my title would seem to suggest a much broader story than the one i plan to tell. this particular piece about my dad (i am sure there will be others) is really more about me and my experience of the night i lost my dad to whatever is next for him.
the only real background you will need to know is that my dad was my best friend for all my life and i have loved him beyond all reason. we had some unusual, intricate, sometimes intimate, and often amazing discussions over the years about everything from relatives and psychology (sometimes, but not necessarily, connected) to what we thought happens after death.
i used to tell my dad that, if he died first, he had better find a way to let me know if indeed we retain awareness after the body dies. this story contains some amazing occurrences and, consequently, the answer to that very question we had both given so much thought to. i loved my dad’s simple statement that, if all that happened after he died was that his body would provide nourishment to help a tree grow in this beautiful desert that would be enough for him to be happy.
that feeling of his brought a great measure of comfort to me. i may be pushing sixty-three, but i remain a nature-baby at heart. as it turns out his decision was to be cremated, with his ashes spread in his three most cherished places, a particular wash by the tucson mountains near the desert museum, a certain spot on the road up to parker canyon lake, and in the ocean or the bay in maryland.
i took comfort in knowing his desires, and prepared to carry them out for him. the night that he passed was something, however, that i was not prepared for. dad had been living with me for about a year, when i awoke one night to an odd sound, which i quickly realized was dad trying to get my attention.
the sound was his banging of a bucket against the tub in his bathroom at the other end of the house. unable to call out, he had used the bucket to wake me. during the night he had become very ill, with vomiting and diarrhea, leaving him too weak to stand up to leave the bathroom. my own strength was not enough to do the job and he was looking very pale, so i phoned for an ambulance.
while we waited, i stood beside my dad with his head against my chest and spoke soothing words, until he looked up at me, apparently unable to speak, and whispered, “jaw, jaw.” i knew immediately what he also knew – a heart attack. though there were sublingual nitroglycerin tablets in a living room drawer, i was afraid to leave him and expected the ambulance at any second. certainly they would have a more immediate action to take.
after another few minutes, in tears, i tore myself away to see whether rescuers had arrived. i was definitely unprepared for what i saw as i poked my head out the front door. the rescue squad members were out at the front gate arguing about whether or not the ambulance would fit through the opening. i yanked open the door and yelled for them to “get inside NOW!” “it’s a heart attack!” i yelled, and i believe i even added that i would back the damn thing in myself if they couldn’t.
it took some time for them to lift my dad, and maneuver him to the narrow hallway, which was as far as the gurney would go. i walked out to the driveway (where someone had finally managed to back the ambulance in (i think perhaps my comment about doing it myself may have given one of them just the right amount of, shall we say, encouragement). i held dad’s hand all the way.
i had a sudden feeling that i shouldn’t go to the hospital, which seemed incredibly odd. during the many trips we had made in the past, i had always thrown some things into a bag for dad and driven off ahead of the rescue vehicle. that way i arrived in time to park and to accompany dad and the emts into the emergency room. i had learned the hard way that i was otherwise left in the waiting area forever, before anyone would allow me to see him, or tell me anything.
i grabbed dad’s medical history with the big orange DNR sign on the front and gave it to the young woman by the rear ambulance doors. “VERY IMPORTANT!” i yelled as she slammed the doors in my face. my last words to my dad were something to the effect that i couldn’t go because i had taken medication to sleep and shouldn’t drive.
as they pulled away, a neighbor materialized before me. she hugged me and said, “he’ll be alright.” “no he won’t”, i said, “but it’s okay.” what was i thinking? i walked back inside and sat down, wondering, what am i doing? i looked at the clock and noted the time.
a few minutes later i heard the whirling blades of a helicopter. it’s for dad, i thought, but of course it couldn’t be – they’d be well on their way to the er by then. then, i felt him slipping away. somehow i knew he would be trying to hang on for me, although he had already endured twelve years of horrible pain.
at 3:00am, i began telling my dad, “it’s okay to go dad. go where there’s no pain.” still he hung on, but i knew that he was suffering. i continued to repeat my little mantra, until i finally felt him leave. checking the clock, i saw that is was 3:23 am. a few minutes later, something drew my attention to the front door. something that i felt rather than saw came right through that door and made its way toward me.
as the ‘specter,’ for lack of a better word, got closer, the smell that wafted from it was unmistakably my dad’s. tears ran down my face as i knew for certain that it was him, come to say goodbye. seconds later he was gone. it wasn’t until much later that i realized, oh my gosh, he did it! he had found a way to let me know that he was still there.
smiling through my sadness, i sat there waiting for the knock at the door. when it came, i opened the door to a sheepish-looking fireman. “what time did he die?” i asked. with a mixture of surprise and relief on his face (i suppose he was relieved he wouldn’t have to inform me), he replied, “3:23, ma’am.”