My father died two years ago today.
He died three weeks after a doctor diagnosed him with stage four lung and liver cancer. He died three weeks after the same doctor's ice blue eyes flitted around the room as he told me my father's prognosis.
"A year? Nine months. Maybe six."
The doctor's lips had curled into a quick smile and then snapped into a somber line. It was like a door slamming shut. He had turned on his heels. Case closed. And I knew it wasn't going to be a year, nine months, not even six. I knew the end was much, much closer.
When my dad died, I was relieved. For two days, he'd sounded like a drowning man. His body gurgled, gasped and rattled. The nurse had called it wet respirations. She explained that it was due to the accumulation of secretions in the throat and airway. Since my dad could no longer clear his throat or swallow, the secretions banged around in his chest. Another name for this is the death rattle, she explained. Until that moment, I had thought the death rattle happened for a few seconds. Then the person gasped and died—at least that's how it was always portrayed in movies. I had no idea it could continue on and agonizingly on—my father flailing in an ocean where no one could rescue him.
In the middle of the night, the noise had finally stopped. My sister had nudged me, "dad's dead."
I had drifted off to sleep with a pillow over my head to silence dad's cacophony. The words were like a tsunami of freezing water. Then I opened my eyes and jumped up. My parents' condo which we'd converted to a makeshift hospice was quiet. No gurgling. No hissing. Just the tick of the second hand clock on the wall. I checked the clock. It seemed important to know the time.
5:15 a.m. September 17, 2010.
I walked into the room where dad had died. When you hear people talk about seeing a dead person, most say, 'he looked so peaceful'. Or 'he looked like an angel'. Or 'he looked so content'.
I had thought about all these things I'd heard people say as I looked at my father. I didn't see it. To me, dad looked dead. He looked like a body without life. I realized that a body without life doesn't resemble the person who inhabited it. I had wished I could say he looked peaceful or happy or in another place. But no. Dad's eyes were like tiny slits. His mouth hung open as if his jaw was unhinged.
This is not dad, I had thought.
During the few days before dad died, I had wanted my dad to die. When he finally died, I had felt like a disconnected observer. I felt it wasn't really happening.
My dad's dead body was in front of me, but it didn't make sense to me. I had thought, 'okay, my father had finished with this horrible dying thing. Let's go find him and tell him it's over. Now he can go back to being dad.'
During those days after my father died, I had thought so many things that now seem like dreams. I had thought my father would be back. Even though death is always lurking, it somehow seemed impossible to me that it could actually happen to my dad. That someone who had been such a powerful force in my life could just disappear. I had also thought my sister and I—who though we are so completely different—would stay as close as we'd become during those last few weeks.
Two years later, the dynamics of my family have perhaps irrevocably changed. Before dad died, the holidays were a no-brainer, my extended family—my sister's family, my parents, my family—would, of course, celebrate together. Somewhere. A few months after my father died, my sister and I stopped talking for reasons that are cliché, but I won't elaborate on. Before my father died, my sister and I talked nearly every day. Estranged was a word I always imagined applied to other people. Never me. I thought I was too evolved for such nonsense. When people would tell me about their estrangements, I'd say (probably like a pompous ass), "life is too short." They'd look at me like I just didn't get it. I understand now. Sometimes you need to be estranged precisely because life is too short. It's too short for the drama, the stress, the game of pretending things are all right when, in fact, that is nowhere near the case.
When dad died, I didn't realize how the death of a person is the death of so much more than the death of the person. Two years later, I get it.