It was well after 8 am.
My mother and I were on our second cups of coffee, playing it cool. Acting as if my father still being in bed at that hour was completely average.
It was mother’s day.
I’d called my father from the airport to ask if he needed me to get a gift for my mom on the way home.
Over the years my sisters and I had played the part of behind the scenes gift-givers on my father’s behalf. For days I’d expected his call and when it didn’t come wondered if he’d stopped pretending to care, or if he’d just plain forgotten.
Both reasonable when you’re dying.
His voice was more cheery than I’d heard it in weeks.
“Just pick up any little thing you think she might like. We’re just excited to see you.”
I felt an internal loosening. Part of the challenge of losing someone you love is you are not the only person losing them.
There had been a steady stream of suspiciously upbeat e-mails. “We expect to hear good news by Easter…” Occasionally I’d forward one to my oncologist friend who always gave me the gift of blunt truth:
“Still dying.” He’d graciously reply.
So with the clock ticking, I tried to balance my parents’ need for privacy, with my ache to simply be in the same room as my father. After several months of asking, I outmaneuvered the resistance by playing by the rules of minimizing my father’s illness.
“I’m coming for mother’s day.”
More holding our coffees than drinking, my mother and I touched on my dad’s health. I absentmindedly blew on an already cooled drink as I listened to my mother express a quiet frustration at my father’s increasing limitations.
“If he thinks I’m spending the rest of my life driving him to appointments, he has another thing coming.”
I tested the waters, “But what if he doesn’t drive again?”
My mother replied with a look I’d seen a thousand times. It said something between, “oh please,” and “you’re an idiot.”
And in that one minute, I realized, as I will a thousand times again — the mind has a vast capacity to not know what it doesn’t want to know.
When denial shows up in my day job, I push against it. As a daughter, I sip my silence.
Over the course of the next hour, my mother will wake my father who won’t know what day it is. She will gently suggest a trip to urgent care which he will refuse with disgust. Quickly and gingerly, I will run through the questions on the medical status exam which he will answer tentatively, alert enough to conceal he’s not exactly sure who I am.
“He’s not oriented to time and place…” I tell the 911 operator before I notice my mother biting back tears. I hang up the phone.
“Dad. I need you to get in the car. I need you to do this for mom. Can you do that for me?” He can do that for her and for me.
I know emergency rooms. I know charge nurses and attendings and hospital beds, and saline drips and warming blankets and dangerously high potassium levels and my dad has them all.
My mother is silent, my father is sleeping and I have a canceled flight home. His potassium level drops.
My father is admitted to the quietest hospital room I’ve ever known that also overlooks the ocean. It will be nearly a week before his doctors decide on a surgery to stem some element of his decline.
A week of hours scratching my father’s scalp through the thick head of head that grew back the minute he stopped chemo.
Hours of phone calls and texts to siblings.
Hours of sitting at the foot of my father’s bed. What should have bored me instead felt biblical. My favorite bible stories always included someone at some else’s feet.
It’s worth noting these hours that turn into days and into weeks and eventually weekend visits to my father’s bedside are some of the easiest we’d had between us. In my teen years, I blamed the tension of our relationship on my father’s lack of interest and little presence in my life.
Somehow, in the knowledge and the grief of actively losing him, I dropped blame and stopped wanting him to be a different version of a dad and instead accepted him. Being with him became simple and different. Because I was simple and different. He stayed the same, which I was amazed to discover was actually always good enough.
On the day of the scheduled surgery, my mother and I arrived at the hospital to find my father writhing in pain and his procedure canceled.
(It is in these moments that I live out my very own Shirley McLaine a la Terms Of Endearment moment. Just one of the two movies in which the wildly talented, Deborah Winger, dies of cancer — the other being Shadowlands with Anthony Hopkins as C.S. Lewis. The scene is well known to those of us over forty — but if it is unknown to you, suffice it to say, Shirley’s character gloriously loses her shit on the hospital staff when she discovers her daughter in excruciating pain).
My mother is quietly unsure of my clanging and stomping and threatening and swearing, but squeezes my hand when my father’s face relaxes as the meds kick in and we see his name go back up on the surgical board.
We agree to take it in shifts. My mother goes home, my father goes in for surgery and I go for a sandwich.
I’m waiting for him back in his room when I hear the lilt of his “charming” voice approaching. Almost as though inappropriately eavesdropping, I hear my father sweetly chatting with the nurse wheeling him back — he’s making a dinner order when he rolls in.
And I’m startled by a few things.
My father is sitting up smiling. Color in his previously grey face.
And the size of the nurse.
The nurse’s overheard, gentle, hallway voice gave the impression of a slight, unassuming presence rather than the six-foot-four, full-arm sleeves of stunningly colored tattoos and giant feet clad in incongruous peach-colored crocs.
“I’m Eliot,” he extended a huge hand and a huge smile.
“Oh, I know, I’ve heard all about you. Someone is enjoying his pain killers.”
Eliot winked at me and declared he would be back with some soup.
With my dad propped up on extra pillows, happily slurping away, I texted my mom all was well and made mental plans for a run in the early evening sunlight.
My father was eating, which in and of itself was extraordinary, and recounting a story I already knew by heart. So grateful for the surgical success and my father’s good mood, I would have been content to hear him talk politics.
Then he grimaced.
Like a bad spoonful of soup.
And suddenly the room was beeping and flashing and whirring, filled with the entire staff of the hospital.
I was screaming.
I watched my father’s body convulse in a way that felt eerily familiar. Despite feeling myself slipping out of my body, my memory showed me my three c-sections and the wild shaking I’d experienced from the anesthesia.
I asked a nurse, who looked more like a camp counselor, something about possible the effects of the anesthesia, but she wouldn’t make eye contact.
“We don’t know what this is, but it isn’t good.”
My father’s eyes were laden with fear.
I couldn’t take it.
I stepped out of the room into the much quieter hallway and pressed my forehead against the cool, painted cinderblocks that made up the wall. I squeezed my arms in an x across my torso and breathed in and out. In and out.
I returned to the beeping, raised voices and my father’s eyes. I held his hand tight. He spoke through chattering teeth.
“I don’t want to leave you here alone.”
“I called my brothers. They are on their way.” I lied.
He closed his eyes.
“Its okay daddy. I’ll be okay.”
He released me.
Again I walked straight out into the hall, pressed my forehead back to the cinder block. Even with my eyes closed, I felt a hulking presence. I opened my eyes to the quizzically titled head of Eliot.
“I’m trying to keep myself inside myself,” I replied. “I need to be here, now.”
“Want me to squeeze you tight?”
The tears pricked and I nodded my head in a tiny yes. That was exactly what I wanted. What I needed.
Hours went by. Every ten minutes or so, I’d see a flash of Eliot’s colorful arms in the rectangular window sliver of the door. I’d step out into his perfect, breath crushing hug, and step back in. Regulated and ready.
It was three am before the overnight camp-counselor-nurse announced, “he’s stable.”
I kissed the top of my father’s sleeping head.
Eliot brought me a pillow and blanket, pulled the uncomfortable bench out into an even more uncomfortable twin bed and gave me one last squeeze.
My dad cracked an eye.
“I’m here, daddy. I’m not leaving.”
“Thank god you’re here.”
It may have been the deepest expression of love my father ever made to me.
And this was already the second time my father didn’t die in front of me.
At 5:15 I woke and called my mom. Exhausted with worry she said tearfully, “I should have been there.”
But I’m not sure either of us believed that. Each of my family members had their own lap to run in the relay of my father’s death. This was one of mine.
I left my father a note and slipped out. I searched for Eliot at the nurse’s station only to learn he’d left on a shift change and hour ago. A precious, but thankless job done.
I tiptoed through a silent hospital, through the cancer wing main doors into the early morning sunlight.
And a song filled my head.
A first I couldn’t place it. Piano tones, a tune I wasn’t sure I even knew.
A year previous, my husband took me to a play in Broadway previews at a small theater not far from our house. I agreed to go because it was musical and also he bribed me with dinner. I knew nothing of the play’s plot, but by intermission, when my husband asked if I wanted to get a drink I replied with:
“I’m afraid if I move I will explode.”
Between the story — a teen suicide, longing to belong, devastating lies, and some of the most beautiful music that would ever hit the Broadway stage, I watched holding my breath. I saw the play, made a social media plea for people to go see it and never thought of it again.
I immediately Googled the soundtrack to “Dear Evan Hansen” which I’d done after I had seen the show originally, but the music hadn’t been yet been released.
But here it was.
You will Be Found by Benji Pasek and Justin Paul
“Have you ever felt like nobody was there?
Have you ever felt forgotten in the middle of nowhere?
Have you ever felt like you could disappear?
Like you could fall, and no one would hear?
Well, let that lonely feeling wash away
Maybe there’s a reason to believe you’ll be okay
’Cause when you don’t feel strong enough to stand
You can reach, reach out your handAnd oh, someone will coming running
And I know, they’ll take you home.
Even when the dark comes crashing through
When you need a friend to carry you
And when you’re broken on the ground
You will be found. So let the sun come streaming in
’Cause you’ll reach up and you’ll rise again
Lift your head and look around
You will be found
You will be found
You will be found
You will be found
You will be found…”
Dear Evan Hansen went on to win six Tony Awards including Best Musical, and top honors for its stars Ben Platt and Rachel Bay Jones.
But more importantly to me, it became the soundtrack to my dad’s death.