My father was strong. He was a hard worker, with lively eyes that sparked with kindness and a silly sense of humor. He loved his family, and was quick to help friends.
My whole life I was aware of his hands, so much bigger than mine, how much stronger. When my son was born, those strong hands held my son’s tiny, fragile ones so gently it made me teary.
But he had a stubborn streak. In internal iron that made him unwilling to speak up when uncomfortable. He worked when he was tired, he worked when he was sick. He worked when he’d rather be lying on the couch with a crossword puzzle.
This stubborn streak made him put my mother first when she fell, breaking her shoulder. And when her rehab failed. And when she had a psychotic break and was placed in a psych ward for electro-shock therapy.
Through that, I knew he was unwell. I could hear the labored breathing, see the tired behind his eyes. But he wouldn’t see a doctor.
I finally played the guilt card, throwing his love for my son at him like a weapon, demanding he see a doctor. He went, begrudgingly, and got a heart condition under control, but he balked at the pulmonary specialist.
And he got weaker. I stopped him from visiting my mother daily, concerned that he would fall asleep while driving. I began visiting him daily instead. Cooking, cleaning, urging him to come live with us.
But he didn’t want to leave his home, convinced that my mother would be returning to it.
On Christmas Eve, the pulmonary doctor called and gave me the diagnosis. Cancer, advanced. I kept the news to myself, for the holiday, then called my brother. We agreed, it was time for Dad to move. It was unsafe for him to stay, alone, all day in his house.
So we strong-armed him.
On the sub-zero Saturday after Christmas, my brother, my sister-in-law and I descended on his home. We busied ourselves dismantling the hospital bed, moving the assist recliner, packing his clothes and emptying the fridge.
My father wandered through the house, looking at 63 years of his life and deciding what to bring.
In the end, when we were tired, cranky, sore and impatient, I turned to ask Dad if he was ready. What I saw broke my heart.
He sat in my mother’s favorite chair, still wearing his coat. I hadn’t even noticed that he hadn’t taken it off. He was perched on the edge, like an uncomfortable guest. His elbows were on his knees, his frail hands twined around the handles of a small plastic grocery sack.
He’d chosen such strange things. An old, broken watch. A small wooden chest full of wheat pennies. A transistor radio and a toy car. A crossword puzzle book and a pen.
63 years of a strong life, slumped on a chair under the weight of knowing he would never bring his wife back to the home they’d shared. Of knowing his independence was gone. Of trying to fit the most important memories from a full house into a plastic sack.
Until that moment, he had still had hope, had still tried to have some of the life he wanted to live.
But when I forced him to come with me, he was too weak to fight. So I took those things from him. And that knowledge was so clearly written on his face it became an indelible memory.
And that was when my father died. He gave up.
It was necessary. Intellectually, I know that. That necessity driven home by the fall he had just a couple of short weeks later. Had he been alone he would have stayed on the cold floor next to his bed for nearly a day before I would have come to check on him.
He might have died physically on the floor, in the dark, by himself.
By being with us he was made comfortable. My husband and I got him back into bed, called paramedics to take him to the hospital where he died a few days later, surrounded by so many people and so much love that the hospital provided us with a private room, for free.
I know it was the right thing to do. But every time I think of him, I think of those fragile hands, and that death before death. And I feel cruel.