07 March 2006

Grace moving in the world, part III

My father died on Saturday morning, at about 3:30 a.m. I wasn’t at his bedside, but the hospice staff was. They informed me that my father struggled somewhat as his body failed, and then at the end he peacefully let go of the body that had trapped him for the last three months.

Graham (the DP to you blog readers) arrived in Phoenix at 2:00 a.m. I awaited his arrival at the airport with more need and anticipation than I had ever before, for him or for anyone. Our collective relief and joy at our reunion was palpable. The missing part of my being was replaced, as was his. We talked on the way back to the hotel, mostly of trivial things: baseball spring training, how Phoenix appears to be growing as a place like a game of Sim City gone very badly wrong, why Southwest Airlines “cattle car” seating is problematic. We did speak of my father, but only to say that his day was comfortable, and he seemed to be at peace.

We reached the hotel, and settled in. The rhythms and patterns of our life together immediately started, without thought, without hesitation. After all the sturm und drang of the last few days, it wasn’t a surprise that Graham quickly fell sound asleep. My own trip to the land of Nod was somewhat troubled – and then, mysteriously, I slide into a deep, dreamless sleep.

It wasn’t for very long. At 6:30 a.m., Shannon, the R.N. at Odyssey Hospice called my mobile phone. He told me my father had died. Did I want him to call the funeral home to remove my father’s body? No: I first wanted to see my father, and say my final words to his physical body.

Nothing about the call surprised me. My father, an intensely private man at the best of times, proved to be just as private at the end of his life. That he died in the presence of the Odyssey staff gave me comfort. I’d thought for years he’d die alone, and I would only learn of his death through a call from a mortuary or a hospital. While I wasn’t present, people who could care and comfort him were present, and did provide comfort. And – mysteriously – Dad waited until Graham could physically comfort me to leave. Dad left me a gift for which I was immediately grateful.

Both the morning coffee and the first cigarette seemed more bitter than usual. Oddly, Phoenix’s sunrise was obscured by high clouds and the legendary dry air of the desert felt slightly damp. We shuffled across the now-familiar groove I’d worn in Phoenix’s matrix of surface streets and freeways, and arrived at the hospice. I wasn’t afraid; I’d seen my Aunt Monica’s dead body last May. But unlike my father, Monica and I had spent three weeks prior to her death talking, working, laughing, and (against her instructions and intentions) crying, bringing our relationship to a close, and helping her to find her way to peace. What would it be like to see my father, to whom I’d told so much in his final days, hoping that he would hear it and find some comfort in my words and my presence?

It was hard. It was unbelievably hard. The hospice buzzed with the morning activity of any health care facility. The door to my father’s room was closed. I opened the door, and three things struck me: the sound of the oxygen concentrator was gone; my father’s body lay fully extended and relaxed on the hospital bed, the first time I had seen him not contracted since I encountered him in hospital three weeks earlier; and his spirit was gone. Graham stood away from the bed, while I stood at my father’s side, and quietly spoke a few words, and prayed. Then I removed the model airplane hanging from the television, and collapsed into Graham’s arms.

Growing up, four people defined my life: my mother and father, my Aunt Monica, and my great Aunt Natalie. My father called it the coven: Monica, Nat, and Virginia were all extremely powerful personalities, and left an impression on anyone they met and anything they did. My father and I might have formed a boy’s club to resist the girls, but we didn’t. Each of the four was a pillar of my life, and each played a very special – and irreplaceable role – for me. Nat had died first, and her loss was easiest to accept: but I never can step foot in Manhattan, buy clothes, drink a Salty Dog, or order dinner in a restaurant without acknowledging her role in my life.

Monica was next. She was my compass, my second mother who would put me back on the right path when I’d strayed from what was she knew, instinctively, was right for me. Sometimes she made mistakes with her advice, but for the most part, she was the one who dusted me off and sent me moving forward. By the time of her death, she was confident she’d done a good job with me.

With my father, I was never sure that he understood me, or what I needed in my life. I’m not sure he ever understood just how much he had shaped me, or how much I appreciated what he had given me in life – not things or money, but skills and character and experience. One of the last times we ever really talked was over 20 years ago. We were riding in a motor launch across Los Angeles Harbor, on our way to the ship on which my father was serving as an officer. I’d either come from, or was going to, some event while at college, and I was very full of myself. Dad asked what I wanted to do when I finished college, and I said (in that way only the arrogance of youth can allow) that what I wanted was to be comfortable in any circumstance I found myself in. I’m not sure my father expected that answer. But I’m pretty sure he appreciated the sentiment.

I’d like to think that is exactly what I’ve done with my life. And that I was able to become that person because of my father.

Now, he’s gone – but not really. My father didn’t “pass away.” He’s here, inside me. (Ewww. Perhaps not). He’s here, with me, all the time. That’s grace moving in the world, too.

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