May 1998

sawpeopleLou and Anjelica and I were heading to Schenectady anyway, because there was a fraternity event at Union college that Lou wanted to attend. When I called my parent’s house, one of my sisters told me that she thought my dad wasn’t going to live much longer. She had asked him if he wanted a priest to come to give him last rites, but he declined.

I had been up to visit about a week earlier, and saw he was getting weaker and weaker by the day, and had found eating to be more of a chore than a pleasure. But he had a craving for French Onion soup, in particular, a dish just like one he frequently spoke of that he thoroughly enjoyed in a very fine restaurant many years ago. My mom had been trying a variety of soups, but none came close to the ideal taste of his memories, and he simply didn’t want to eat them. I was determined to make the best French Onion soup possible from scratch. I cooked it at their house and described to him step by step what I was doing. I made a bunch of it; he had some that day, and said it was perfect. I don’t know if he was just being nice to me because he saw all the work I put into it, or if he really liked it, but he did voraciously eat it all up. My mom said he finished up the leftovers during the week, too. He never ate anything else before he died. They say soup is a comfort food. My hope is that it gave him some. Preparing it, and knowing that he enjoyed it, and even ate every last drop, gave me tremendous comfort as well.

When we arrived at the house that day, I saw that over just a matter of days he had withered away and was dramatically thin and dehydrated. His skin was tight against his bones, as if a vampire had drained all his bodily fluids, and his lips were cracked and dry. He could still speak, but only a few very soft words at a time with great effort, but he was clean and well cared for, and being kept comfortable. I sat in a chair facing him in bed, and held his hand all day and night, only breaking my grasp for brief breaks to go pee, eat or drink. At one point, Lou came to visit and stood by his bed, held his other hand, and thanked him for giving him such a wonderful daughter, and told my dad that he was a great father to me. My dad squeezed both our hands and nodded. Lou and Anjelica checked into the Glen Sanders Mansion hotel near the bridge from Scotia to Schenectady, and went to the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity function together. I think Anjelica is the only female or non-Fiji to ever go to the Fiji Pig Dinner. I didn’t want to leave my parent’s house to stay with Anjelica while he went to the event, and we both agreed it would not be good to have her with me given my father’s condition. As far as I know, nobody objected to Anjelica attending the fraternity event given the circumstances.   I considered most of the brothers from Lou’s college years to be my close friends as well, so I felt confident that she was with an extension of our family.

I spent most of the day and night sitting with my dad, holding his hand, and reading to him. I showed him pictures and read newspaper articles from old scrapbooks from the days of cruise travel and his publicity stunt tricks, and magic conventions. It was mellow and peaceful. He drifted in and out of sleep. One time after waking, he looked intently toward the wall, and told me he saw people at the foot of his bed. I couldn’t figure out whom he felt he saw to know exactly what to say, so I just tried to assure him that everything was all right, and never disputed what he was seeing. He was a little frustrated that I couldn’t explain who they were, but he soon relaxed, and was less concerned.

Not all my sisters are close with my dad, but everyone was there, and they were each doing the best they could and to be supportive to my mother. It was stressful at times, and I struggled to tolerate the buzz of everyday life activities, televisions and conversations going on around us while I tried to maintain a peaceful serene environment with my father in the family dining room’s makeshift hospice setting.

Everyone went to bed, except my sister who has been caring for him, and me. My dad was having a lot of trouble breathing. My sister called Hospice support a few times for advice. My dad knew he could have morphine whenever he wanted, and eventually asked for some. A while after receiving the dosage, finally looking much more comfortable, he asked why it was taking so long. I guess he thought it was like taking a dose of arsenic or hemlock that would end his life, not just ease his pain. He seemed a bit disappointed to still be alive. A little after midnight, he was struggling to breathe, and had a lot of congestion in his lungs. I woke my mom other sisters so they could also be with him, since our instinct was that he was going to die very soon. On the directive of the hospice nurse advising us over the phone, my sisters and I carefully turned him on his side, which seemed to alleviate his immediate discomfort. In hindsight, I also think the change in position actually makes the fluid in the patient’s lungs move in a way that brings death sooner than it would if a person continued to lay flat and torturously struggle with the rattling, labored breathing.

After we turned him on his side, I laid down next to him over the sheets in his hospital bed, hugging and spooning with him from behind. My mom knelt on the floor beside his head, gently stroked his hair and face, held his hand, and told him that he was the love of her life, and said that we were all by his side, and it was alright for him to let go. And he did. He died three months to the day after receiving his terminal cancer diagnosis.

I stayed in bed spooned with him for a long time after he passed. Eventually people from the funeral home arrived with a gurney to take him away. I wasn’t deliriously being a freak; I just wanted to continue giving him love, uninterrupted by the practicalities and business of dealing with his death until it was necessary to let go. There would be plenty of time for that. This was the last bit of myself I could give him. As he transitioned, I wanted him to know he was loved. If that’s weird, so be it.

After the funeral home took his body away and I saw my mom off to sleep, I drove to the hotel and got in bed with Lou, and told him my father had died. He said he was sorry, then he told me about a noise issue he had with the hotel from a nearby wedding party, then I spooned behind him until I finally fell asleep.

The next day, we went to my mom’s house to help reorganize the furniture and convert the downstairs from a medical facility back to a home. She wanted to open up the house to sunlight by taking down the many layers of plastic and curtains that had been installed long ago to insulate the windows. Light was literally brought back into the house after years of being sealed up by my father in the name of energy conservation. She even hung some art on the walls using nails. The irony was that pounding nails into the walls would be something my dad would say would only happen “over my dead body.” There ya go. She wanted and needed to do some of those trivial things that she had always wanted but didn’t consider worth an argument. Now, she can make her own choices. But, she also now realizes that she will be living alone for the very first time in her 70 years of life. Now, she has to make her own choices.

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