As my father ailed, he grew more irritable. He made unreasonable demands, such as waking his 24-hour help and insisting that they take him for drives at three a.m., as it was the only way he could relax. He also became heartrendingly emotional. He could be in the middle of a story and begin to laugh, which would provoke sudden tears, making him unable to continue.
In his early 80s, my father’s health declined further and he became bedridden. There must be an instinct about when the end is near, as we all found ourselves gathered at my parents’ home in Orange County, California. I walked into the house they had lived in for 35 years and my weeping sister said, “He’s saying goodbye to everyone.”
A hospice nurse said to me, “This is when it all happens.” I didn’t know what she meant, but soon I did.
I walked into the bedroom where he lay, his mind alert but his body failing. He said, almost buoyantly, “I’m ready now.” I understood that his intensifying rage of the last few years had been against death and now his resistance was abating. I stood at the end of the bed and we looked into each other’s eyes for a long, unbroken time. At last he said, “You did everything I wanted to do.”
I said the truth: “I did it for you.”
Looking back, I’m sure that we both had different interpretations of what I meant.
I sat on the edge of the bed and another silence fell over us. Then he said, “I wish I could cry, I wish I could cry.”
At first, I took this as a comment on his condition but am forever thankful that I pushed on. “What do you want to cry about?” I finally said.
“For all the love I received and couldn’t return.”
He had kept this secret, his desire to love his family, from me and from my mother his whole life. It was as though an early misstep had kept us forever out of stride. Now, two days from his death, our pace was aligning and we were able to speak.
My father’s death has a thousand endings. I continue to absorb its messages and meanings. He stripped death of its spooky morbidity and made it tangible and passionate. He prepared me in some way for my own death. He showed me the responsibility of the living to the dying. But the most enduring thought was expressed by my sister, Melinda. She told me she had learned something from all this. I asked her what it was. She said, “Nobody should have to die alone.”