The Day My Father Died
David B. Seaburn
November 11, 1998 dawned grey and cold. I had been staying with my brother and mother in Ellwood City, Pa. off and on for six weeks after my father had been diagnosed with acute leukemia. The doctor had given him no more than two months to live.
It had been a long twenty-two years since my father had had his heart attack, years littered with mounting health problems and surgeries, years of caregiving by my mother. My father was eighty years old now and proud of it. His brothers had all died before him, mostly of heart disease, one at the age of thirty-six. The day before he died was my parents’ fifty-sixth wedding anniversary, something that he was unaware of. We crossed our fingers that day, hoping he would live through it.
A few days before his death, my mother and I received a call in the middle of the night from my father’s nurse. She said he was restless and afraid and that we should come to the hospital. When we arrived, he didn’t seem afraid at all. In fact, he was smiling and more alert than he had been in many days. My mother and I stood on either side of the bed talking with him. He joked that a beer would taste good about now. He looked at my mother and asked her to kiss him, which she did. Then he told me to say a prayer, so the three of us held hands while I prayed.
That was his last lucid moment. He was unconscious most of the time after that.
I knew he was dying, but I did not recognize this as his goodbye. We had been making daily trips to the hospital for weeks and had fallen into the dying routine with its waiting, and watching, and remembering, and lunches at the hospital café, and stories, and laughter, and sadness, and silence. I realized later that I had assumed that my father would just go on dying, but never actually die.
On the morning of November 11, I took my dog, Abby, for a walk in the school yard near my parents’ house. We stopped and talked to a neighbor who asked how my father was doing. When I got back to the house, it was a few minutes after 9am. I was running a little late. My mother wasn’t quite ready to go with me to the hospital. My brother was on the road, his trucking job not allowing him time to be with us that morning. I told my mother that I would go to the hospital, see how things were, and then come back to pick her up.
When I got to hospital, I checked in with the nursing staff at the desk to see how my father’s night had been. Then I went to his room where he lay on his back, his mouth open, his breathing slowed. I spoke to him as I always did, reporting on the weather, talking a little about how the Pittsburgh Steelers were doing. I dabbed his lips and tongue with a tiny wet sponge. I cleaned his nose.
Then I sat on the Naugahyde lounger beside his bed and listened to him breathe. He exhaled and I counted the seconds that followed. One, two, three, four—by now I’m getting anxious---five, six, seven, finally another inhale. I felt a moment of relief. Then another breath and more counting, counting, counting. Then another and another. Around 9:20am----one…two…three…four… five… six… seven… eight… nine--- I stood up and looked at Dad. I listened and watched. I placed my hand on his chest. By then I knew he had died. I held his hand, his fingers still soft and warm, as pliable as a baby’s.
I had the strangest sensation (perhaps my last moment of denial) that my dad would wake up and tell me all about dying, what it was like, how it had gone, as if having triumphed over the last of life’s challenges, he could give me some wisdom about what to expect.
I was forty-eight when he died. I am sixty-four now. I carry his pocket knife with me every day. At one time I lost his knife for two years. Before finding it again, my brother bought me a knife exactly like it. Now I can carry two. I have his watch on the night stand beside my bed. When my wife and I watch our two little granddaughters (ages five and four), they love to play in our bedroom. The four-year old, Makayla, stands on the footstool beside my nightstand and puts my father’s watch on. She holds her arm up high and the watch slides the whole way down to her armpit. When she is done, she puts it back exactly where she found it.
When I was forty-eight, I hoped my father’s death would teach me about dying. At sixty-four, I think it has taught me mostly about living; that life is short but beautiful; that even though time is measured, there is enough, if you pay attention; and that everything that matters in life is here, now.
Visit David's website HERE.