Tonight there is a man named Don who lives one floor below me and two rooms to the west, and he is dying. The hospice nurse is there along with so many comrades and his mom too, Dylan, their kids, “cancer groupies” (as his wife calls them), and friends so close that they’re family. I am upstairs in my room, writing this. Dylan works with the family by taking care of their autistic son where he stays overnight in their home so the parents can sleep. He’s supposed to be there right now, at this hour, which also happens to be the hour of Don’s death.
I am paralyzed up here. I told Dylan I could go down if he needs me. He says to stay put, he understands why I’m not there.
One flight of stairs. Probably something like 12 steps and 20 feet until I am right back in it. A place I haven’t seen or been close to since November 5th, 2001.
My father, like Don, had a very short battle with cancer then. He went from spry and active to thin, gaunt, and sickly in a matter of about nine months. I went to church the day before where my brother in law told me that I should call my mom because she told my sister that my dad didn’t seem “quite right” that morning, which is why they weren’t there. I went home, changed my clothes, went to my kinda-sorta-boyfriend’s house, lamenting the drive to my parents’ house a mile away and what I would encounter there (I thought my mom was just being complainy rather than alarmed), but when I got to their house, the only family home I’ve ever known, I found my dad sitting in his recliner, upright, staring ahead. I knelt down and took his hand, talked to him, but it didn’t register. Friends began to appear and all the sudden, the veil was lifted and he looked up, looked at them, and said, “helloo!” with a smile. Soon after, he faded again. It was that way for over 24 hours. Fading in and out, lucid and drifting, back and forth. Eventually, we got him into the hospice bed a few feet away where he remained, unconscious, until he passed away the following night. The only regret in my life, the one moment I would go back to that no one would know about but me, is the moment of sitting next to his bed with his hand in mine. I had a disposable camera in my bag and wanted to fetch it to take a photo of our hands together, but didn’t want to leave him. I have that image burned into my mind, but I wish every time I think of it, that I had the picture to look at in spite of what it signifies.
Two days ago, Don began to fade. He didn’t recognize his wife or Dylan and when he did come to, was so weak and confused that he mumbled and asked for things he couldn’t have. When Dylan told me this, and told me that the hospice nurse projected two weeks I immediately knew what was happening. I’d seen it before and knew it wouldn’t be long at all. It all came rushing back, those moments. The long evening when my sisters raced home from Florida to be at dad’s side as I whispered to him to hold on until they arrived, the well-meaning friends who sat in the other room talking and laughing, and how angry at them I was for that. When my sisters, mom, great Aunt, and pastor leaned over him as he breathed so slowly and with such long pauses between breaths, each of us wondering which would be the last. Until it was. There just…wasn’t another one. He stopped…being. My oldest sister said, after a pause, “that’s it”. And it was.
I don’t know if this vivid memory means I should be down there, if I should force myself off my bed and go. As I sit here typing, tears welling, I’m feeling something I almost never feel: fear. When I watch nature shows with my mom and she begs me to turn it when the gazelle is finally taken down by the cheetah, I always think, “pff. Deal with it. This is LIFE” but… the cheetah is catching the gazelle and all I want to do is change the channel or slam my eyes shut. I feel like a failure of a person, of a Christian sister, of a future wife. I feel like a coward. And I feel guilty.
An hour ago, Dylan and I were on a much needed date to our local pub where we had nachos and beers and laughed and told stories and talked about our upcoming wedding and all the things we hope to do together in the future. Then we came home, he went down to “work” and told me about the vigil being held under my feet. And I feel like I can’t move.
I don’t know what else to say about any of it.