I walked into the hospital room and asked Elsie, his caregiver, if I could have time with him. She smiled warmly and closed the door quietly behind her, muffling the sounds in the hallway, leaving just the rhythmic humming of his oxygen machine.
I was alone with my father for the first time in years. Not since that summer in the mountains when we shared breakfast each morning before anyone else was up. He would clink his spoon in his cereal bowl just loud enough to wake me up, and I’d softly pad down the stairs. It was our thing. It was our time. He’d tell me stories and I’d listen.
The room was dim and cool. He lay sleeping, the morphine finally taking the edge off of his pain. Once a lion of a man, six foot four, with a temper to match, now just a wisp remained. The blankets were pulled high up to his chin, swaddled like a child, covering his once broad shoulders.
The sight of him like that caught in my throat as I moved to sit near him. And all at once the bitterness washed aside and all I could do was press my hand upon his heart and move in close to his body. I needed him to know I was there.
I needed me to know I was there too.
Several years earlier, I had decided I was never going to see him again. Alzheimer’s ravaged his brain and took away his filters, making him say things that hurt me, entrenching a certain life-long dynamic we shared, one that resulted in my enduring belief that I was ill-deserving of good, kind, present love.
But in my father’s final days, someone very close to me fought on behalf of my heart by insisting I go see him. And go in dignity and honesty.
“Death brings things you will never understand now,” he said. “Don’t rob yourself of this time with him. Please just don’t do it.”
I was defiant. What on earth would I be able to resolve with a man whose mind was gone? Who was passed out asleep most of the day, surrounded by people and caregivers? I was far from interested in some imagined Hallmark card reconciliation. It wasn’t going to happen. It was too late.
Regardless, something cracked open, and I had a sudden sense I needed to get there. And fast. I didn’t know why. I absolutely had no idea why I felt I needed to go. I was baffled, but followed the impulse.
As if on cue, events started to quickly change. An email arrived stating he had stopped eating, and his temperature was rising. I’d received a few of these over the months, but he always rallied, so I had learned to ignore them. But this time I grabbed a 5:30 a.m. flight. It landed me inside a miraculous window of time, when no one was there. Just he and me.
A spoon clinking in a cereal bowl.
I pulled the chair up closer, and pressed my hand more firmly upon his chest. I said a few things. Angry things. Resentful things. True things. I remained for a long time like that, my hand on his chest, getting things off mine. It felt strange throwing all of my pain upon this now defenseless man. But I knew I had to do it.
Then a most unexpected experience emerged—gratitude. It poured in like radiant sunlight through a cold empty room, provoking the recognition of countless gifts: that I was his daughter; that he took me to untamed lands; that I inherited his tall body and brains; that the challenges he brought were the very making of me. They outnumbered every hurt, every disappointment.
I told him I loved him. I spoke it out loud. I told him that my children loved him too. And that everything was working in my life for a change. And he didn’t need to worry.
I was done. Wrung out.
After the words subsided, I felt a most palpable sense of peace. It took hold of every neural pathway, and seized my thoughts into emptiness. It was a warm bath of a visceral surrender. I knew he and I were inside this peace together. It was real. It was something beyond what I called ‘my life’, ‘my story’, the things I did or he didn’t do. There was no remorse. No regret. No shame. Everything was perfect, and I knew it to be so.
All at once who he and I really were together became tangible. In spite of our tumultuous story together, in spite of the alienation and drama, we were something so much bigger than that. And it was love. We were love.
At that moment, he took his final breath. A kind of a sigh. Gently, softly. And he left. Not suddenly. It was more like a gradual departure. A sweet lingering. An indescribable joy overcame me, a joy that insisted to be felt and embraced. I remained bathing in a sublime sense of deep sufficiency for another long while. My hand remaining on his chest.
And then I got up, straightened my jeans, and walked out of the hospital to catch my returning flight.
I’ve been sitting here over a blank page for hours trying to figure out what I want to share with you about this experience. There’s something important to say. Some kind of smoke signal from the fringes.
It’s something about everything being really ok.
What if everything is just ok? Just deeply, truly, sublimely ok. What if our stories, our personalities, our ambitions and failures are just simply some wisp of a presence that has nothing to do with what is actually real? What if, regardless of what we do or don’t do, love is the only thing that exists? Like really, not just theoretically. What if it is the only thing that we are? What if that love is utterly and completely unconditional.
And what if death is simply the final let go into that most fundamental truth? A final total embrace of love itself, into the arms of love itself, confirming our birthright: that we are love itself.