We got the call Thursday night and were on a plane from Portland to New Mexico Friday morning. Papa was dying and we needed to come soon to help care for him and say our goodbyes. Cancer was everywhere: in his bones, his one remaining kidney and other organs throughout his frail body. My six-year-old daughter wailed at the news, fearful that she would never see her Papa again, but we assured her we wouldn’t let that happen.
On the journey to their ranch on the Rio Grande, the reality of what were journeying to witness began to sink in.
“What is he going to look like?” asked my twelve-year-old son. I explained that he was very different than he was before. At 6-2, he was down to less than 130 pounds and dropping rapidly. He hadn’t eaten in more than a week, and his difficulty swallowing kept him from taking in many fluids too. He had decided against an intensive hospital stay, opting instead for home hospice care. This means no I.V., no around-the-clock nurses and no ambulances if things got ugly.
“But what will he look like if he dies?” my daughter asked. Her eyes started filling with sadness. “I don’t want to see Papa die.”
“None of us does,” I said, “but being dead is very, very peaceful. It’s just like a very long sleep.”
“No,” she wailed, “I don’t want to see him die!”
His body had been largely devoured by the tumors, but his spirit had, in many ways, been liberated. Nothing but peace and grace remained. When he saw my wife, Amy, he looked like a little boy coming downstairs at Christmas.
“Your spirit,” he beamed, holding his hands up, outlining what he saw that we did not, “glows all around you. It’s so beautiful.” My daughter crawled up next to him and kissed him gently on the forehead. Papa closed his eyes and smiled. My son sat on the edge of the bed and read Papa a history of the Boston Tea Party he had written, dedicating it to him. Papa had been a history teacher for decades, and he had family members read it to him over and over again in his remaining days.
The days were hard, and the nights, more so. His breathing became increasingly labored and the intervals between any breaths at all became steadily longer. We took turns doing three- to five-hour rotations, swabbing his lips, applying lotion, reminding he was not alone and that he was loved. Coherence slipped from him like the air around him. His hands reached out to nothing as he fixed farm equipment, split wood or did his post-surgery stretches that filtered through his gauzy imagination.
Finally one of the apnea episodes didn’t let go of him and he released himself to the otherness of death. We gathered around him in the middle of the lingering darkness as Amy read some verses from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet that he and Mama had read at their wedding. We joined hands and prayed our farewells, Amy applied oil to his head, his face and hands, sang “I’ll Fly Away” to ease his passage and we cried together. It was eerily silent without the chatter and sigh of the oxygen machine behind his gasping wheezes ever several seconds. Some how in only a couple of days we had grown used to them, attuned to them.
And now they had stopped.
The next evening as people filtered in and out of the house, delivering meals, sharing stories and participating in our own goy version of sitting shiva, I went away to be alone. In some ways, I’m like a dog who is sick and leaves the pack to lick his wounds. Wheres as the others found comfort in togetherness, I found solace in the silence, save for the crackles of the fire in the wood stove, warming my feet and casting a patient glow in the otherwise empty room.
I swear sometimes that my daughter is tuned in to my emotional frequencies; once again, she peeked in around the corner with a slice of lemon meringue pie for me in her tiny hands. As I took a few bites she crawled into my lap, resting her head against my shoulder.
“Daddy,” she said, “how far away is Papa?” I paused, thinking a moment before responding. She isn’t like other children who toss out questions as if they were stones, skipping across a river, only to sink forever into the blackness. She was forming her understanding of good and evil, life and death, and therefore my words should be careful and intentional.
“Think he’s here and here, honey,” I said, touching her forehead and chest. He’ll always be with us.
“No,” she shook her head. She pointed out into the glowing, dancing room. “I mean where is he?”
“I see. Well, how far does he feel like he is to you?”
“Really far away,” she sighed and turned her face toward me. “I don’t like far away.”
“Me either,” I said, “Closing my eyes and kissing the top of her head. “Maybe heaven is where ‘ far away’ doesn’t exist any more.
“Maybe so,” she smiled, curling her feet underneath her. “I think that sounds nice.”