By the time I got home—funny that even though I haven’t lived in Ohio since ’77, it still feels right to refer to the modest blue ranch house at 3234 Wendover as “home”---Dad was fading fast. He’d lost a shocking amount of weight. Most folks knew of my Dad as, well, kinda fat. But the man I saw swaddled in the guest room bed—my old bed—was gaunt and wretched, a stranger.
He’d had an alarming number of teeth pulled in the previous week due to intense dental pain, apparently a common harbinger of one’s final days. This allowed his already sunken face to collapse even further, and, combined with an ashen pallor, gave him a grim reaper’s countenance. His voice was unrecognizable and hard to understand: raspy, very soft, and mumbled. Not that he was at all talkative…the effort to speak seemed to squelch most comment.
Within a few hours of my arrival a pair of hospice nurses came for their initial visit. Friendly, respectful, and efficient, they inspired confidence to the point that I wished Mom had brought them in sooner. I’d chalk up any possible foot-dragging on her part as a reluctance to “throw in the towel”, as it were, coupled with a recognition of my father’s policy of eschewing drugs whenever possible.
The hospice ladies gave Mom and me a brief orientation about meds and such. Before they left they said they would be giving him his first wallop of morphine, as a suppository. Dad, never one to pass up a punchline, made some comment to the nurses about Mom wanting to tell him where to shove certain things over the years and finally getting her chance. It came out pretty garbled so I know the nurses didn’t get the joke, but Mom and I did. We caught each other’s eye and shared the saddest laugh of our lives.
A day and a half later my brother Mike was visiting and Mom suggested that we take the opportunity to change Dad’s bedding. It’s an impossible job for one, merely challenging for three. The trickiest part was getting Dad out of bed. Just minor jostling caused him to moan in pain, and we were sure this process would be agonizing for him. We put on Dad’s favorite music, an Artie Shaw compilation, and tackled the chore as gingerly as we could. Before long we had finagled Dad into a sitting position at the end of the bed, held in place by all three of us.
Somebody, Mike I think, said “Hey, that went pretty smoothly…he didn’t even cry out once”. The words hung in the air for a couple of beats, just long enough for us to realize, all at the same instant, that there was only one reason for Dad’s silence. Mom let out a short wounded sound: half surprise, half sorrow. Then we laid Dad back on the unchanged linens.
We never had any deep philosophical talks regarding his take on an afterlife, but I know Dad was afraid to die. I believe that he consciously chose that moment, the only moment he would find himself in the loving embrace of wife and sons, to take his final tentative step over a foreboding threshold.