Sunday, February 27, 2011

Remembering My Father--"The Longest Night"

[As I prepare to become a grandmother for the first time, I am thinking today of my father, who died on this date in 1962. I think of all the things he never got to see me do--learn to drive, sing in the choir, play in the high school band. He never got to read my articles in the high school newspaper, or guide me through the teen years, witness my first prom and graduation from high school, then college. He didn't get to meet the man I married, walk me down the aisle and give me away, nor see my children and watch them grow up. And, yet, in a way, I feel like he has been watching over me all these years. The following is an article I wrote last year (unchanged except for updating the number of years), which includes a poem I wrote about the night he died. When you lose a loved one, you learn how to cope, how to adjust, because life goes on, and because you must; but you never forget because they are a part of you.]

Today is the anniversary of my father's death forty-nine 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