CT. To any stranger, my dad already held his first-class ticket to heaven. But I knew that when I scratched the surface of this ritualistic servant, he was scared. He had already experienced death once and didn’t like it.
His heart had stopped in 1987. Diagnosed dead in the ambulance on the way to St. Francis Hospital in Hartford, he recalled hearing the paramedics yell, “We’ve lost him!” After which he slipped into a state of terror where there were no tunnels with light or angels reaching for him. Instead, he fell down what may have been Alice’s rabbit hole spiraling in black and white. Down, down, down. Without light or a sensation of levity, my dad was scared. After coming through the “big one” in 1987, my dad’s life changed. He stopped drinking. He wrote voluminous and apologetic letters to his children about how he regretted the heavy drinking. And we got to experience our soft-hearted Dad for the first time.
I still recall walking into his hospital room on my 22nd birthday only to find him tied down to the bed gripped with DTs from his alcohol withdrawal. The doctor gave him five years at the most to live. 22 years later, I walked into that same hospital on my 44th birthday, the day after he was rushed there for shortness of breath, and said, “Dad, you’ve had 22 years of great life. A bonus.” He hadn’t realized that 22 years to the day had passed since he was lying in that bed after having been given a second chance in life, after having traveled down the rabbit hole of terror. I only just realized the coincidence that for half my life, I knew the crusty man who drank a lot and for the other half of my life, got to know a sweet and sober gentle-hearted person.
“What do you do when you get scared, Dad?” I asked.
“Call me crazy, but I think our relationship will be even better from the other side,” I said. He looked at me mystified. To him, I must have sounded like a loon, but I truly believed that when the strain of physical life was lifted, he would see more clearly. Somehow, we die from this world and move into a space that is clearer, not burdened with the gravity of the material. Our perceptions change. We see more. We understand. I suppose I just wished that from that other place, my dad could know and see me better.
“Never... really thought... of it like that.”
“Well, I believe in that other place and I’ll keep talking to you, even if you don’t talk back.”
I offered those words to my dad about 2 weeks ago.
He died a week later.
Here I sit a week after my dad died in a morphine-induced sleep, after a bout of unexpected choking that my sister helped clear with suction, trying to find a way to talk to my dad. I was so certain that I would feel him and that my relationship would be even better. My dad thought emotions were for sissies, so I dared not tread where his heart bled. I figured I would somehow reach him in a deeper way after he died, share my feelings and thoughts he might have scoffed at here in this elemental world of dust and shadows. In that lighted place, my dad would see better.
I’m learning a different lesson.
For some reason, I cannot feel him as I expected. I don’t converse with him at this time in the way I thought I would and I don’t visit those heart-felt places. Something in my grieving has caused me to crust over. I dare not tread in that vulnerable space. I have a fear of something I can’t put my finger on.
“What do you do when you’re afraid?” I hear my own words to my dad.
I take my own advice and pray.
Perhaps, the lighted path I expected my dad to embark on where he would “see” me better has actually done something I didn’t expect...
Helped me see him better.
"Damn health care!"