One day, when I was in my teens, I asked my father about his experiences as a prisoner of war during World War II. The story he told was simply beyond the comprehension of a fourteen year old. Stunned, I told him I didn’t think I would have survived. I have never forgotten his quiet reply, “Son, humans are amazingly strong creatures. When the time comes, you will surprise yourself with what you are capable of and what you can endure”.
My father got home from the hospital the day I arrive in Florida. They sent him home because there was nothing else they could do for him. When I arrive at their condo my mother, was sleeping on the couch in the living room. The hospice nurse ushered me into my parent’s bedroom.
“Can I get you anything?”, she asked.
A floor lamp casts a pool of light on the fully functional hospital bed that has replaced the one my parents slept in together for at least 40 years. The impact of the mechanized bed is softened because it is surrounded, off in the shadows, by dad’s burgundy leather recliner and the matching teak dressers and night stands that they have had since… well, I can’t remember them not having them.
Somewhere in the room an oxygen generator bubbles and wheezes like an asthmatic coffee percolator. Except for that, everything is still.
Dad looks pale and his hairline has receded dramatically since I last saw him… just a month ago. The bed is adjusted to slightly elevate his head and shoulders and, dressed in his favorite blue flannel pajamas, he looks peaceful.
The nurse waits patiently for my answer. She’s done this before.
“No, nothing, I… no… thank you”, I stammer, this being my first time. She backs out of the room leaving a trace of perfume that reminds me of my high school prom.
His eyes still closed, dad coughs and reaches out to touch something in front of him only he can see. From the pamphlet the hospice people left on the raised tray beside the bed, I read that this is typical behavior in the last days and hours. My sister’s iPad is also on the tray with Pandora tuned to the Glenn Miller station. Artie Shaw’s Orchestra is playing Moonglow. Next to the iPad is a small bottle of pills. The nurse says we’re supposed to give dad one if he becomes agitated.
Dad puts his hand back on the covers. I take it in mine. It’s cold and grey. In the final hours, the body retreats from the extremities concentrating its forces at the core… around the heart and lungs. The pamphlet is pretty thorough.
“I’m here dad”, I say.
His eyes are still closed. Through the picture window across the courtyard I see other residents in their condos preparing for dinner as if nothing is wrong.
He squeezes my hand. I remember holding hands with him like this on a beach somewhere. I was maybe six.
“I’m glad you’re here, son”, my father whispers.
All day he has been seeing people in the room that no one else can see. “Can you see the big grey mountain?”, he asks my sister earlier in the day pointing at the closet. They talk about it and it turns out it’s Stone Mountain… in Georgia… where he was born.
My father opens his eyes and turns his head in my direction. Doris Day is just beginning Sentimental Journey.
“Son”, he says, “Let me go.” I stop breathing.
This isn’t a request, it’s an instruction.
Doris Day is singing, “Got my bags and got my reservation”.
I exhale slowly and say the hardest thing I have ever said in my life, “Everything’s alright dad, you can go”.
He smiles and says, “Ok”.
An hour later he is gone. And I endure.