His Heartbeat in my Hand

Dad is dead. He died last Sunday, on July 21st. The Lord’s day. He died after six weeks in hospital, 3 in ICU on life support and 3 on starving with his ventilator, dialysis, heart meds, and feeding tube removed. His final 10 days, he also went without fluids. We treat animals kinder.

The NG tube that snaked from inside Dad’s nose and down into his stomach for 5 weeks pushed his nose to the left and made it crooked. I still do not know what the NG stands for. I could look it up. Make educated guesses. I don’t feel the need to bother. Of all the horrors Dad went through in those 6 weeks the thing that seemed to hurt him most was the NG tube. One night, Dad pulled out the tube and doctors decided to leave it out. Dad’s small act of defiance, of taking control, made me grin.

Dad died with a crooked nose, with bed sores, with water blisters, with bruises, with a hole in his throat, with several small brain strokes and a massive spinal cord stroke, with wasted muscles, with his ribs high and his stitched and scarred stomach caved in.

Just lying in a bed for six weeks can batter us so.

Just 7 weeks ago Dad was fit and healthy and walked into hospital for surgery, hoping with all his heart he’d come home again.

Dad is dead. I can’t seem to make that sink in.

My two sisters and I were with Dad in the end, his hands and paralyzed feet cool, his fingertips blue, his breathing labored and too much of the whites of his eyes showing. He died quietly and without fuss. Just a few clicks in his throat to signal the end and then those final few exhales. At last his ventilator barrel stopped its dance, a dance I had watched for four weeks following the tracheostomy, dad’s breath and the pulse in his throat the barrel’s puppeteer.

I can still feel the memory of Dad’s heartbeat against the palm of my hand whenever I stroked his head. I can still see the continuous shake of his head just from the effort of breathing.

Dad fought hard to live. He proved to be so strong, stronger than he or anyone else had ever imagined. Least of all me.

Two hours before Dad died I asked my sisters if I could be alone with him for a few minutes. I told them that in the entire six weeks I had spent beside his bed, I hadn’t yet had any time alone with him. In those moments, I believed that to be true. My two sisters, twins, must have thought I was crazy or a liar. As I write now I realize that of course it wasn’t true. I had spent days alone with dad while my siblings worked at their regular jobs. But something urgently made me want to be alone with him that afternoon and to say to him what I said.

My head close to Dad’s, I said a garden awaited him. A beautiful garden with flowers and trees and birds and a cool, running stream. Also a large rock just for him. A rock where he would stand and survey and see all was well and good. He would feel oh so free and happy. He was strong, I told him. The nurses and doctors were all talking about how strong he was. I had learned how strong he really was. He had learned how strong he really was. We would keep his memory alive, I told him, and we would tell his grandchildren how good and strong he was. Go to your beautiful garden, I told him.

Two hours later, Dad went to that garden. I can see him there, standing on that rock. He is well pleased.

The night that Dad died I slept in his bed at home, on his side, the side next to the window, and I imagined my mother lying next to me on her side next to the door. They died just three months apart.

For hours, I couldn’t sleep, crying and having panic attacks about Dad’s wake and funeral services, wondering how my 5 siblings and I could possibly have enough strength to give him a send off nearly as good as our mother’s when we felt so worn out and heartcut.

I didn’t see or hear Dad, but I sensed him. He sat on the edge of his bed beside me and stroked my head, just as I had stroked his for six weeks. “It’s my turn now,” he said. “Go to sleep, everything is going to be okay.” And I did fall asleep, my Dad stroking my head, making me feel safe. Safe: It was my final gift from him. It was what I had always wanted from him.

My 5 siblings and I gave Dad a hell of a send off. He is at rest now. As is our mother.

Ned & Kathleen.

STRONG my imagination has tattooed on the edge of my right foot. On the edge of my left foot is tattooed SERENITY.

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