Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. ~William James

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Grief Postponed: Part I

I remember the morning, two and a half years ago, when it became clear that my father’s death was imminent. 

I had been making regular trips over the nearly twenty months since flying with my parents back to their home in the New Orleans area after their Katrina-sponsored sojourn with me.  My husband joked that I was commuting to New Orleans.  My father’s failing health, strained local resources in the aftermath of the storm, and the difficulty of ensuring adequate care for the less-than-independently-wealthy moved me to spend nearly a week of every month helping to care for Dad.  This was to have been another such visit.  But the night I arrived, a Wednesday, I saw immediately the deterioration in his condition in the weeks I had been away.  

I think he had been waiting for me, his eldest. It had become difficult for him to talk, but he stroked my arm for a long time and repeated how good it was to see me, and that he loved me.  He seemed to be saying hello and goodbye at the same time. 

Two days later he had stopped eating.  And then I knew. 

On Saturday morning, I sat on the sunwashed patio at the center of the assisted living facility where my parents had been for less than three months, and called my husband.  I cried as I told him what was going on.  We made tentative plans for travel for him and our kids.  When we hung up, I dried my eyes and went back inside, and upstairs to my parents’ “apartment,” through the halls of elders clinging slenderly to life.  And back to work, for the duration, spelled by my sister, my frail mother, the facility staff’s brief ministrations, and the daily visits of the hospice nurses.  I called the church my parents had been attending and asked for a priest.  I promised my father he would not be alone. 

By Monday, my father had been mostly unconscious for the better (worst) part of two days, surfacing intermittently as more family members arrived from distant states and from cancelled vacations.  The hospice sent grief counselors to prepare us.  Ancient family dynamics erupted, and were covered over.  Late Monday night, after more subdued family wrangling, and in the interests of peace, I went to my sister’s to sleep, leaving other family members with Dad.  My phone rang at around 6 a.m. to bring me the news of my father’s death.  To this day, I don’t know, probably can’t know, if my promise was kept.

The days following Dad’s death were filled with the commonly surreal events—sitting with his body as we waited for the ambulance the law required to transport him to the hospital where he could be “pronounced;” watching as he was zipped into a body bag; “shopping” with my youngest brother in a casket showroom; greeting relatives; hosting a wake; ordering the necessary death certificates that would allow my mother to continue to receive income. 

I cried, really, only one other time.  My daughter, who couldn’t travel because of a difficult pregnancy, had put together a slide show of pictures on my husband’s laptop.  He had set it up at the back of the church where Dad’s funeral was held.  When I walked over to look at it, just before the service began, I heard the strains of “Danny Boy” which my husband had added to the images.  I was transported to the morning that Dad had sung it for a small family breakfast gathering following his younger brother’s death.  And I began to cry.  A cousin I see only at funerals came up behind me and said “Let it out.  It’s time.”  But it wasn’t.  I stopped crying.  And haven’t cried since.

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