Tonight will mark the second anniversary of what was probably the longest, most emotion-charged evening of my life: the long evening during which my father departed from this life as we know it. Journey's End, if you prefer the romantic phrases (more about those euphemisms later). Irving Swan, born Irving Swenciski, aged 87 years, nine months and 6 days, was checking out. A life's journey which had begun in Brooklyn, New York in 1918 was ending in a Hospice in West Palm Beach, Florida, in 2006.
My sister, my niece, and a friend of my niece's spent that last evening with him in his room at the Hospice, watching and listening as each breath he took grew longer and more protracted, as the pauses between them became longer and longer. The evening drew on - we brought in sandwiches from Subway, and each took a break to eat in one of the relation rooms provided by the Hospice.
We knew he was dying, and that the end wasn't far off - we had been advised that all the signs were there (I can't say enough good things about the compassion of Hospice workers, by the way).
To say the least, it was an exhausting ordeal, one which repeatedly stretched our emotions taut, only to release them to begin the process again. Several times the pause between breaths was so long, up to a minute or even more, that we thought, "Okay, this is it." But it wasn't, and suddenly he'd draw one of those long, protracted breaths again. And the process would begin again, and again. And again. Talk about your basic emotional roller-coaster.
Eventually my sister, my niece, and the friend left - my sister and niece were pretty much all-in by then, and we thought it would be better if they left. It was late-evening by now, but though things appeared to be winding down, there was still no telling how much longer it would go on. The Hospice nurse, and the pamphlets they'd given us to read, told us that the time-frame varied with the individual - many patients, I already knew, died during the night, in the quiet hours, after family and friends had left. Was this my father's plan? Only he knew, and he wasn't telling (which, if you knew my father, you'd know was quite typical of him!).
Many years previous to this evening, I suppose at the age of around nine or ten years old, I began to develop an anxiety about losing my father, about him dying. It had its roots in the sudden death of father of one of the boys who lived in my apartment building, a man who was a year younger than my father. He had felt ill while driving home from work, pulled over, and suffered a massive and fatal heart-attack.
Afterwards, and for many years thereafter, I worried about my father, about something happening to him. If he was late coming home from work, I worried. If he and mom went out for the evening (which they didn’t do all that often) and they were long in getting home, I worried – had there been an accident?. Sometimes I even watched him as he slept, to make sure he was breathing.
I don’t know how long this ‘obsession’ persisted; though I’m sure I outgrew it at some point. With time comes the understanding that one will likely outlive ones’ parents, and that if one lives a distance away, as I did by then, there will inevitably come a phone call with bad news: it’s part of the scheme of things, the natural progression of life. Such a call had come on March 29th, 1996 about my mother, and on January 1st, 2005 a call brought news that my father had had a minor stroke. The stroke had weakened him, and though he'd made some progress for the first couple of months, it seemed that once he had realized he would be unable to return to the life he'd been living, maintaining his own apartment, still going bowling and dancing several times a week at 87, he'd begun to lose his will to get better.
Now, after three months of decline, he had developed problems with his breathing and other physical manifestations of physical withdrawal from life, and been placed in the Hospice a week earlier, where they'd keeping him comfortable with fluids and oxygen. I’d gotten there the previous Thursday, and my sister had arrived the next day, Friday. He was asleep almost all of the time at this point, sometimes waking only to give out a long, deep sigh that was almost a moan - we really couldn't really decide which - our main concern was that he not be in any kind of pain.
At some point during the intervening hours spent at his bedside since then, and away from it as well, something had fallen into place within me without my even thinking about it: I realized that not only was the very thing I had once feared so terribly and so obsessively in fact happening, but that I was perfectly at peace with it.
My father was dying, and I was perfectly at peace with it! No fear, no anxiety, no worry - My father was dying, and I was perfectly okay with it.
Some might call this "Grace" - I don't know. Whatever it was, it was there and it was real.
I remained by myself with him until sometime after midnight, watching him, listening to those breaths, waiting. I knew he would do it his way. My father always had. Over the past several days I had said all I needed to say to my father, regardless of whether he heard or understood. So at last, sometime after midnight, I said, "Well, old man, maybe you want to do this on your own, I don't know. So I'll see you tomorrow, if that's what you want." so I kissed him goodbye, because I knew that it might indeed be goodbye, and then I stood in the doorway for a minute, watching, waiting for his next breath, because if this was indeed going to be my last look at my father, I damn well wanted him to still be breathing. He took another breath. I turned and left.
At 1:50AM (technically the early hours of May 31st by then) the phone rang - it was my niece - the Hospice had phoned her: my father was dead, had died at 1:40 AM.
Suddenly, with this phone call, I was an orphan - my sister and I were both orphans, at the age of 57 and 49 (my sister's birthday is at the beginning of May).
Moments after the phone call I stood in front of the entertainment center which housed the television, and upon which where various knick-knacks, photos of my parents, my sister, my niece, and I, and of my father and his friends on cruises. I had been joking for days that as long as my father lived this was his apartment and these were his things, but as soon as he was gone, all the pictures of his lady friends would come down! (It was indeed just a joke – I was always very pleased that my father had made a life for himself in the decade since my mother’s death.) As I stood there my eye fell on the photo of my father taken for my Bar-Mitzvah, looking fine
in a tuxedo, as he always did - with a shock I realized that my father was only 50 when that picture was taken in June of 1969 (actually, two months shy of 51).
Now my father was dead, three weeks before the birthday when I myself would turn 50 - the age he was in that picture. But somehow I'd known or at least sensed that my father wasn't going to be around for my 50th - it was just a feeling I'd had for the past 2-3 months, when he wasn't making much progress - my mother had died 3 months before I turned 40, and I just started getting this feeling that my father wouldn't see my 50th - it wasn't a bad feeling, or an oppressive one, or even a premonition, just a feeling, almost a knowledge.
And so it came to pass. I'm not really one for euphemisms - everyone is different and has their own ways of facing things: many people go to great lengths to avoid any mention of death and dying - I remember talking with a woman about an author who had died sometime before, and more than once the woman used the term "She's no longer with us..." My sister is apt to used the terms "Passed on" or Passed away," and I've encountered many African-Americans who won't go further than saying that "So-and-so passed"(which is quite ironic, considering the negative connotations that the term "passing" has for many African-Americans - but that's another topic).
So, for myself, I have to put it that at 1:40 AM on the 31st of May, 2006, my father died. Whether he "passed away" or "passed on" (to somewhere else) is another story. And yes, the expression I remember it as though it were yesterday still applies.