"My sticker is gone. We gave the dryer away and now I don't have it. I forgot to take it off the side. I wanted to have it." My husband stood quietly, not acknowledging me. "I guess it's silly, but I wanted it," and then to justify it, I added, "It had my name on it."
After visiting hours at my local hospital, you're required to wear a name tag sticker affixed to a visible spot on your coat or shirt. My father was brought to the hospital after complaining of stomach pain over a week before. He was a already a sick man. Diabetes, a weakened heart, he could barely walk or see, and all of his personal care became my mother's tasks. All the feedings, cleanings, and pills. Pills lined up for every day of the week. So many they seemed like candy, twenty or more a day.
It read September 11th, 2005, 10:16 PM. A red and white sticker with my name scribbled on the front. I came home from the hospital sometime during the night. I hadn't slept in days. I took the sticker off my zip-up sweat jacket and affixed it to the side of the dryer in an out of the way spot. Looking back, I couldn't tell you why. I just wanted it.
My back had suddenly went out after my father went into the hospital. My family always believed my dad and I were physically linked. The first time I got pregnant, he knew before anyone else, myself included. Dad was the one up all night with the morning sickness. My father said, "I knew it! I've been sick for a month now. I knew it!"
And I remember being miles away in Iowa years later, feeling chest pains. Compressing, enveloping pain. I'd been out, came home, immediately checked my messages and heard, "There's a collect call from -- Mom." I hung up, called information for the number to the hospital, had the information desk put me through to the emergency room, and asked if my father was there. I told the clerk in Emergency I was miles away and was his daughter. I had a feeling something was wrong with my father. A doctor got on the line and said, "Your father has had a heart attack." I knew it. I just knew.
Last September when my father went into the hospital, I was living close by. My mother and brother, Chad, stayed at the hospital most of the time. Chad, the one who inherited my father's home, cars, buildings, and possessions, long before my father was sick, just after the first heart attack. My father was afraid "the state" would take everything and my brother, who never has supported himself in 42 years of life, loved the idea of having a home and all its contents free of charge. Both of my parents were just afraid Chad would have no place to go if they didn't give them their own.
I thought Chad felt guilty about it then while listening to my father breathe. Sitting around the bed, glancing at my father, then back to the TV for another hour. He never even liked our dad and in truth, wished him dead more often than not. My back felt like it was breaking in two. "We have to switch Dad's position, his back must hurt," I told them.
We all just sat and waited. It became a strange competition. Who would be there to see my father take his last breath? A competition my mother pushed on me daily, nightly, hourly, every minute. I'd adjust in my seat and she'd nearly yell, "Where are you going?" I'd tell her I had to pick the kids up from school and she'd shout, "When will you be back?" I'd be cooking them dinner and receive a phone call with, "When are you coming back? How long will you be gone?"
My own children were lost during that time. I was balancing my hours at the hospital with my minutes of trying to do the essentials at home, just the basics. My husband didn't help out. He thought I should have spent minutes at the hospital and hours at home. My son and daughter were on hold for any talks or advice they needed, when I wouldn't be half-asleep, dead tired, numb, or in a fog.
I returned to the hospital the next day. I didn't want to be there. I had to walk hunched over while using anything in my path to support me as I walked through the halls. I couldn't imagine what people thought of seeing a young woman walk so strangely, but I didn't care either.
My father's breathing became labored, raspy, and forced. A death rattle. His temperature slowly climbed. My mother kept checking his feet to see if they were mottled, a sign of approaching death. My mother says death starts at the feet and works its way up. Nurses would hint to my father's time coming to a close while others said nothing. The hospital stopped all medication, all food, all fluids. He could no longer eat, swallow, or open his eyes. A day passed.
I left to retrieve my children from school, then made dinner and waited for my husband to return from work. I didn't want to go back to the hospital. I kept saying it over and over again in my head. After dinner, instead of jumping in the truck and speeding back, I waited. I took my husband in our bedroom and told him I was tired. I told him I wanted to stay home. "Then stay," John said, matter-of-factly. Then stay. Not even an option.
"I have to go back, I just don't want to go. I don't know why my mother wants me to see it. What does it matter? Why do people think if you're there for the last breath that you somehow were a better person because of it? That it somehow cancels out all the rest of the bullshit?" At least my back felt better. No more stabbing, shooting pain. No more taking it slow. It felt completely healed.
The cell phone rang. 6:02 PM. Chad.
"He's gone, Beth," loudly.
"He's ... gone?"
"Yes, just now. Are you coming back?"
"I am, I'm leaving now."
I dropped the phone on my bed and looked at John, tried to speak, but couldn't. The pain in my back was gone. My father was dead. I sobbed uncontrollably. My children ran in and asked what was wrong and I don't even know what John told them. I wiped my face and said, "I have to go! I have to go there right now!"
My husband insisted on driving. During all this time he hadn't insisted on helping at all. It felt foreign and wrong. I told him, "I can drive. I'm fine," and in the next moment, "Oh John, he's dead. I knew. My back doesn't hurt anymore and my dad is dead. I knew it was coming. I knew it. I have to go. I have to straighten up and calm myself down. I can't let my mother see me upset." I wiped my face again while John told the children to get ready, we were all leaving now.
I don't remember the car ride. It's gone from my mind. I don't remember walking into the hospital or riding the elevator. I don't remember walking at all. I know John stayed in the lobby with the kids.
I remember slowly peeking into my father's room and seeing my mother sitting there. Her best friend, Sheila, was in the background. I remember a step feeling like a mile. I knew I had to walk in and turn to the right. Just walk in and turn. I'd seen dead people before. What was wrong with me?
Walk in ... now turn. It couldn't be him. No, that's not my dad. My sister, Stormy, was by his side, her husband on the other. Yellow face, slack jaw. I was looking down a black tunnel at this face. Everything started to darken around me. I turned and ran out of the room. I cried in the hallway quickly, fifteen seconds. Someone called my name, someone else whispered. I had to go back in there. I wiped my face and began walking towards the door.
Walk in ... turn. That's my father. That's my father. I had never really seen death before. Not real death. Funeral parlor death, yeah, but not real death. Too much make up, hair done, best suit of clothes. Head on a silk pillow in a coffin death. Not real death. Yellow face, mouth ajar. Skin the color of death. It's a shade you never see on earth. It isn't pale. It isn't like on CSI or the movies. It isn't something I was ready to see. At 35, I just wasn't ready.
My sister stood just rubbing my father, picking at him, rubbing his head, and arms. She was always weird that way. Like a monkey, picking at herself or at someone around her. A habit the rest of us hated, but none more than my father. He hated to be touched in that way. You touched my father hesitantly, slowly, to make sure in the last second he wouldn't push you away. Stormy just stood picking away at his dead body. I wanted to smack her away for him. I couldn't stand it.
I am the youngest of my siblings, the "baby." Everyone was looking at me and I tried so hard to be strong, but I couldn't do it. I broke down. I let the tears pour down my face, spill onto the front of my jacket. Everyone looked. My brother glanced, made his eyes into slits, and looked away as if to say, "You should've been here."
"It's okay, Beth," I heard my mother say in a broken voice. I knew watching me cry was killing her. I knew and couldn't stop. "I know, I'm okay. It's okay." It's not okay. "I'm okay." I don't know what I said to her beyond that.
I stood wanting to swat my sister away. Wanting to fix my father. My brain kept saying, "This is your father. You'll never see him alive again. This is death. This is the color of death. Your dad isn't here." All these thoughts tumbling inside my head.
Someone started talking about the moment my father died. Then I realized, my brother and mother were here with my mother's friend when my father died. They had been with my father when he took his last breath. Chad wanted Stormy and I to know he was here. We were not. I nodded. I didn't speak. I didn't care. I was right. It didn't mean anything right then to me. I just wanted to give him the victory and be done with it.
A nurse walked in and said, "Do you have dentures for him? You're going to need dentures." So casual-like. Almost as if she was asking if my mother had made out the next day's menu. As if there wasn't a dead person in the room. My mother answered and the nurse just went on and on about these dentures. Those damned stupid dentures.
I'm standing there looking at my father who will never speak to me again and she's talking about false teeth. And my mother, who just had the greatest love of her life pass away before her eyes, a man she has been with since she was a young girl, has to sit there and answer these questions about fucking teeth. I wanted to shout at this woman to just get out of the room and give us a minute, but my mother was so calm. I was falling apart and she was so together. Every time I looked at my father's face, a face I could hardly recognize anymore, it was this agony I've never felt before, but my mother assured this nurse all would be taken care of and then even explained to me how they needed the dentures for the funeral parlor.
Ah, funeral parlor death. Suit and tie death. Dentures permanently placed in your mouth death. Made up faces like skin tone crayons. Peach Crayola crayon faces like first grade drawings on white paper. The death I was expecting to see now.
Here it is, a year later. A whole year has passed, and still when I sat down to write this, when I started describing my father, it all came back. All the tears and the pain. Everyone knows losing your parents is natural. Losing a child is not. I believe this. I agree with this.
However, losing a parent is not easy and in a macabre way, it also lets you know you're next. If all works out according to plan, it'll be your other parent, then you. That's nature's way, I guess.
I only hope when my time comes, my children don't see more than they want and none of what is shocking. I hope they know what they do every day matters more than in the last second of a person's life. I also hope my father knows how much I love him and miss him, every day.