Where do you stand when they wheel your shrouded father from his nursing home room? It’s awkward. The next time you see him he will be wearing his best suit, hands folded across his chest, toes up, wearing his glasses even though he’s “sleeping,” never having looked more like his own father.
Tight lipped, my sister, her husband, my wife and I nodded at the mortician and his assistant, and followed them with our eyes on their familiar path down the carpeted hallway to the door where their hearse waited. They’ve made this trip before, harvesting one by one the carcasses of giants who once roamed the earth. But family never is ready.
Then we slid back into the room where dad spent his last week and packed his paltry possessions accumulated during the travails of his final days shuttling on “the system’s” money mopping monorail between hospital, nursing home, hospital, nursing home and hospice.
My sister Denise and I were with dad when he breathed his last. She sat on the bed, hand on his leg; I sat next to him, hand on his arm.
We chatted with our unconscious father’s labored breathing a constant, disquieting rumble in the background. Her own life has been very difficult the past two years, with cancer in both her and her husband. Living a thousand miles apart, such moments of sharing are precious and rare.
Suddenly, silence boomed through the room. Denise stopped in mid-sentence and we turned toward dad. He was gone and we were immediately grateful and sad. We lingered for nearly a half hour before we called the nurse.
After hospice workers and the coroner verified the obvious, and the mortician wheeled dad’s body out the door, we carried our packed boxes down the hallway like ants following a trail of ketchup.
That trail led past the dining room where a couple dozen residents prepared for dinner. Their eyes lifted to our quiet convoy and immediate, unspoken recognition passed over their faces. We walked the hallway down which someday soon they will be wheeled.
Our small boxes and sad faces reminded them starkly that one day their own children would shoulder the remnants of their lives and move quietly down hallways real and figurative to fill the holes they leave behind.
Through all the sad events of my dad’s final days, the flash of recognition on those faces stands apart. Life recognizing death. Antelopes sharing a watering hole with a lion.
One day they’ll be too tired to run. Or the lion will be too hungry to give up. But today, they’ll live in uneasy proximity.
Our march of the boxes reminded the residents that one day the watering hole will dry up and they will lose the race. But not today.
One eye tuned to us until we turned the corner, their heads dipped again as they returned to their meal.