As the country prepared for the long-awaited transition from the Bush years to the Obama years, I was experiencing a transition of a very different kind: my father's passage from this world to the next. Dad died peacefully and in no evident pain a week ago today.
Years ago when I read Little Women, the description of Beth's wish for her then imminent death stuck with me--she simply hoped that the tide would go out easily. So it was with Dad. Just before his 91st birthday last month, he told first the head nurse, and then me, that he was dying. "I can't put anything in my body anymore, " he replied, when the nurse asked him gently why he thought so. He lost even more weight after that, and in the last few days no longer sat up--clearly conserving all of his energy just to stay alive. The nursing home staff, who see this all the time, told me then that he probably had less than a couple of weeks to live. As it turned out, it was under a week.
Though he went quickly in the end and I did not quite reach the nursing home in time for his final breath, I spent a lot of time with him those last few days and nights. I tried to be a faithful visitor this past year, often biking the three mile distance to the nursing home in summer--as he would have done himself, for he never took the car when he could bike or walk somewhere-- and going almost every day I was in town. I confess that there were many times when I could not stay long--I found it too difficult to watch him struggling to eat, or he would be asleep, or just out of it. But during the year there were also longer visits, when we had time to share his favorite music, the poems of Emily Dickinson, or conversations where he would enthusiastically try to explain something to me--though often struggling to find the words. The miracle was that as advanced as his dementia had become, he always knew us, and never lost the ability to say "I love you"---many times with tears in his eyes. There were other things that got through to him--a few days after I had broken the news to him of his older sister's death, he was able to recall it, and thereafter sometimes called me by her name instead of my own.
At the funeral, I heard many wonderful stories about my dad, and the tributes paid to him were truly heartwarming. One of his only remaining high school classmates showed up--there are now only two left in the Class of '35-- and told of knowing my dad as a boy. A neighbor recalled my dad tutoring him in math. And a fellow Mason told me a wonderful and very funny story of my dad's early days working in the family dry goods store.
My ritual of visiting the nursing home now shifts to the ritual of saying Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, for the next 11 months. At 91, Dad lived a long and full life, and it was a special joy to have him with us after my mother died and in India. I am grateful we had him for so long.
Exultation is the going
Of an inland soul to sea-
Past the Houses-
Past the Headlands-
Into deep Eternity.
Bred as we, among the mountains,
Can the sailor understand
The divine intoxication
Of the first league out from Land?