I’ve recently joined a writers’ group. That’s right….a writers’ group. It’s a good group, good people and a good reason to get out of the house and hang out with some folks with similar interests. So we meet once a month and share our writings and talk about….well, almost anything. Our fearless leader, Leah, graciously gives us a monthly writing exercise designed to simply keep us writing and better our craft. June, being Father’s Day month, set us on the topic of father. My Dad died three years ago. Since then I haven’t written anything or even said much about how it happened or what I remember about that morning, and I found myself at a loss for words, any words regarding Dad, just to complete the exercise. After a few weeks of hammering myself in the forehead over my lack of ‘idea’, I let it go; and to my surprise the words finally came:
His last breath was secret. At least from me it was. He waited until I wasn’t looking; until I was focused on my cell phone, texting my daughter to give her an update on Grandpa’s condition. It didn’t look good; he’d been asleep but restless all night, not able to hear me or respond appropriately. I thought she should come to the hospital. He was in a regular room in one of the sick-people wards and she could find me here; I wasn’t going anywhere.
I’d arrived early the night before. Mom had called: Dad’s in the hospital again. They say its pneumonia and he wants all you kids here. She didn’t sound right; something was off somehow, nervous, scared, anxious. Deep, very deep, in the very centre of my bones I knew. I never go there though: the place of knowing. The reality of the truth is terrifying. To avoid it and the conflict, confusion and chaos it offers should be the easiest way to float through life, right? So, once again, I floated the 200 km or so to the town my parents lived in, all the while maintaining a comfortable sense of denial.
But I can’t remember a single second of that trip. Memories of my past have often eluded me for no apparent reason, but the lack of recall of that long and dreadful drive can be explained only by the fact that my mind was consumed by thoughts of my Dad. There was no pattern or order to my thoughts and as soon as I tried to hold on to one another would surely take its place.
I was admiring his Elvis hair do, choking on his cigarette smoke then savouring the rich aroma of his black coffee. I cursed him for grounding me, laughed at him for his uncanny ability to fall asleep in any chair anywhere, loving the way he used to roll his smoke pack in his shirt sleeve-James Dean style. I smiled as he played and teased my kids when they were young and revelled in how he treasured his K-Tel record collection. At some point during the drive I heard him talk trucker talk on his CB radio, shout at my older brother to ‘leave your sister alone’; then in a timid yet strong and husky voice, sing every word to every hymn during Sunday sermon.
Dad seemed to be getting worse. He’s not even in there really; his eyes partly open but not seeing, guttural moans escaping from his mouth but not an intelligible word. I’d called Mom in the wee hours of the morning. I think you better come back now. Can you call everyone else? I felt a bit of reprieve when she came into the room; it’s her turn now. I volunteered to stay the night with Dad, he didn’t want to be alone; to die alone. I wanted to be there for him. I always believed I was his favourite, so it had to be me; no one else would do. The nurses were there and Mom was sitting next to the bed watching them work; taking vitals. All of his vital was gone, I thought, and stepped aside, needing to breath, just breath. Maybe if I could breath better, he could breath better. I took my phone out of my bag and began texting. That was the first time since getting to the hospital 15 hours earlier that I took my eyes off of him; the first time that night I let my guard down and allowed my mind to think of someone else.
He knew. He knew I wasn’t watching him anymore. My whole life he did what he could to protect me, and even in the end, when his very existence was thin and veiled by the threat of death, he worked hard for hours to protect me one last time. He knew I wouldn’t be able to cope with seeing him go, with having the sight of his last breath haunt me forever. He held on, waiting till the very moment I turned away before taking his last breath and giving me what I needed most: the freedom to remember….then forget.