“I’m sorry, I should have warned you.”
My mother and I walked into my father’s hospice room; the third day of his agonizingly slow descent into eternal rest. I could not reconcile the image of my once stalwart father, who used to carry me around on his shoulders just for the fun of it, withering away slowly on his death bed. He looked so frail, so vulnerable, so . . . not my dad. I staggered to the window seat, dropped down, and cried.
My mom busied herself with opening the draperies to let in the sunlight. The window view was quite idyllic. A mere pane of glass divided two worlds—one full of happiness and life, the other sorrow and death. The beauty of the scene was painful. How can I enjoy it juxtaposed to my reality? I am losing my dad, my hero.
“Why can’t I cry?” my mom asked after I regained composure and stood up.
Huh. Good question. She cried non-stop when our family dog died, and she even cried when I confessed as a young adult that I hated myself. You know I think you’re wonderful, right? Why is it that the prospect of losing her life-partner, her high school sweetheart, doesn’t instill in her the same response?
“Maybe you are in self-preservation mode. You don’t cry because you feel you don’t have time to cry. There’s too much to do, and you have all these responsibilities squarely on your shoulders.” I really wanted to answer her question, and that explanation seemed as plausible as they come. She is a mother, she’s used to being strong.
She silently pondered that. “When this is all over, then, you’ll let yourself cry. I’m sure of it.” She nodded, mollified.
“Come on, ma!” I turned in surprise at the bed. The utterance of exasperation had a familiar note. How many times was I the cause of his annoyance?
“He’s been talking. I don’t know if he’s dreaming, reliving memories, or. . . .” A nurse walked in. “Good morning, Nola! How are you?”
“Oh fine. And yourself?” My mom, always so friendly.
“Good! Rudy’s been active today. I was singing to him earlier, and he sang along with me. Watch this.” She straightened his sheets as she demonstrated.
“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.
You make me happy, when skies are gray.
You’ll never know dear, how much I love you.
Please don’t take my sunshine away.”
“. . . sunshine away.” His mouth moved, accompanying her with a childlike lilt on the last line. It was a far cry from his steady baritone he used for singing along with The Blues Brothers soundtrack, as well as hymns at Sunday church services.
“Aww, that is so cute! Okay, I’ll be back in a bit.” The nurse rushed out. How is she able to be so upbeat and bright while working day in and day out in a place people go to die? There are no happy endings in her job.
And why did that song come up, and how did he remember it when the months that led up to his last days in hospice, he was losing his memories, along with his reasons to live? I wasn’t sure he knew I was his daughter towards the end, much less have the ability to remember a country tune from a bygone era.
I don’t know what compelled me, but I wanted that moment with him, too. I leaned over him, and softly sang the chorus in his ear.
“. . . sunshine away.” He didn’t know his daughter, and maybe not even himself, anymore. Yet, I felt closer to him, my stoic, Germanic father, than I ever had.
Mom turned away, and started crying. She grabbed a tissue to wipe her eyes and blow her nose.
“I am so sorry, mom,” I hurried over to her and hugged her as the tears streamed down my face. I inherited my sympathetic crying reflex from her.
“I didn’t mean to hurt you.” I felt selfish for creating that moment with no regard for how it might make her feel, but then found a silver lining. “See, you can cry.”
“I guess I’m normal,” she said as she sniffled and dried her face.
“You always were, mom.”
* * *
My mom died a year after my father; 378 days later, to be exact. I called her to follow up on plans we made for that Saturday. She was in bed, and blamed her shortness of breath and difficulty with talking on pulling a muscle from vomiting. Probably just the flu. Okay, mom. Go to the doctor tomorrow, and I’ll come out this weekend. Oh, that would be great, goodbye.
I didn’t tell her I love her. Four hours later, I got the call from the hospital. It took me over an hour to get there, and I made mental plans during the cab ride to stay at her house and take care of her. They wouldn’t tell me on the phone that she had already died. I guess they don’t do that.
The doctor did not recommend an autopsy. Her age and probable pneumonia led to heart failure, most likely. I want the definitive, not speculation, especially when it involves those I love. I had the feelings of her other children—my sister and brother—to consider besides my own, so, I didn’t push it. To this day, I can’t help but wonder if losing her first and only love, the one she spent nearly 60 years of her life with, had something to do with it. How can a broken heart be detected, much less treated?
She lost her husband long before he was turned into ash. His body deteriorated along with his mind; his death wasn’t a surprise. His suffering was over, as hers should be. This was her time to build a new life, and for the first time, really focus on herself. I thought she was coping well. Her social calendar was full, and she was always ready to talk when I called. She was so hard to get off the phone!
She was such a sincere person that she could never make it as an actress. She put on a brave and happy face, but she fooled no one . . . except me.
I found out afterwards that she seemed profoundly sad, and could not find her place in the world without her husband; a hole which could never be filled again. How did I miss it?
After five years, it does me no good to ponder that question, nor blame myself for her death in any way. As Lucille Ball said, “I’d rather regret the things I’ve done than regret the things I haven’t done.” Sage words.
That said, I don’t regret what I did with my father. In my selfish pursuit for a personal moment with him, I created a deeper bond with my mom. That was a moment we shared that no one else may completely understand. Neither of us could listen to that song without crying. Every time I heard it, I couldn’t wait to tell her. There was sadness, but also joy in the memory that I could relive with her.
I heard it again, just recently. I could feel my throat tighten upon recognition of that familiar I IV V chord progression. I had to leave the room. I didn’t tell anyone about it, until right here.
She was my sunshine, but not my only sunshine. The skies became a bit grayer when her sunshine was taken away.
Even though I didn’t tell her I loved her one last time, I think she knew how much I did.