I have tried, on multiple occasions, to sit down and write about my dad’s death – writing has always been a means for me to work through something – but, for some reason, I always get stuck on his last 24 hours. It doesn’t flow like other memories tend to do. So, instead, I’ll start with this…
Sometimes you take a shower, and the world becomes a better place. You get in feeling shitty; you get out clean and refreshed. But sometimes – on the rare occasion – you get in feeling shitty, and you get out still feeling shitty, only now you’re wet.
The day my dad died was when I discovered this second kind of shower.
I got into the shower miserably sad, and I got out miserably sad. Only now I was wet and I had to fucking dry off and put on fucking clothes and do my fucking after-shower routine, and really, I just wanted to be sad without all the other stuff.
It was Tuesday, August 23, 2011. My dad had just died. I returned home alone. I was very aware of the silence. I showered.
Then, wet and sad, I found myself sitting on the edge of my bed, which at that point was just a mattress on the floor in my house that was still under renovations. I can’t recall how long I sat there. but I was replaying my dad’s last 24 hours.
I showed up at the assisted living residence that he had been living in since July 1 – you can read more about that here – just before lunchtime. After two strokes, my father had been reduced to the mental capacity of a five-year-old. The moments of lucidity were few and far between, but when they happened, they were magical.
That day, I found him in the barbershop they had on site. He was getting a haircut. He made eye contact with me through the mirror and smiled.
Since his first stroke, on June 2, 2011, there was something about the way he smiled every time he saw me – as though he had been waiting his whole life to see my face. Every single time he saw me. And I saw him two or three times a day, every day.
To be fair, my father had one of those smiles – it was warm and mischievous and charming all at the same time. When he smiled, his entire face would light up. So, to have that smile directed at me two or three times a day, every day, was both breathtaking and overwhelming. It was in those moments that I knew he loved me. We had never really said that much in my house.
But I digress.
The final touches were put on his haircut, and he stood up. His six-foot frame towered over the “barber,” a tiny woman who informed him, as he searched his empty pockets for money, that she “would bill him.” He smiled at her, then nodded at me, and told her I was there to pick him up because he “couldn’t find his car.”
His attention turned to me as we walked out of the barbershop.
“Hello, Baby.” Every time.
Smile, then “Hello, Baby.” Then…wait for it…”You wanna see the tree in my room?”
Right after we moved him into the residence, I took him to Home Depot. He informed me that he wanted a tree for his room. I found a small bamboo tree in a small pot. We put it in his room, and every day, every time I would see him, he would ask if I knew that there was a tree in his room or if I wanted to see the tree in his room. I asked around. He never mentioned the tree unless I was there. Somehow he connected that tree to me.
It’s in my house now. I am madly trying to keep it from dying. I’m not doing so great at that, but I’m holding out hope.
So…”You wanna see the tree in my room?”
We walked, arms linked, down the hallway to his room. Ruby, one of the aids, was standing in the kitchen. He stopped me, then leaned against the wall. Crossing his arms, he beamed that smile of his and said to her, “How’s it going ?” It was perfect, quintessential Hal Cox – charming, slightly inappropriate, and full of confidence.
And that’s where it stops. I can’t remember anymore of that day until the phone call at around 9:00pm.
“Molly, we can’t get your father to wake up. He is unresponsive. Should we call an ambulance?”
I think I was at dinner. I was heading over to see him after, but I got this phone call from the nurse on duty, so I hurried over.
He was in his bed, his breathing erratic. He was completely unresponsive.
“Is the ambulance on the way?” I asked. They assured me it was.
I won’t bore you with all the details, but my father had his third and final stroke that night. It was in the direct center of his brain. The doctor said there was nothing that could be done. I remember standing outside the emergency room with my brother – the good brother – as we discussed the DNR and made the conscious decision to let my father die. But he didn’t. Not right away. He held on.
He was moved to a private room. I sat in a chair next to his bed after the rest of my family had gone home just desperately wanting him to open his eyes and smile that smile and say, “Hello, Baby.” I can hear his voice saying it now – drawn out, slow, then an upward lilt at the end.
He died mid-morning. Just like that. The life literally just left his body, and his light went out. No more smile.
So, it’s August 23, 2011, and my dad has just died. I returned home alone. I showered. I’m sitting on my mattress on the floor, and I’m thinking of the last 24 hours, and I am overcome with grief and sadness and life and emotion and, and, and….the silence is deafening.
I drank that night with the express intent of numbing all feelings, and I continued to drink every day, all day for the next 5 months.
But I digress.
On this, the one-year anniversary of my father’s death, I am, once again, overcome with grief and sadness and life and emotion…but the silence is OK. I’m not interested in numbing anything.
I intend to sit in it. Feel it. Then, I may even tackle a shower. And should I get out just feeling wet, I’ll try to remember how good it feels to simply feel.