My father slipped away two weeks ago today, while I held one of his hands and my mother held the other. I detest euphemisms generally, and I especially detest those that pretend to soften death’s bluntness. But in this case, “slipped away” seems about right. One moment he was breathing – a bit of a rattle in his throat, nothing loud or harsh – and then he wasn’t.
How do you recognize the last of something: winter’s last snowfall, summer’s last swallow, your father’s last breath? Lasts don’t trumpet their significance, the way firsts do. They can only be known after the fact, negatively, through the slow accretion of absence.
In other words: they slip away.
I’m not sure how long it took my mother and me to realize that my father had stopped breathing. Even when we did, neither of us felt qualified to make the pronouncement. It was beyond us, too big and too grave. I went to the central sitting area to find the hospice nurse, who was chatting with the aides from the memory care unit. “I think my dad just died,” I told her, feeling at once anguished and awkward. “He’s not breathing.”
She hurried back to my father’s room to confirm what I knew and my mother was just beginning to believe.
. . .
My dad’s death came not quite two months after that of my mother-in-law: loss upon loss, echoing and amplifying and also foreshadowing the other losses that are sure to come, loss being the price we pay for sticking around into our 50s and beyond.
. . .
Ten years ago, I was confronting a different kind of loss. I’d come back from our Puerto Rican vacation to more tests – an ultrasound-guided biopsy (which I passed, but this was the test where only failure was meaningful) and an MRI-guided biopsy (the nurse was right: honey, you don’t want one of those) – and a new surgery date, March 13.
The MRI-guided biopsy was positive – bad positive. My little tumor was actually two little tumors, surrounded by a swath of ductal carcinoma in situ with the approximate dimensions of a container of Tic Tacs. My surgery was changed from a lumpectomy to a mastectomy.
I’d spent that week in Puerto Rico thinking a lot about breasts. It was unavoidable – they were all over the place. In the art museum, I studied the lovely breasts of a sparely-sketched nude. At the beach, I sneaked glances at the variety of sizes and shapes around me. In a rocky pool in the rain forest, I let the water cascade around my breasts and thought about how much I liked them.
By the evening of March 13, one was gone.
. . .
My parents had come up to Detroit for my surgery, staying with Eric in the waiting room. Consequently, they knew before I did that one of my lymph nodes was positive, which meant that they all had to come out, and that I would require chemo. I vaguely remember seeing the three of them standing over me in the recovery area, looking concerned. (Shortly afterwards, I threw up.)
Later that year, I’d be standing over my dad in the cardiac ICU at the Cleveland Clinic, where he’d gone for valve replacement surgery. I mark that as the beginning of his decline, which was slow – but inexorable. There were no more scuba diving trips (when was the last one, and where was it to? no one took note at the time, because of course there’d be another one, until there wasn’t – though my mom, who remembers everything, could probably tell me). There was, instead, increasing frailty and a certain mental fogginess that grew with time, though it was well-camouflaged until very recently by routine and my dad’s natural reticence.
This past summer, as my parents prepared to move to a senior apartment complex – one of those places that offers a continuum of options, from detached villas to independent living apartments to assisted living to nursing home care – my dad and Katie, who’s become quite handy, went through his tool chests. They inspected each item, my dad repeating himself a bit as he decided which tools he could part with. Katie came away with a nice collection that she’s since used to build several pieces of furniture for her apartment.
My dad later forgot about the tools, and they were left behind when my parents moved.
. . .
A week after my mastectomy, I went for an easy jog. (A seroma the size of an orange later showed that to have possibly been a mistake.) Two days after my father’s death, I took a plane back to JFK, and from there, to Spain. We’d pushed back our departure but decided to go ahead with the trip, and this time, I think it was the right call. We ate razor clams and octopus and blood sausage (well, I did). We drank tinto and vermut. We saw hundreds upon hundreds of flamingos wading and wheeling about in the sky over Albufera, outside Valencia.
And in the wee hours of Monday night, into Tuesday morning, we watched fantastic, 2- and 3-story tall figures that had been labored over for the better part of the last year doused with accelerant and set on fire. I know that Fallas is a celebration of spring, originating with the carpenters and other artisans of Valencia, and that it’s joyful and irreverent – but it’s also (or so it seemed to me) about loss.
And about the fact that life goes on, until it doesn’t.