My father died in January of 1997.
I had never been very close to him, but I hadn’t wanted him to die.
But he did.
He had made it to eighty the previous November.
The cake we had for him had had one of those single candles in the form of some number. In the case of Daddy’s cake the number was 80. He kept the candle in a special place. He spoke of becoming eighty as if it had been the major accomplishment of his lifetime. I have often wondered whether he knew that it would be in fact his last birthday and therefore one of the last accomplishments of his lifetime.
But it was his last, and that was it.
He didn’t really have many accomplishments, at least none that I knew of. Perhaps that lack had been due to the fact that time had moved so swiftly, and had accelerated with every year that he had lived. Perhaps he had had all he could handle to avoid being tossed and to keep riding that accelerating beast of time. Perhaps it had been because he never really came back in complete form from World War Two. Perhaps it had just been fate. But eighty was his last and nearly only big deal.
In early January he had had some sort of medical episode that had put him in the hospital. He was quickly stabilized and was getting better. He was scheduled to go home before long. I was in Portland on business and decided to drop in at the hospital and see him as soon as I got into town rather than waiting until later which had been the plan that he and my mother and I had agreed to. It was an impulse for no reason. Although improving, he was still in the intensive care unit. I went to the desk and said who I was and whom I was there to see. The nurse got a funny look. She said, “Come with me. He is dying. Usually the last thing to go is hearing, so he will probably be able to hear you.” And I followed her into the inner area of the ICU.
“Where is my mother?” I asked. “She went home a little while ago and was going to come back at the dinner hour. This just happened a few minutes ago. We have a call in for her, but haven’t reached her yet. She hasn’t made it home yet.”
My father was on his back in the bed on a ventilator. He struggled for every breath. A different nurse, a very nice and very nice looking young woman came in as the other one went back to the desk. She briefly explained the situation and showed me the status of things graphically displayed on some kind of monitor machine that was attached to my father. The net of what she said was that he was dying.
I had never been with a person when they died.
I dodged that activity with Blitz.
Now I was going to be in the middle of it for the first time.
I was not at all sure that I was up to the occasion. But I took my father’s hand and said “Daddy, it’s Noel.” There wasn’t any change. There wasn’t any recognition. There was just the sound of the monitor and of each labored breath my father struggled to take.
I stood there holding his hand and trying to absorb what it was that was occurring.
I was trying to figure out how I felt; I was trying to figure out how I should feel.
Nothing seemed to reveal itself.
I had the profound feeling of something – the word grief came to mind - that should be but that wasn’t.
That same feeling had engulfed me when Blitz died.
But now it was my father. Wasn’t I human? Couldn’t I feel anything but the mild concern that he feel no pain? The questions hung aimlessly in my mind. They remained answerless.
The labored breathing went on for some amount of time. I have no idea what amount of time that might have been. I was suspended in some almost here, almost there, place wrapped in the feeling that something should be but wasn’t.
I was still holding his hand.
I could feel something in that hand that one doesn’t feel in a normal non-dying hand.
I was surprised to realize that I recognized that feeling. It was the same feeling that I felt as I held a pheasant or quail in my hand as it went from the final transition from life to non-life. In the case of the birds it was a fairly swift change from the feeling of life to the no feeling at all of non-life. In the case of my father it was a steady feeling of life.
It is not a feeling of warmth or a pulse or a twitch or series of twitches. It is a feeling that fully functioning alive things don’t manifest. You can pick up a healthy pheasant or take the hand of a healthy father and you won’t feel it. It only appears as a creature fades to non-life. I believe that is the exiting presence of something getting ready to leave. I know it can be felt. I knew about it from my experiences as a hunter, but until that day that I took my father’s dying hand I hadn’t known that it happened with humans as well.
My grandfather – Bobby – had a device that was supposed to help with breathing by emitting ozone into the air. It consisted of a rectangular base with some kind of electronics in it and on top of the base a rectangular coil of glass tubes filled with some kind of gas, maybe neon. When the thing was plugged in and turned on the tubes lit up and emitted a faint buzzing sound along with a smell that was supposed to be ozone. I never knew whether he had gotten it for himself or for me. It was old and he had had it a long time, I had thought, so maybe it had had some other use in his earlier life. I had been through a stage where I had fairly serious asthma and Bobby would turn it on in my bedroom at night when I visited him and my grandmother. He had told me the ozone was good for my breathing.
If you put your hands on the glass tubes when they were buzzing and smelling you could feel a sensation similar to the life feeling of departing entities. That was what the birds felt like. That is what my father felt like. The only difference was that my father’s feeling was steady. Apparently the departure was on hold. The birds always felt as if a rheostat had been applied to the emanation, rapidly dropping the feeling from intense to nothing. That feeling, once felt, can’t be forgotten.
Suddenly, in the middle of a labored breath my father’s head jerked violently to the right. The monitor went from subdued beeps to a louder steady tone. The pulsing graph on the display went to a horizontal line. And the life feeling, so steady a moment before, vanished.
Apparently, I thought, the white ship had had room for him at last.
The nice young nurse came into the room and said something. She was crying. A doctor appeared and he was visibly upset. I felt overwhelmed by the feeling of love and concern that seemed to well out of these people. It was in total stark contrast to the lack of any emotion I felt. I felt as if I had provided a service, that I had aided in ushering someone from life to non-life and that I may have made the transition easier or more natural or at least not alone.
But there was nothing else.