Time to Go
Those were the words my brother John spoke when I answered his FaceTime call.
“Can I see him, please?”
In silence the room began to revolve. A gnarled, frozen figure slid into view. The figure hunched forward in Dad’s recliner bed wasn’t Dad. One shoulder was pulled forward, the other drawn back, as if the entity had been arrested in rising to confront the unknown. The expression on the face was feral, the eyes and mouth open – not wide open, just left open; the head thrust forward as if the final life force had discharged through the face. The top incisors were bared and poised to drive down and penetrate. The right eye, the one I could see, glittered from deep within a whorl of puckered skin like black glass. My father’s eyes were pale blue.
The figure was in exactly the attitude my older brother, Bob, had described in an email alerting the rest of us to Dad’s condition. At five that morning, Bob had noticed a change in Dad’s breathing, looked in on him, and found this figure in this position in Dad’s bed, at bay and in assault, but unresponsive to Bob’s words. Bob described the breathing as “a kind of moan with a crackling underneath.”
It was his breathing that had sent Dad to the hospital on July 5. He was treated for water in the lungs and put on oxygen. When discharge time neared, dire as his state was, Dad objected to a nursing facility. On July 27 he was returned home where Bob alone, soon reinforced by John, spent nights in sketchy dozes monitoring Dad’s breathing.
While alternately holding vigil beside him, neither Bob nor John dared close the parched mouth, dared close the desiccated eyes, because the figure was not dead. It continued to emit those crackling sounds, nearly not breathing, but breathing still, which stopped at times for dreadful intervals then, after a shudder, resumed. The figure lived still. Every ninety minutes, Bob or John disturbed it so far as to tuck a tablet under the tongue, as the hospice care center had instructed them to do, to ease the breathing until a nurse arrived. They watched and they waited. John held its hand. No nurse arrived. For six hours, the figure sat rigid and twisted, poised but frozen, staring at something they could not see, emitting a crackling sound out of the open mouth that was not breath.
I heard that crackling sound, having called in response to Bob’s email. The loveliest church music was playing in the background. Bob said they thought it might comfort Dad, maybe bring him around. Then Bob suggested I talk to Dad, that it might rouse him, and held the phone up to him. My voice had no effect, but I heard the crackling sound and recognized it. It was the death rattle. Of course, it was a rattle. Wind coursed through slack passages where cartilaginous instruments still hung, assembled but flaccid, no function suffusing them now, no suction pulling through for sustenance, air simply moving through abandoned space, disturbing in passing the idle parts awaiting dispersal.
At 10:55 a.m. the crackling stopped, they knew Dad was dead, and John made that second call to me. I asked to see what it was possible for John with his iPhone to show me, Dad in death.
John held the phone very still to allow me to look for as long as I needed to look. And I did need to look. For many long moments I looked. All I could do was look. And I finally saw what I needed to see.
Dad left behind what some might call a shell, but it was anything but a shell. It was not Dad alive, the only Dad I knew. But it was no shell. It took long, painful moments for me to acknowledge the Dad I did not know, the Dad I did not recognize, Dad in death, Dad dead. Not Dad dead in a casket as prepared for viewing by a funeral home, but Dad as death took him, an event as individual as a fingerprint, a sight indispensable if I was not to abandon him now. He had gone down, and I hadn’t been able to stop him, but I couldn’t let go. I would go down with him. But I couldn’t do that. I could only look, as if staring would allow me to embrace and protect, as if staring would post me at the gate of death to take him back. Except Dad had been eager to go. There was urgency in the cocked head, those twisted shoulders. He had been preparing to rise and follow and with such haste that he hadn’t bothered to shut eyes or mouth.
Death had transformed Dad into a peculiar shape, honed, cured, handsome as driftwood after its hundred-year journey through waters of all latitudes, salinities, and seasons. My privilege was to be allowed to gaze on this spectacle, my Dad in the moment he met death, and not passively. He had been actively engaged in his departure. He had turned to receive the embrace.
The sorrow of a death subsides as the brain incessantly rehearses the event. Time passes. Death’s lacerating force abates like an aging river, tracing its course with ever gentler violence, its current a little slower every day, until sorrow drops away to get packed like a layer of sediment, significant sediment, within the accumulating body of knowledge the brain preserves. The process can take weeks, months, years.
Even in this first week, spells occurred when I saw Dad alive, Dad strong, Dad vigorous, Dad in earlier days, Dad becoming an eccentric fitness advocate. He had turned his life around the day the doctor told him, an overweight smoker in his mid-thirties, that he had a heart attack to look forward to and soon if he didn’t change his habits. Dad got rid of the carton and open pack of Kent cigarettes he kept in a top kitchen drawer when he returned home.
Though a first-rate patriot, Dad’s foray into fitness was based on the Royal Canadian Air Force eleven-minute exercise program. He graduated to jogging – the only jogger to be seen on neighborhood streets at that time, with doubletakes giving away that no one knew what he was doing – and then to his great passion, weightlifting. Always dapper even in sweatpants, and never missing a workout, he grew sleek, strong, and resilient while he had always been, I suspect, tough and stoic.
Inevitably, his final two decades took it all back again, but very slowly. He walked with a cane, then a walker, then required a wheelchair. Although climbing stairs troubled him terribly, he insisted on tackling them until he was 99, saying he felt it was good exercise, with a climb of twenty steps affording him twenty full minutes of it. Throughout this time, he never complained. “How are you doing, Dad?” I always asked when I called. “About the same,” he invariably replied. Two days before he died, he pedaled on his pedaling machine.
Although Dad inspired, it was painful to reflect on how meekly he accepted, how persistently he resisted, his diminished physical status by “keeping on keeping on.” Aged warriors bow, wise in knowing that bowing at that stage in a life is in fact the greatest triumph, that they are exceptionally fortunate to have survived all previous battles to be brought to bowing now. Such a warrior was my father, who bowed but persisted until that final embrace and by the looks of it, Dad was rising for the tussle.
Despite failing strength, Dad’s mental faculties remained unimpaired to the end. At 99 he recited to me from memory Bob’s telephone number. During his final stay in the hospital, the doctor discussed with him and Bob Dad’s options, including nursing home and hospice care. Dad objected to them all. “Looks like we’re back at square one,” my 100-year-old father told his 70-year-old son after the doctor withdrew. Dad simply wanted to return home, and return home he did, for six whole days.
I told John he could turn the phone away now. I had seen what I had needed to see, had somehow absorbed my father in death.
The face of my younger brother, wet with tears, slid into view.
“He didn’t suffer,” John tried to comfort me. “And he wasn’t alone.”
Not until the funeral home sent its black Cadillac Escalade to pick him up. Alone with my father for a moment beforehand, John bent and kissed him on his cold forehead.
“Your ride is here,” he whispered gently. “Time to go.”
The funeral home duo wrapped Dad in a winding sheet, slipped him into a flannel bag, and gingerly heaved him onto a stretcher. Just before lifting the stretcher with its load, one warned John that they were going to cover his head now, apparently the traumatic moment of separation. John said that was okay. With his head covered, Dad was conveyed downstairs and outside to the luxury SUV. John and Bob followed and watched as they slid Dad in, clamped the door shut, and drove off.
Yes, Dad had been in a hurry. He had had somewhere else to go. He had left us behind. That cut to the quick. But he had reared stoics to endure even that.
Robert Reed McCutcheon
June 4, 1921–August 2, 2021
Photo taken August 1, 2021