I've been thinking about writing this for weeks. Another memory hidden deep, prodding me from within. Wanting out, boiling in my mind. I know what to do when words boil in my mind. Only release will ease the pressure of their presence. Never before have I shared this with anyone, until now.
Today (Aptil 19) would have been my uncle Dick’s 81st birthday. I miss the sound of his belly laugh.
The last night my father was alive on this earth, I was there with him. And so was my uncle. I shared that night with these two men…in a room filled with love. A love so great, so profound, with a depth and fierceness that neither time nor human could vanquish.
That night I drifted restlessly, floating somewhere between the threshold of alertness and the vacuity of sleep. Bitterly aware of the slipping of time, the emotional fracture of loss about to snap like a summer twig on a forest floor. Laying on a cot placed at the foot of my father's hospital bed, I spent the hours of that night, listening to my uncle’s soft melodic voice…recounting a million and one memories. A lifetime of recollections. The breath of final goodbyes.
A night I shall carry within the power of my heart forever.
From the time dad was admitted to the hospital two weeks prior, the days passed in a blur. Each day started at 5:00 am so I could be at the hospital by 6:00 am, gathered with family and friends. Around 11, I left the hospital and went to work for several hours. Work was both a needed distraction and a necessity caused by timing. Cancer doesn’t give proper notice to allow family members time to rearrange the priorities in their lives. I’d stay at work three or four hours each day, then drive back to the hospital where I remained until 10 or 11 at night. Several of us took turns spending the night with dad; between my step-mother, sisters, brother and a brother-in-law, someone was always with him. On those nights when it wasn’t my turn to stay, I’d drive home, go to bed for several hours, then get up at 5 the next day and do it all over again.
Looking back now, I don’t know how I did it. But that’s the thing about moments like this in your life when you find yourself someplace you never thought you’d be. Without thinking, without preparation, you shift yourself into drive and do what has to be done. That’s just the way it is.
And so, as it came to be that Saturday night, it was my turn to stay. By all rights, I should have been exhausted that night. But what sleep I had came in short moments of drowsy submission. Stubbornly refusing to give in, I held tight to my consciousness, not wanting to miss a single second of the interchange between these two brothers. It was the most beautiful heartbreaking passage of my life.
When everyone had gone home, I took my place at dad’s bedside, with uncle Dick standing on the other side, holding dad’s hand, and tenderly stroking the top of dad’s head. A brother’s touch. No longer lucid, his eyes dim and hollow, dad laid on this bed, unable to speak or move. I felt weary, numb, and it must have been close to midnight when I decided to lay down and convinced myself to sleep so dad and my uncle could have this time together without me hovering. When I pulled my feet from the floor and finally laid down, I felt a heaviness lifted from my shoulders as I slipped down, under the covers on the cot, slowly lulled by the sound of my uncle’s soft whispers lifting the heavy curtain of silence.
From my place at the foot of the bed, I felt the love pouring from my uncle’s heart into my father’s ear. Words so soft and sweet, they both filled my heart with joy and tore it apart, all at once. Boyhood memories flowing through every slow and tender stroke of my uncle’s fingers, recapturing minutes and hours long since passed, held tight and woven in the time and space of these two brothers. It was like listening to a song without end.
I tried to sleep that night, to give my uncle some private time. Yet every time I felt myself relax and drift off, just as I was about to surrender, the rise and fall of my uncle’s voice pulled me away, like a heartfelt violin concerto. A few times I lifted myself up from the cot just enough to see their two figures. Dick holding dad’s hand in his right, his left hand on dad’s head, sometimes gently caressing, and sometimes just cupped at the back of his head. Leaning over the bed, his lips moving in the rhythmic duty of expressing long lost words of love and family, sharing distant memories of occasions and places, and the faded fragments of time and tribulation.
Laying there, just listening, changed me. It filled me. It broke me. And it mended me.
A brother’s lullaby of love and tenderness. A lifetime captured, contained, and conveyed in a solemn night; two brothers and four walls. At times it was unbearable, and yet in those moments I felt the healing comfort of hope.
Hours passed. I listened. A silent witness to the testimony of one man’s life. At one point I felt a soft human breeze as a nurse walked past me. This was followed by the rustling of blankets as she whispered a good morning to my uncle. My eyes were closed, and it was a moment of semi-consciousness; I felt like I was hanging somewhere between reality and dreams. The rustling stopped abruptly, I heard her say something indiscernible to my uncle. I heard footsteps, then I felt her hand lay gently on my shoulder. I was on my right side, with my back to the bed.
“Dona,” she whispered as she bent over me.
I opened my eyes. “I‘m awake.”
A brief pause, and then, “It’s time. His kidneys shut down. You need to get everyone here…now.”
Without thinking, I nodded and sat up, just as her hand left my shoulder. It was still dark outside. I glanced at my watch. A few minutes after 5. I swallowed the lump forming in my throat, set my feet on the floor and stood up.
It was time to meet this day. All the fragments of time shared between my father and uncle laid heavy in the November morning air. Shaking off the burden of our own lost time, I excused myself, stepped out of the room and walked down the short hall into the waiting room next door to make the calls to summon my family.
Minutes ticked by as I readied myself. By the time I changed out of my sleepwear into my day clothes, folded the sheets and blankets on the cot and placed it out of the way, my sisters and step-mother arrived. Somewhere in the commotion I caught a glimpse of my uncle walking toward the door to leave. I asked if he would stay. With his hand on the door, he looked up at me from across the room and slowly shook his head. Before he turned away, I looked into his eyes and felt the clouds of pain and sorrow bearing the weight of a lifetime on his heart. There was a moment between us, a brief connection of understanding, and then he stepped out into the hall.
With that I released a deep, heavy sigh. I understood. Last night carried it’s own burden, and my uncle needed to lay it down. Someplace other than here, in this room, right here, right now. I took a deep breath, and walked to my father’s bedside, taking my place among the group of four women who would help dad through his final hours of life.
Shortly after 11 that morning, dad released his final breath.