Dad passed away on Monday; not unexpectedly, but sooner than we thought. I was sleeping at the time, while Renee kept watch over him. She phoned me to tell the sad news. And her voice revealed a tenderness and awe in the moment; Dad just stopped breathing, she said. Were you there with him, I asked. Yes. That was all I needed to know.
I had spent the previous days, the entire weekend really, either at dad’s side or recovering from the long, draining hours keeping watch with my mother and brother. Sunday night was the longest one and it was dad’s last. I spent it with him, just the two of us. He had been slowly fading since Thursday and by now was struggling to breathe. His fever rose and fell and rose again. He became mostly unconscious, and his last word to me was a labored ‘alright’ when I asked him if we could suction out the fluid building up in his throat. We would repeat the arduous procedure throughout the night, and all I could do was talk him through it.
I knew he could hear me even if he could not speak. His eyebrows would wrinkle up on his forehead, hover feebly, and fall again like weights as I spoke encouragement in his ear. I talked to him at intervals; in the darkness telling him he was not alone. That I was there with him, at his side. Don’t worry dad, I’m not leaving you.
As I held his hand and placed my head down on the bed, I measured his every labored breath in slow motion. I was weary and thinking about Jesus as he prayed in the garden; on his dark night of labored breathing, when the weight of the world was coming down on his shoulders. And the few friends he had in the world could not even manage to stay awake. I have always thought less of them for that. How hard could it be to just hold his hand?
But I was no different this night. I wanted to sleep. Partly because I was tired and overwhelmed by all that had happened in the previous weeks, and partly because I just wanted the suffering to go away. I was determined to stay awake but I could not. I would drift asleep precariously in that uncomfortable chair and wake again when dad’s breathing became loud. We would suction again. And I would just cry and try again. It was the longest night.
Dad stabilized by Monday morning—thanks to our efforts or my pleas I don’t know. But I was thrilled that mom would arrive to find her beloved resting easy. She buried her head where mine had fell in the night, there next to dad’s hand, and wondered if she could get another word from him. But he never did wake again, as much as she wanted one more kiss. One more; for weeks she would solicit them. Just one more. He raised his eyebrows for her though. It was all he could do for her, and in those final hours, like the forty years before them, he would still do all he could do for her.
Dad was peaceful, and it gave mom peace to see it. I, however, was dizzy. Incoherent. Hopelessly tired. I finally called Renee and asked her to come sit in my place. I would not leave mom alone, and I hoped Renee could make certain she wouldn’t be. Renee came without a second thought. She packed bags and coordinated a place for the kids. She drove a far distance. I said I was sorry for the trouble. She wouldn’t let me be. By the early afternoon I was freed up and drove off just a few miles over to mom’s house. I fell down asleep in my tiny old bedroom. I dreamed of being a kid again; there in the brown house on Bates Drive. Thirty years wound back and disappeared. And two hours later they rushed in to the present with the wail of a cellphone.
Were you with him? I asked. Yes, she said. And I loved her for it. If I had never known Renee and never loved her until this day, I would love her forever for that one thing. She held dad’s hand for me while I slept.
Dad slipped away around four o’clock. From his dark night, to a peaceful morning, to a radiant joy. Renee watched him make that journey. She brought mom in just in time to be there too. My dad always loved Renee like the daughter he never had. And I wonder if He and God arranged for that most special, miraculous moment to fall on her watch.
She said it was a privilege.