My Father's Death

My father died when I was 14, right there in the living room of our home. This didn't come as a surprise to us, as he had been dying of cancer for 7 months. Before his diagnosis, he had been my tall, broad and strong dad whose laugh was deep and booming. He cooked delicious food and sang beautifully. He held my mothers hand and took walks with me on still winter nights, which were, and still are, my favorite kind. In his last couple of months, I watched this robust dad disappear into the shadow of his own skeleton. It frightened me to see the contours of his skull, his cheekbones sharp, his eyes sunken. I have a photograph of he and I that my mother took weeks before his death. We are sitting together on the couch, I have my head on his shoulder and we are both looking away from the camera. He looks empty, impossibly thin, his wedding band hangs loose on his finger. And I look young and healthy and wholly unprepared for the massive amount of change that is already on its way. This photo was taken around time of the last conversation we had. He did his best to explain his desire to be quiet, and how, in his pain and sorrow he wanted to be alone. I was able to say that I understood, and in a very small way, I did. Soon after explaining this to me, Hospice brought a bed in for him, and it seemed to me that as soon as he lay in that bed, he disappeared inside of himself.

My mother and I walked around the house with great care as he lay silently in the hospital bed in the living room. He was so small in that bed. Undemanding. Breathing, still. My mother would say 'go be with your father'. But he had been gone for weeks. Where was I supposed to find him? He didn't even smell the same. When I was little, I would stand behind him as he sat in his big brown recliner and cover the deep lines of his forehead with my small hands, feeling his skin and the muscles beneath it. Then I would smell the stolen scent of my dad's forehead on my hands. I missed him desperately while he was still there in the room.

On the morning of September 12, my mother woke me with the sharpest words said very softly, 'wake up, honey, dad's dead'. My thoughts were, but it's Saturday. But it's so early. But what even does this mean? I didn't know what to expect as I followed my mother down the stairs to the living room, and there he lay. Small in the bed, undemanding, no longer breathing. My mother went to the kitchen to make calls and I was glad to be alone with him. I held my hand against his chest first, to test this experience, to feel the stillness. He felt stiller to me than anything, stiller than inanimate things, even. I rested my ear there and listened for his heart, to which I belonged, his heart, which was bound to mine. I studied his face, which was frightening but didn't frighten me, in order to remember it. I kissed the cool firm skin of his cheek. I smelled his forehead. And I knew but didn't yet understand how profoundly I was changed.

My dad died on September 12, 1987.

I was only 14.

He was only 57.

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