My father died.
They called us from the hospital, early-early in the morning with news he was in serious distress. I have always suspected he was already gone by that point, or nearly so. There had been some telephone mix up. A transposition of telephone numbers, and they were unable to reach his home. I said I would handle it, and we hung up, but the phone rang immediately with my sister saying only “It’s time”.
When I came into his room, it was crowded. There were a lot of students and someone explaining how to remove various tubes and hoses. I asked the first kid I saw if it was over she… went into shock. I turned to the next with a similar result. Clearly, we had not reached the how-to-talk-to-family chapter of the textbook. “I am Virgil’s son. Can anyone here tell me if Virgil has died this morning, please?” Finally, a voice near the front said, “Yes. we’re sorry for your loss.”
I explained the family was coming and we would like the room, please, and if it all possible, could they continue to remove the various tubes, hoses and apparatus? This was quickly done while I waited outside the room. At some interval, I saw my sister coming down the hallway with Dad’s widow. I didn’t want her to see Dad like that but they quickly finished and filed out. I called to my sister to come and speak with me for a while so Dad and his widow could have some time alone together. It was not our place to be there, then. Nor was it Amy’s. This was for the two of them, the end of the road they had traveled since that first diagnosis intruded, years ago.
After a few minutes she came out and asked, “Would you like to see him, now?” and Amy and I went in.
I immediately grabbed Dad’s right hand. That big, meaty, brown hand of his. It was still warm. I held it up to my face, and kissed it and told Dad I loved him, that I would miss him forever and I would always, always try to live up to the ideals he had tried to instill in me. At fifty-three, I assured him that I would try to be a Good Boy and I would always try to make him proud of me. I expressed a hope that he was comfortable at last, and maybe happier than he had been in quite a while.
I kissed him again. A warm, brown hand at the end of a once impossibly strong arm without any muscle tension in it at all. With my other hand, I stroked his hair. Dad was always proud of his hair. Even now, it did look great. A shining silver crown on a face without a single tense muscle in it. I bent over and kissed him goodbye, still holding that big hand.
For years, I’d sat in cars and trucks and on sofas watching television and in restaurants and had that big hand come down on my thigh with a loud slap… followed by that big, booming bass voice of his proudly saying, “Dad’s Boy!” after hearing a story of some little victory at work or school or even a good joke. I would never feel that sting again. I would never hear those words, again.
People argue when Life happens and I’ve always been interested in that kind of thing. There’s an instant that passes… at 12:23:14 you’re not pregnant, and then at 12:23:15 you are. Sometime in that second, a pregnancy began and good people have argued whether or not that is the beginning of Life. The process of Birth can take a bit of time as these things go. A mother can be in labor for hours and hours, but eventually, 4:41:52 becomes 4:41:53 and you’re born. That instant passes. Maybe it happens in the snap of a finger. Maybe it happens over the course of several weeks or months. I don’t know.
I wonder if Death isn’t like that, too. Any number of processes supposedly continue for several minutes beyond the stopping of a heartbeat, or respiration. Maybe there is still 35% of a “spirit” hanging around in a body after four or five minutes? Maybe it’s only 5% or 2%? I don’t know. But I’ve never wanted to miss out on the chance to tell someone I loved what they meant to me, just because they were dead, you know? So, I held my Dad’s hand. And I held my father-in-law’s hand, too. And I told them.
And it occurs to me now: I don’t remember ever letting go.