It was a warm late-August afternoon when I sat down on the wooden front steps of my house to make the phone call. I had just come home from a long orientation at my brand-new teaching job, and I’d been watching the clock all day, knowing my parents should be returning from what may be my dad’s last oncologist appointment around 4 pm. When my mom picked up, I didn’t have to ask the question. I heard the answer in the sound of her voice. I don’t remember much of what she said, but the key words landed heavily upon me: “stopping treatment.” “hard to say for sure.” “about two months.” When I hung up the phone, I looked out over our wide front yard full of fruit trees. It was a new house for me, and one my father hadn’t been able to visit during his year of cancer treatments. I scanned the yard and took a quick inventory of the garden, noticing the flowering plants and garden paths I’d never be able to show my dad.
That phone call confirmed my worst fears. For that entire year I had fretted that cancer was going to overtake my dad’s body, that he would never come to see my new house in Maine, that he would not get better, that he was going to die. And before I collapsed into a heap of tears on my front porch, I actually had one sun-lit moment of total peace. I could stop desperately searching for a ray of hope in the midst of a horrible illness. I no longer needed to run through calming mantras in my head to avoid panicking. I didn’t need to be afraid anymore.
The very next day, I flew to my parents’ home in Maryland, and arrived at the bedside of my dying father. My full-faced, freckled, bear-hugging, larger-than-life father looked like a ghost to me now, his skin so pale it was nearly transparent. The process of death had begun in my absence. Two weeks earlier when I’d been home, he had been up and about in the house, smiling some, even making a joke here and there, and despite his obvious pain, he made a point to sit up in his soft rocking chair in the living room and join in the conversation.
He was so thin now under the sheets. I reached for him, and he stirred, looked at me, and– smiled? I’m not sure. I don’t know if he recognized me, but there was a glimmer, a sparkle, and then he asked something inaudible about the bank and whether it was still open. My mom explained later that he’d been talking about packing a suitcase and asking about going to the bank, partly the confused effects of morphine, and perhaps also my dad’s German and orderly attention to the details. He was planning his final trip.
The next day, the visiting hospice nurse checked his vitals, instructed us about pain medication and gave us a violet-colored pamphlet that outlined the signs to look for as death came closer and closer. I scanned down the bulleted list of symptoms. Loss of appetite. Raggedy, irregular, labored breathing. Coolness in the tips of fingers. Pale, mottled skin. I read through the pamphlet and found myself studying my dad for signs. I touched the tips of his fingers. Still warm. I laid my head next to him in bed and listened. Raggedy? I’m not sure I knew what that would sound like, but his breathing did sound a little uneven. My mom warmed a bowl of soup for him and carried it upstairs. I lifted the spoon to his lips. He tasted it, and in a move totally uncharacteristic of my gentle, gracious father, he swatted it away, and told me it was “too dry.” Loss of appetite: check.
Over the course of his treatments my dad had steadily lost weight and my family and I obsessed over getting him to eat. We poured weight-gain milkshakes into wine glasses so he would join us for happy hour. We pushed seconds on ice cream after dinner. And now, here I was, oddly encouraged that his appetite was waning and we could check something off the list. For the entire previous year, we had done everything in our power to save my dad from cancer. I had neurotically researched Non-Hodgkins’ Lymphoma on the internet. I memorized symptoms and statistics. “My dad has cancer,” I would say, “but the cure rate is 80% for his diagnosis.” I read books: Eat to Beat Cancer. When Someone You Love Has Cancer. I called home daily to check in with my mom. Was he feeling the effects of chemo yet? Losing his hair yet? Had he gained any weight? Are you using the vegetable juicer that I bought? Are you buying the organic apples?
My dad suffered through three different kinds of chemo, including two clinical trials at the National Institutes of Health. Each round only made him more gaunt, more pale. None of the cycles of chemo could slow the growing tumor in his abdomen, and yet our hope had somehow remained intact. Miracles happen. New treatments were in the works! I still believed that my capable handyman of a father who whistled along to the classical music station was in there, strong beneath his quickly wilting frame.
Now I sat next to my dying father, actually looking for signs of his impending death and wishing I could just pick him up and carry him over to the other side. I felt an odd combination of defeat and relief. He had been through enough; I was ready to help him go now.
With each symptom that we could detect and check off of our list, I felt oddly reassured that I was helping my dad become free of his failing body. We’d wait and watch. I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. Any changes? Any developments? Is he any closer? I could see his pulse in his neck so I’d watch that for long stretches of time until my eyes were bleary. I could see his urine moving very slowly through the catheter. The pamphlet stated his urine would get darker and darker, and then slow way down as he neared death. I’d stare at the tube that ran down the side of his bed, squinting at the color of the liquid; it was almost a deep brown now. Days had passed since he’d taken even a sip of water.
In a moment during this prolonged deathwatch, the gathering of family surrounding a dying loved one suddenly reminded me of the process of birth, too: one person on a bed at the center of attention, and the rest of us in uncomfortable chairs on the periphery, left only to watch and will the process along. I remembered the endearing stories about my dad’s compulsive recording of my mom’s contractions when she was in labor, and how he proudly reported his findings to the nurses. And now at my father’s side, we were recording notes of his progress, keeping charts of pain medication, wiping his face with a cool cloth, nervously hovering and asking the nurses a million questions. Friends and family would call: “Any news?” At one point, as I was sitting beside my dad, I even leaned in and whispered to him: “You can do this.” I was watching my father labor toward death. I wanted to do it for him, and I could only sit by and watch. And wait.
He had been given two months to live, but my father died six days later. At 2:30 in the morning, he took his last raggedy breath, and the room fell silent.
Within only a few months of the loss of my dad, I became pregnant with my daughter. Right smack in the middle of my grieving process, I was simultaneously planning for new life: writing lists of names, researching birthing techniques on the internet, reading What to Expect When You’re Expecting and Eating for Pregnancy, adding up grams of protein in my daily yogurts. I frequented a hospital again, but this time, instead of images of a growing tumor, the ultrasound screen showed a strong, beating heart and tiny, kicking legs.
When labor began and I found myself in the center of a white hospital room, my family hovered around me, taking notes, timing and recording contractions, placing cold cloths on my head. Friends called: “Any news?” “You can do this,” my midwife whispered to me. So many similarities, and such different outcomes. I left the hospital with Skyler Elizabeth, a tiny, pink-cheeked, healthy little girl bundled in my arms, my dad’s only granddaughter whom he would never meet. The night my dad died, we stood witness to just as much love and hard work as I had put forth, and then all left the hospice without him. I still remember the feeling of walking through the heavy doors into the warm night air, aware that the brick hospice building was now behind me, and aware of each step I took away from my father.
The exact moment that my dad stopped breathing, a wave of relief had washed over me. No more pain. No more prodding and poking and scans and chemo. Finally, the blood supply to that tumor was cut off. I felt lightness and gratitude that his battle was over. After the last push that brought my daughter into the room, I could only lie exhausted on the bed and stare at the white-tiled ceiling. I was at first unaware of her or what she even looked like, only that the fight to get her here was over. No more pain. No more prodding and poking and pushing. It was a moment of total physical relief. In both cases, the relief was short-lived. With my dad’s death, relief was quickly replaced with a desperate longing to go back in time and have him standing beside me. A few minutes after my daughter’s birth when she was placed in my arms, I locked eyes with this tiny girl. I felt no more pain. I was awash in a love so deep it took my breath away.
Baby Skyler brought with her into my life the reddish blonde hair and snapping blue-gray eyes of my father. As she has grown, it is undeniable that she also shares her innocent curiosity and attention to detail with her grandfather. She selects sea shells, pets our dog, and arranges small vases of flowers with the same sure and gentle hand as my dad. And as witness to their coming and going, I get to be the bridge between them, mother to my daughter, and daughter to my father, with all of the love that overlaps, and crosses over, and weaves us all together.