It has already been two years and I have never once written about it. There are six blank pages in my journal that I had skipped over, intending to fill the lines with details of what happened that night and the emotions that walked by my side through it all. But there is still nothing. I am angry with myself over this because I feel I have failed him by not telling his last story- how brave he was, how beautiful, how strong- and how I watched it all with a keen eye and a hunger to remember it for him. It is the only story he is unable to tell.
February 18. He sits in his chair, trying so hard to be present, greeting us when we arrive, smiling at us when we talk to him. Like a parent feeding an infant, I hold his vitamin water to his lips, helping him take the straw so he can swallow a few more nutrients. I watch my strong, kind husband help wheel him to the bathroom and back. As the hours tick by, he slips farther and farther away, in and out of sleep on his red chair, his inanimate legs tucked under the red pepper quilt my grandmother made him. When sleep is all he has, I see my father try gently but oh-so-terribly to drag him to the bed and I bury my face in my aunt’s shoulder, knowing he will not leave that bed again. He tries to talk, the last time he will make the effort. My grandmother understands what he cannot say and reassures him that we all know he loves us. He nods. His eyes close. We stand and sit and kneel and pace in the bedroom, taking turns to watch and pray and cry and tell stories. Even on the bed, he looks strong. As with everything in his life, he is going to do this his way.
I am anxious to do something so I volunteer to call the hospice nurse and the pastor when they are needed. I go to my father’s house to let the dogs out. The sense of urgency is in direct contrast to the slowness of the night but it pulses through my bones anyway. We wait and we watch and we weep, even as we know this is exactly what he wanted. There are no machines, no hospital noises and smells. He is home and we are grateful. We pray with the pastor and we ask the nurse questions and then we shift positions again, waiting. At one point, it is my turn to lay in the bed next to his unconscious weight. I inhale the sweet smell of his skin and cologne and brush his hair and even laugh with my grandmother who is so brave in these moments that I want to hold her and rock her and sing to her, as if she is a child I can protect from the world. I realize now that she has never needed protection.
After all of that, we retreat to find nothing but fitful sleep. I am on the living room floor with my sister and my father and my husband- our vigil tempered by three small hours of rest. I barely notice my father leaving the room but like a racehorse out of the starting gate, I shoot up from the floor, wide awake in five seconds, when he comes back and tells us he’s gone. Without a word, I stumble to the other bedrooms and wake my cousins and aunt, relaying the news in a monotone devoid of emotion. I had already known the morning wouldn’t come for all of us.
It must be 3:00 a.m. by now and we are all awake. Eventually, amazingly, I find myself alone with him in the bedroom as calls and coffee are made in the kitchen. I imagine he is still hovering somewhere close by, so I talk to him. I wonder if he could be sitting in the chair next to me so I turn away from the body on the bed and turn toward the soul on the chair. I talk and I listen. I don’t cry. Eventually, I go to the bed and lay down beside him. I hold his foot in my hand. Still warm. My grandmother and my sister join me and we all four are on the bed, like we were when I was a child staying overnight, when my grandmother read me “The Little Bird’s Rice” and I looked forward to the smell of bacon greeting me in the morning. We remember these things together as indigo turns to violet and the daylight creeps nearer. Silently, urgently, I pray for it all to slow down. The night feels so safe and sacred, a temple where I can hide protected in my grandmother’s arms. In the dark, he is still here. The day will change everything. With the dawn will come plans and more phone calls and people from the funeral home wheeling him out the door. With the dawn will come the first time in 81 years that the sun saw a world without my grandfather in it and that is a day I cannot bear yet.
This night had been ours. It was a night of memories and solidarity, as my family focused solely on our grandfather’s journey and formed a wall of strength and support that seemed impenetrable. I felt strong last night, strong for him. Strong for us. I fear it will all disintegrate in the light of day, that when the blanket of night is pulled off, I will have no choice but to face my weakness and my vulnerability. I will have to face a world without him and it starts today and I do not think I am up to this task. If only the dawn would not come.
But it does come- and as with everything that has happened in the last 24 hours, I am helpless to control any of it. Time sweeps me along and I wave to my Opa as the train picks up speed. I watch him walk away from the platform, a tall figure on the horizon. I settle back in my seat and gradually begin the act of remembering. The sun rises.