Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Longest Night

Today is the anniversary of my father's death forty-eight years ago. He died the day before my oldest brother's birthday, and just two and a half weeks before mine. My father had rarely been sick, and had never missed work due to illness. He always said that the day he couldn't go to work was the day he would die.

That morning, I remember my mother calling to me, worry and urgency in her voice. When I emerged from my bedroom, my father was sitting on the bathroom floor, my mother steadying him so he wouldn't fall over. She told me to take her place while she ran to the phone to call for an ambulance. He had vomited blood, then collapsed from weakness. Two weeks earlier, he had been diagnosed with what the doctor thought was the flu and told to stay home from work and go to bed. Today, it was clear that something much more than the flu was wrong with him, and what he'd said about not being able to go to work went through my mind.

For years, my father had been plagued by heartburn. Today, he most likely would have been given medication to treat his symptoms and protect his esophagus, but back then he was told to take an antacid, such as Tums, and cut out spicy foods. He was rushed to the hospital, tests were done, and we received the diagnosis--cancer of the esophagus. Surgery was the only thing that might save his life, and the odds were 80/20 against him. But when the doctors opened him up, the odds dropped to zero--every organ in his body, except his heart, had been invaded by cancer. The doctors said they were amazed he had kept going as long as he did, and that there was nothing they could do. They closed him up, returned him to his room, and the family took up vigil at the foot of his bed, waiting for him to wake up. He never did.

I remember sitting in his darkened room with my mother, my three brothers, and my aunt. I remember the nurse speaking to my father, trying to wake him from the anesthesia. I remember the sound of his breathing, the sounds of monitors to which he was connected, and the sound of the clock on the wall. When he stopped breathing, all of the other sounds stopped, too...except for the ticking of that clock. In addition to losing my father, I felt I had lost my sense of security, as well as my childhood.

The Longest Night

When I was thirteen,
I sat beside my mother
at the foot of his bed,
listening to the steady

t-i-c-k, t-i-c-k, t-i-c-k

of the clock on the wall,
to the steady

drip - drip - drip of the IV,

the s t e a d y
R I S E and f a l l
as the lungs
F I L L, e m p t y, F I L L

as the nurse takes his pulse,
as the light outside grays to dusk,
blackens to night,
as the steady

t-i-c-k, t-i-c-k, t-i-c-k

of the clock on the wall
counts out my father's life
second by second,

as the drip - drip - drip - of the IV goes on,

the breathing becomes labored
the chest RISES . . . p a u s e s . . . fa l l s,

and the lungs begin shutting down
as the nurse takes his pulse again
and shakes her head,

and the steady t-i-c-k, t-i-c-k, t-i-c-k
of the clock goes on,

the chest R I S E S . . . f a l l s . . . stops,

as the nurse removes the IV,
and shakes her head,
the light of my childhood
grays to dusk,
blackens to night,
and he's gone.

--Donna B. Russell
© March 30, 2005


  1. Donna, this touched me...I too remember my father's hospital room as he was dying of cancer, but I was 3--so I had no understanding of what that loss would bring. I certainly have had plenty of time to think about it as dad will be gone 50 years this year. Thank you for the thought of that day, as it was one in many; good and bad that truly makes up life. Carol

  2. Donna -
    I am soo saddened by your story. I can't imagine seeing your parent dwindle away on you, especially someone so active and busy. Sending you love!

    For me - I've lost parents in different ways. My mother divorced my father (birth in both instances) when I was really young and he was told by me stepfather to never come around us. Therefore I "lost" my birth father. We tried to connect later on, when I was a teenager, but it was too little too late and he died when I was in 8th grade. I feel cheated.

    Then, we were taken away from my mother and stepfather for abuse and the last day in court was when I saw my mother for the last time. I was about 8 years old? I haven't seen my mother since then and feel cheated. I haven't seen my stepfather either, but don't really feel cheated....he was/is evil.

    Then, I had fabulous foster parents. They both have died. I was lucky enough to have maintained great relationships with them and was able to tell my foster father I loved him right before he passed away. I feel cheated.

    My grandparents (maternal) both died. My grandfather when I was really young, but I have vague memories of him. My grandmother died in 1996 or 1997 - and I miss her sooo much! I loved her and cherished her more than anyone else in my family. She was my strength and love.

    Then, when my uncle died, who had raised me, we hadn't talked to each other for over a year. It's a long story, but going to his funeral and seeing my aunt again (she also didn't talk to me for that time period) was very hard. Things left unsaid, unreconciled, a lot of pain and hurt - still exist! I feel cheated...

    So while my loss of parental units or figures (however you want to call them) was different than yours, I feel your sadness and can relate.

  3. Carol, thank you for sharing. It must have been hard losing your dad at such a young age. I hope you have some memories of him, even though you were only three. It always makes me sad when I think of all the events in my life my dad missed: my graduation from high school and college, my wedding, the birth of my children, not being able to share with him about things I've accomplished or places I've traveled. The hardest thing, at the time, though, was the overwhelming sense of vulnerability and loss of security. My mom was dealing with her own issues, and I felt very much alone. I'm fortunate to have some good memories of him, though--picnics, teaching me to swim and ride a bike, going for rides on Sunday afternoons, singing around the piano (mom playing) while he played his banjo or "bones" and we all sang. There are bad memories, too, but I choose to remember the good. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Anonymous, I actually saw both parents "dwindle away," but with my father it was much quicker, and I've gained wisdom and perspective over the years. The losses in your own life must have been very confusing and frightening for you at such a young age. I'm glad there were people, like your uncle and grandmother, who were able to provide a more positive parenting model. You seem to have been able to learn from both the negative and positive influences in your life, to become a wonderful parent to your own children.

    In my own situation, I came to understand, later in life, that my parents did the best they could given their own backgrounds and family dynamics growing up. I realized I needed to forgive them for their mistakes, choose to have compassion for them as fellow flawed human beings, and try to be a better parent to my own children. We can't change the past, but we can celebrate who we are today, and all that we have accomplished, whether in spite of or because of the past.

    As for feeling cheated and unable to reconcile with those who hurt you, one thing that helped me was writing a letter to all those who hurt me in the past, living or dead. Getting the feelings out on paper, not holding back, was very freeing because I was no longer keeping those thoughts and emotions buried inside myself. Then, I made the a conscious decision, an act of my will not based on feelings, to forgive them. Afterward, I burned the letter (or you could tear it up) as a symbol of letting go of the past, the emotions tied to it, and any control it had over me. Now, whenever thoughts or feelings resurface, I have a specific point in time, or act, to refer to and can say, "I already dealt with that. I don't have to let it affect me any more." Maybe you have already done something similar. In any event, I hope you will be gentle with yourself. I admire your courage in sharing such difficult experiences, and in overcoming them.

  5. Thank you for this moving post that has touched us all. Yesterday was the sixth anniversary of my sister's death in a terrible car accident. Her grave is on our family land. I went there yesterday to think of her and have a little chat. I surrounded her grave with shells and rocks my mother collected on her travels.

    Our society doesn't support anniversaries of deaths of people we love...mainly birthdays. I'm glad you wrote this remembrance of your father.

    Janet Riehl

  6. Janet, I'm so sorry for your loss. No matter how many years it has been, we always miss the in-person connection we once had with our loved ones. Each life influences others, and I'm sure your sister had an influence on your own life. Using the shells and stones is a lovely way of honoring her memory. It made me think of the Jewish custom of leaving a stone on the marker of a loved one as a sign of respect. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  7. Gratitude journal for February 12-18:

    2/12--for being able to watch the Winter Olympics on TV;
    2/13--for my wonderful son, who is celebrating his birthday today; for the beautiful photo from the Humane Society of our newly-adopted cat;
    2/14--for my husband, who is my own special Valentine; for the medication that helps relieve the pain when it is severe, like it was today;
    2/15--for the opportunity to write a book review of a children's book about pet loss; for getting my "PetWise" articles written and e-mailed to the editor;
    2/16--for Meisha having a good vet checkup: even though she is now blind in one eye, her weight is stable and overall health is good;
    2/17--that the US is doing so well at the Olympic games;
    2/18--that a friend, who had been out of work for a long time, got a new job today!

  8. Gratitude journal for February 19-25:

    2/19--that there seems to be someone seriously interested in buying my mother's house;
    2/20--for professionals who know what they're doing, and that we can avail ourselves of their expertise;
    2/21--for knowing what to do, and having the things to do with, when my hand was injured today;
    2/22--for being able to rest when my body is in pain;
    2/23--for friends on Facebook who encourage me and genuinely care;
    2/24--for a husband who can cook when I'm not physically able to;
    2/25--for the pain and swelling decreasing enough that I could begin hand exercises today and get on the road to healing.