I didn’t come to do this — not this, this terrifying thing whose scent has trailed me down the hall and into the room, where I greet my father.
Just two days before, when the call came, I’d felt it slip under my skin, pocketing a quiet dread against my breastbone, churning the uncertainty and drifts of sorrow of the days past into a tumult of anxiety and nausea that would steal any sleep from that night.
For 10 years, my father, who lives in St. Lucia, has been riven by calamity, suspended above one precipice after another, only to be pulled back, as much, it seemed, by the miraculous as by a sheer and ferocious will from all that would have felled a weaker man.
Heart disease, cancer, a spinal injury, life-threatening blood clots and blindness all have besieged his body, making it a map of plundered promise and broken hope. And yet he burned with a tenacious light, somehow stitching together a life from every setback and heartbreak, even if his body was slow to comply and true happiness was a grace that never roosted for long.
In the last four months, however, despondency has been a more-frequent companion, as the ravages of chronic pain and illness began to infringe on the independence he has strived so valiantly to maintain, to shrink the sense of vibrancy that was so much a part of his public persona.
Still, I never believed it would come to this moment, my unsteady legs carrying me down a hospital corridor and into a ward where my father lay, frail and anguished, a shadow of the man I had known.
When one of his sisters had called with the news that he’d been admitted to the hospital with internal bleeding — after only recently having been discharged following a previous visit — my heart lurched. The conversations all week, in a series of urgently exchanged phone calls and emails, had pondered my desire to come home, as I feared the worst even while obstinately stamping out such thoughts.
But with that phone call, the decision was made.
And so just three weeks after chasing innumerable joys across Italy and Austria with my mom on a celebratory vacation still tinged with the sadness of losing her longtime companion, I found myself on another flight, traveling in a fervent clutch of prayers and aching worry.
Though a stark inevitable loomed, I reached for what I knew: my dad as fighter and survivor, Lazarus defying every odd. In the photos from a visit my brother had made just in July, his smiling face suggested optimism, the spark of endurance that had carried him through every health crisis still fixed in his eyes.
But now, he is bone pressing against skin, an intermittent chorus of agony puffed from his labored breathing and the pain that has seized his entire body.
When he is told I am there, he opens his arms, so thin and fragile, and I am careful with how I fall into them, pressing kisses and tears across his face, his forehead, his neck, wanting nothing more than to hold him closer, tighter, to fling back the blackness and sweep us into a sweeter reunion.
“I’m on the way out,” he murmurs.
And when I hear the words, which become his momentary mantra, even as he pats my back and is obviously happy to see me, I can feel the fissure, the first crack striking the heart.
I want to protest, to pledge to him the riches of time. But there is now no escaping why I have come as I reach for his hand and brush my love in whispers against the coolness of his cheeks.
A sea of regret and yearning surges forward, but I fight only for this moment and what it offers — the brutal gift of seeing all that is good and beautiful in my dad, when the past in all its turbulence and tangled tenderness falls away, and love is the only light that remains.
My father, Eliott Francis, died three days later under a gentle rain of prayers and hymns. I was at his bedside when he took his last breath, as were two sisters, his brother, a niece and a boyhood friend who had stopped to visit him after hearing he was hospitalized. He was 63 years old, a giant-sized, charismatic personality in a body too tired to keep up with all the bright, bold plans he never stopped making for himself.
– Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times