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I’m Watching My Father Die

The pain of death is brutal. But it must never extinguish the absolute beauty of life.


The call came on a bus to DC: “You better come now.” My dad’s three-year fight with cancer. A few tears dripped, and I went back to watching “Gangs of New York” on my iPad. I hadn’t ever watched it before. The Megabus is no place for an emotional breakdown. You steel yourself in moments like that. The handful of moments that people try to forget will end.

I had business in Washington. Important business. So I had drinks with a friend, stayed over with a friend, and took care of my meeting the next day under the heavy elm of impending doom. It’s what we do.

The next evening I arrived at the hospital. Twenty years since my mother was dying in some other hospital, I rushed back in the horrible hallways and too-big elevators. The smell of mediocre food and hand sanitizer assaulted me. And it was all happening again. You smile at the nurses, I wink. It’s not a come on, just a “Hey, I’m okay.” Then you get to the room. And there he was sleeping, or something like that.

His fingers fumbled in the air, emphasizing a dream, announced in sleep-talking, semi-sensible, sometimes words, often just an utterance of some ancient language long lost to man. But in the hospital bed where his emaciation mimicked the sad visage of Holocaust forefathers, bare-bone arms, rib cage pushing through desperate skin, the mind struggles against inevitable night. I sat, in hopeless awareness. The antiseptic atmosphere offended me — the notes from the night nurse, the cheery disposition of those who spend their hours in the shadow of death.

It has been 20 years since I sat in this room, the same room, different city, slightly different machines, slightly different mood. I have learned of death now and the toll it takes on the living. I have fallen to sleep by its lullaby, its sad, repulsive melody of “Well, we all die.” In the heat of youth, when my mother sat prone, a shadow of herself, I could not console myself. Now I struggle to feel pain, the numb, dumb, thoughts incapable of words just floating.

I am not angry at his weakness and decrepit form. I am not repulsed. Well, maybe a little. But there is a quiet ease towards the end, even as the fight rages; because the fight rages. “Hey, dad, eat a few bites and I’ll show you my new tattoo.” He barely mutters, “How about I eat a few more and you don’t?” And there it is, there he is. Even as the passage comes close we can only be who we are. Even as the end approaches, the spark in that crumpled form makes itself known. And all that he is, that is why and what I am, come back in a flash instant. And life is not a long progression, but a moment. There is only now.

Over the past three years, he insisted he was not scared of dying. I knew he was lying. He knew he was lying. But he had no words to comfort me, nor I to comfort him. We simply went about the business of father and son, his admonitions, instructions, all the things fathers do. For fathers and sons, these gentle lies are everything.

So now I wait. May some miracle bring him back to me in full spirit, ready once again to pounce on my wrongheaded conservative views that he read in my latest? I hope so; I pray for it. I would humbly ask any of you who do such a thing to pray for it too. But I write this now, before that curtain falls, because should such lucidity allow him one last glimpse at his son’s work, I want it to be this.

I want him to know that everything I am is because of him, I want him to know that I will teach my son to live his legacy of love, good spirit, and equal treatment of everyone he meets. My father is not a perfect man, but he’s the best I’ve ever known. As the end we all must face approaches, I will strive to stay strong in his long shadow.