Two years ago today, I moved my dad to the intimate, caring community where, eight days later, his breath would gently wind down to stillness on May 16: his own “hospice room with a view” (https://cbmilstein.wordpress.com/2013/05/10/hospice-room-with-a-view/). He was supposed to die tomorrow. But he wanted to savor every unconscious yet “listening” moment for seven more days of this magical retreat, an especial treat from his hell of the prior nine months tied to “life support” due to West Nile Virus, or as we all kept saying as if answer would emerge, “A mosquito?”
For some reason, this anniversary feels more palpable to me than the first, almost as if it’s the first, or even more recent than that. So many losses tumbling one on the other after my dad, still ongoing with my home facing eviction in a city where one can hardly count on staying put at all, have messed up my grief-processing clock. My dad’s long-suffering eyes, his best communication to me in those nine months of being held captive to various factors that wouldn’t let me sign those hospice papers (I had power of attorney), also did tricks on time and memory for me, especially around my dad. I’ve only fleetingly, still, been able to visualize him not suffering, not on tubes and ventilator, not needing to die. Or rather, not needing to “live” in what was essentially death.
Today, as sun was going to bed and sky awakening, sending gentle breezes to caress my cheek, I took in spring again as if it were that day two years ago. As if I were sitting among the just-blooming green and cherry-red trees and bleeding heart plants and newly returned birds and whiffs of lilac and dancing squirrel shadows on branches of mid-Michigan. As if I were wrapped in the comfort of what spring is supposed to be, not only because it’s what I grew up with and feels familiar. Also because such abundance unfolding almost cannot help but feel life affirming.
I didn’t know it then, but this day — the twenty-four hours it would encompass into tomorrow before the hospice removed my dad’s breathing tube — was one of the best days of my dad’s life. He was a person who tried to give of himself to everyone, to do good, particularly for “the little guy” who nobody seemed to give a damn about and usually who my dad barely knew. He didn’t get awards or prestige for that; in fact, he was often underappreciated, or just fared badly in various ways. Much of his life was disappointment, and over time, that sadness in his eyes grew thick.
His goodness didn’t have a home.
But here he was at hospice, two years ago, getting twenty-fours of near-nonstop acknowledgment, recognition for the good parts of himself, with family, relatives, friends, and neighbors — and even “the little guys” at the hospice. We all filled him up with tales, memories, and gratitude about him. In this homey room, with fecund spring outside, we created a living funeral with my dad present to hear it — every phone call held up to his ear, every notecard or letter read to him, every visitor there to share tenderly in person.
A lifetime of sadness stuck in his eyes, which I’d seen since my earliest recollections and tried to tend, badly at times, well at others, seemed to vanish.
That spring day in hospice brought eyes that only looked out through happiness, almost so much happiness I thought he would burst. Or perhaps the better word is bloom, which I guess is what he did.
Thinking on it this year, two years ago May 8 felt like one of the best days of my life. It struck me tonight that I don’t think I’ve ever given someone such a nice gift: exactly what they wanted down to every detail.
One thing that made the whole nine months of him in suspended life so excruciating for me — among millions of other things — was that I knew he didn’t want to exist on life support; that he wanted someone (me) to mutually aid him in dying well, and that I had the stomach to do it. Carrying out someone’s wishes on a piece of “living will” paper is, as I’ve now discovered twice, a beautiful practice, because you are gifting them precisely what they have self-determined in “the worst” (to borrow the title of a fantastic zine series on death and grief) of imaginable situations. No judgment attached, but that isn’t a gift that a lot of folks feel at all comfortable about actually handing over when the time comes, largely, I think, because of our death-denying yet (ironically?) murderous social structure. It kills us all, even our ability to humanely gift what’s meaningful to others. We instead choose “presents” that are about what we want, too frequently without empathetic thought to others.
I may not do a lot well, especially gift buying and gift giving of the material kind. But I did right, maybe more right than I’ll ever do again — although I hope not — that May 8 two years ago. Or rather, I did goodness, which is what my dad tried hard to teach me to do in this world. Mitzvahs.
My dad wanted not only to die with dignity but also to fully live for once with an abundance of dignity, too. Both were, unfortunately, overdue and too short — like spring.
I hope he — I hope you, daddy — can hear me on the sweet air this evening, whispering love through words.