Holding hands at the comma

By Heidi Shott

At the very end of June I sat with my parents on the front porch of the old family farm in rural upstate New York. Three weeks before, my father had been out mowing on the tractor. Three weeks hence, he would be dead.

“Twenty years ago when my brother was at the end,” he recalled, “Doc Redding came and gave him a shot.” My mother, sitting in dad’s shadow on the porch, caught my eye and shook her head slightly. “No, I was there,” her eyes told me. “It wasn’t like that.”

“You could stop eating and drinking,” I offered. “That might be a gentle way for you to go, a way you can control.” I paused, despairing over this conversation. “Dad, the Doc Reddings of the world are gone.”

My father’s reprieve from the lung cancer that had spread to his brain and other vital body parts was over. He was fading fast, and that’s why my young boys and I had returned. Dad took pleasure in watching the children play on the floor, and he and I critiqued the political ads on television. I drank tea with my mom in the kitchen. My childhood home was transformed into one of those quiet houses I remember from hospice volunteering where death was imminent and everyone was uncharacteristically gentle with one another.

The day after we returned to Maine, a pneumonia crisis scared my parents silly and they hoofed it to the hospital in the middle of the night. He stayed a week, and at the end of that time a decision needed to be made. I drove back to New York alone.

We decided to place him in a Lutheran nursing home for palliative care: no drugs, no forced food, no IV fluids, just morphine and comfy tactics. He was sleeping a lot and, mid-way through his hospital stay, he had stopped making much sense. The Lutheran home seemed like the right move.

While waiting for the ambulance that would take him there, we sat in the hospital room and held hands. His eyes were closed, and he seemed to be listening to someone… smiling, nodding, commenting now and again. At one point he scratched his wrist, looked at me with a broad smile and said, “Isn’t this fun?”

“What is it, Dad? Is it like a movie?”

“Yes, sort of,” he said, returning to his inside place.

“A movie of your life?” I fished around.

“Yes,” he murmured. Gone, but bemused. I hummed the big band tunes of the forties and let what was happening sink in. This was a big life moment here. The dying itself was a journey, a thin period when what we know as life and something else briefly intersect. I was invited to a little moment in his journey toward the something else.

Then suddenly I was disinvited. After he settled into the nursing home, I went to sit with him in the evening. He seemed restless, and when a nurse came in he said to her, “Would you please ask my daughter to leave.” Nonplussed, I left the room and leaned against the wall watching the long-term residents cruise the corridors in their wheelchairs. After a few moments the nurse came out and said, “He said he doesn’t want you to see him die, but I told him I didn’t think he was going anywhere tonight and he’s agreed to let you back in.”

The next day I returned and was greeted with, “Oh shit. You came back.” This wasn’t going at all like I had planned. How was I to be the wonderful, caring daughter when he had an attitude like that? Awhile later some noisy nursing assistants came to take his untouched lunch tray. Dad woke fully, looked away to the window, and said with strained patience, “Would you please go? Would you please get into your car and go back to Maine. I can’t relax with you here.”

With a lurch of my heart, I realized my version of his death was about what I had envisioned, not about what he needed. I stood beside his bed and knew what I had to ask.

“Dad, if I leave, will it help you to die?”

“Yes,” he said, finally looking up at me, sunken, un-Dad-like, but still recognizable around the eyes. An unanticipated wave of grief thundered over me, and instantly, uncontrollably, I burst into giant sobs. The moment of parting was suddenly upon us, and I was caught by surprise.

After a minute I sat back in my chair. “How ‘bout I make you a deal, Dad,” I said, reverting to our old style of talking. “How ‘bout I leave and say ‘I’ll see you tomorrow’ and then I won’t come. How’s that?”

“That’s good,” he said, relieved and beginning to get a little fuzzy. I knew I had only a few more moments with my real father before the brain tumor/morphine father politely asked me to put the cheese next to the spare tire. We said our ‘I love yous’ and hugged and kissed and then did it again a couple of times. Finally, I moved to the doorway, turned and said, “I’ll see you tomorrow. Good-bye.”

He gave me his best, most winsome smile. “I’ll see you,” my father said. I smiled back — my parting gift — and walked away.

In 1999 a play called Wit by Margaret Edson won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. It’s about a John Donne scholar who has terminal cancer, and one line reads, “Nothing but a breath – a comma – separates life from life everlasting. It is very simple really…death is no longer something to act out on stage, with exclamation points. It’s a comma, a pause.”

Despite my promise, the following week my sons and I returned to New York. Dad had begun to die in earnest… the loud rattle of his breath, his eyes rolled back, his odd smell. As my mom and I sat on either side of his bed holding his hands, I thought about the moment…the pause in the heart-wrenching breathing…the comma, the full-stop. I thought about the journey’s end when we throw the last feeble leg over the fence to the something else. The moment when we see everything clearly in the presence of God, and say to ourselves, “What an idiot I was! Why didn’t I see how things really were?”

The following day, before my “shift” began, I took my woefully bored six year-old sons to a game farm. The best I can figure, we were delighting in the play of a couple of frisky otters when my father passed gently into that good morning.

Although my father was frustrated with the last six weeks of his life and his inability to get up and make coffee in the morning, I don’t think he would have wanted to miss the opportunity to show us how to do one last thing. He taught me that we are stewards of this life that God has entrusted us with and that we are susceptible to grace until the very end.

The day before Dad died, he lifted my hand to his lips…not seeing, not speaking, just doing. And by so doing, he invited me back to his life. It was his family he wanted at the end. He didn’t want Doc Redding after all.

Heidi Shott is the canon for communications and social justice in the Diocese of Maine.

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