Word Count: 2240
Prompt: winter gale
A/N: While I worked in the prompt here at MM, I am submitting this for a publication calling for true-life memoirs, and there is a hefty prize for the winner (I’d be happy to send details to anyone who would like details!). I would appreciate concrit on this, since I’d like to hone it and this subject matter is WAY out of my comfort level. Thanks, guys!
It is the province of a writer to tell tales, and yet I find that faithful words abandon what should be a simple task. I have been wondering about what story in my life to illuminate, which chapter to turn to and which page to embroider. I ruminate on what would be noteworthy enough to merit a memoir. After sifting through memories, I can only say that I have been shaped most profoundly by two experiences that did not even happen to me, but to members of my family. And so I will share the last moments of my father and his mother before him.
My grandmother lived well into her eighties. By then, I’d had four of my five children and had imagined I’d seen much of what life had to offer. Although I was saddened to hear of Grandma’s illness and probable imminent death, she was elderly, and it was not a shock to consider her passing. I was proud to consider myself a realist for my no-nonsense attitude as I piled in the car with my parents to see her in the hospital one last time. We battled the elements of a freak wintry gale in mid-March, all the while thinking to myself what a loving granddaughter I was to make the trek.
I’d never seen anyone die before, but I’d read a lot of books on the subject and thus considered myself fairly educated. I knew what to expect as we walked through the halls of the hospital; it would most likely progress the way I’d read about it: Grandma had contracted pneumonia and she was weakening. If we were lucky enough to reach her in time, she would fade away peacefully. I was prepared.
No amount of reading or watching educational TV programs could have prepared me for the visceral experience. As I stepped into that room to see the woman I was named after, my expectations crumbled away, leaving me naked as a newborn. My grandma, a woman of strength, was unbearably small in her bed. Her mouth gaped open like a fish. I’d never seen her without her dentures before, yet that indignity struck me more than the fact that she was gasping for air—that desperate cavity, pleading and helpless, was all I could process. She would have hated for us to see her that way; she was a woman of immense pride and privacy, and she wouldn’t want anyone to witness her physical frailty. I think I was leveled more by her unconcealed vulnerability than by her sickness.
It was there in that moment that I understood the looming loss. Before then it had been a concept I’d been playing at but now it was real: I was here, and my grandma was dying. Suddenly I wasn’t ready to see what I thought I had been prepared for, but it didn’t matter. Just as with the births of my children, death did not wait for one to ready oneself. It had its own timetable, and we could only bear witness to the passing of the ages.
While my medical knowledge did not deviate from the occurrences in that room, it could never have prepared me for my emotional experience that night. The words I write now seem paltry by comparison to the weight of watching a person who loved you grow more distant from this life with every shallow breath. Perhaps the most significant exchange in that room was not from death itself, however, but from my father. He was the eldest of my grandmother’s six children and a very stern man. I had seen many things in life to that point, but never had I seen him exhibit tenderness. To my own dying day I don’t believe I will ever forget his words to her that night. He leaned over the form of his frail mother and whispered “You’ve earned your rest.” She needed permission to relax, and he had been selfless enough to see that. And with those four words I ached in a way I didn’t know I could, for him, for me, and for her. It is a memory I hold dear, for I saw my father’s heart that day, and it is not a sight I saw very often in this life.
My grandmother died not long after that. It was peaceful, and I daresay it was harder on us than it was on her. There were no angels or choruses. There were no shining tunnels or earth-shattering visions. Her breathing just slowed until one minute she was there with us and the next she was not. It was as simple as stopping. And just like that, she let go of this life and let go of us.
The surprise that I felt then, and still feel now if I am honest, is how sad I am. It blindsided me! How could dying be so easy? I did not wish for her suffering, but it didn’t seem fair to lose her as easily as one might flip a light switch. It altered me in a profound way. I had lost people before, but seeing her pass away had awakened in me a humility and an awareness of the fragility of existence. I have carried it with me ever since.
By contrast, my father did not enjoy the long life common to his family. One fateful summer day he fell from a ladder, and in the emergency room they found not a misaligned vertebrae from the accident but cancer throughout his spine and brain. We buried him exactly one year later, not in ice and snow as with his mother but in the hot summer swelter that seems like a fever dream all its own.
The process of caring for my father at the end of his life has changed me. My father did not go gentle into that good night, and I was far from prepared for that ordeal. The only prior experience I’d witnessed with a peaceful old woman, and my father was angry and resistant and in pain. None of us could be ready for what was to come.
As my father entered hospice and began to weaken, I asked everyone I could to please tell me about the dying process. Was it close? How would we know? There were pamphlets and guidelines, but they offered only the most general of information. Although the nurses were kind, no one wanted to extend false hope. My father stayed conscious but lost the ability to move his legs, then each arm, and eventually the ability to swallow. We longed for someone to tell us more, but there was no more to know. My sister and mother and I stayed awake with him in shifts around the clock, dosing him, singing to him, talking to him. He might not be able to move, but he could still hear. So we talked to him.
The last thing he said before he lost the ability to speak was “I’m still here?” The worst thing about my father’s death was that he would not face the fact that he was dying, so he would not say goodbye to any of us. When we tried to say “I love you”, he turned away. I could not believe that in his last moments he was not going to make amends. My father and I had always had a difficult relationship, and I’d always imagined that we would have a moment when we could make things right, like in a movie montage when it all works out in the end. It is still surreal to me that it never happened and that he died without that resolution of our conflicts. A lifetime of fiction had prepared me for a save at the eleventh hour, but I was to learn the hard truth that I couldn’t force solace from the dying. Nor could I bestow it.
My father died at eight o’clock in the morning. He woke up and I know he saw his family surrounding him. I don’t know how he shook off the fog of his heavy medicines just then, but he did. He said “I love you”, which made my sister and I cry, and then he fell back to sleep. I know know that it was his goodbye. We’d been up all night and my mom and my sister and I went into the kitchen to get a cup of coffee. When we came back to the room just one minute later, he was gone. I know he died listening to the hushed and comforting sounds of a mourning routine—the stirring of spoons, the sharing of creamer, the murmuring of family. I am struck by how different my role was as his caretaker as he died, but also by how similar his death was to his own mother’s: he died on the outtake of one last breath, the slow susurration of a heartbeat, the gentle winding down of life’s processes. Nothing more. This great mystery of a man, my father, was gone from us, just like that.
In life’s experiences, I never thought I would live through some things. As a teen when I argued with my father and wished him dead, I never really envisioned what that meant. I couldn’t know that it would mean sitting with his body until the funeral parlor staff came with their stretcher and watching them zip the shell of him into a body bag. I didn’t know it would mean telling my children that their grandfather died and holding them as they cried. I never realized it would mean helping my mom choose a suit for him to be buried in, or later, accepting his flag from the Navy because she was too distraught to hold it for herself. I didn’t imagine what it would be like to get the fine cloud of his ashes on my hands as I filled a tiny necklace for my mother to wear and keep him with her always. These were not memories I ever thought I would have. But I do.
My father died before he could make peace with his life or with my sister and I. He died before he could see the success I have become. He died before he could tell me that he is proud of me, although I think perhaps he was. For a long time after his death, I didn’t know I was grieving. I thought I was traumatized by his last year, but I didn’t miss him too much. He had always been kind of a jerk, after all, and dying didn’t change that. But as the difficulty of his last year has worn off, I find I’m thinking more about him. I dream of him quite a bit. I wonder what he would think of this or of that. I’m starting to wonder if maybe I miss him more than I like to admit.
Sometimes in the fall when I am burning leaves I look over the fields but he isn’t there. He isn't in the rustle of bare branches and he isn't in the chirp of the birds overhead. He is just … away from this place. I know then that he is never coming back again, that his old shoes won’t ever be worn and we should just go ahead and throw away his hats. Something in that smoke stings my eyes, but I can’t blink for a very long time after that. I just hold the rake and look at the sky and that endless trail of smoke.
I didn't have anything of his, but I needed to change that. In one of the mildewed boxes I'd set by the side of the road, I had rescued a set of his bells from a long time ago. They jarred loose a distant memory of childhood. I kept them for a few days, then in a momentary whimsy I asked my son to help me hang them from a tree in our yard. As he climbed high in the branches of the magnolia, I saw his bright smile and it reminded me that I might be happy. That my son was happy. That there were things in the world worth happiness still, even after him. Maybe because of him.
I can look out my window now and see the bells. In the summer, when the wind parts the branches just so, I will catch a glimpse and think of him. In the winter and when the trees lose their leaves I have but to turn my head and see a memory hanging. It’s not as painful as it once was. It’s a reminder not to let words go unsaid. It’s a reminder of the times I did have and the times I still will.
The truth of it has come gradually, like the dying rays of an evening. It isn't so very hard to understand, but one can't simply watch the sun set all at once; one must take it in by degrees. It must lower towards the horizon, that inevitable descent. The fiery brightness which was once too blinding to be viewed directly at midday can now be seen, diminished, in fading gradations of color. Even after the star is gone from view its reach lingers long into the coming night until it is just a glow of its former glory. A memory of light.