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September 2006, vol 2 no 3

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Jim Kacian

Deathwatch

Death—what did I know about it? My grandparents, yes, they had died, all four within a year, but they were old and strange and smelled of cabbage, while I was young and American and smelled of soap. And yes, a girl I knew slightly died of leukemia when I was in high school. We got a day off to attend the funeral. The family dog, a cat who had adopted me—that was the sum of my experience. Then my father entered hospice care.
Step by step he crossed the bridge from hearty middle-ager to dependent geriatric. But I had not seen it, being my many miles away. My sister called one day with worry in her voice and lists of items to be purchased, doctors to be consulted, decisions to be made. How could a healthy person handle this flurry, let alone one who was not well? Ailing, and dying, were so complicated. When we had all assembled, my father's physician gave us the word—renal failure was incipient, but irreversible. There was no pain, but time was not long. And no, he had not been told.

for the children
his doctor saves
the bad news

I had made the trek to my parents' house in New England, the same house in which I grew up. It had not been very long since I'd last been here—Christmas was only three months before—yet the place looked altogether different, exposed in a way I had never seen it before. The rows of elms which had once lent elegance to this otherwise ordinary neighborhood street had been dying off one by one, victims of road salt and acid rain, but the two just in front of my parents' house had survived, until this visit. The crowns had been shorn from the two massive boles, and these stood limbless, looking blunt and absurd against the low gray horizon. Within the next few days these, too, were felled, the whole house shaken to its foundations, an ancient dust raised.
I was shocked to see my father in his new state. He was a man who met life's challenges in a physical fashion—he had stood greater than six feet, weighed in excess of two hundred pounds, shaped wood with his hands every working day of his life. In the hundred days since I had seen him last he had been reduced to emaciation, gnarled by arthritis, disabled by weakness, consigned to a wheelchair in the best of times, and to a bed most others. He wore the same distant expression much of the day, and rarely spoke, con-serving his energy. The glint in his eye when his thinking turned irreverent, his jokes, slightly stuttered, self-conscious, were gone. I quickly set to work, in part to keep myself from pondering these things, doing things I never considered I might do: widening jambs or removing doors altogether, repositioning furniture, considering a stair elevator. But I spent the first day home beside the blossoming forsythia trying to remedy dad's house-bound status.

first spring day
building a wheelchair ramp
out to the porch

I wondered if he'd ever use it—he was cold most of the time, and the air maintained its sharp tang. He was increasingly infirm and immobile, lying in bed mainly, watching a little TV, eating a very little soft food. He had become resigned, mostly, to being trundled about, but it galled him, and now and then he would rebel, attempt to walk on his own, manage only a few feet, and become incensed that he must be rescued. His inability to manage his own basic functions shamed him deeply, and incited in him a rage he was powerless to vent.

despairing
he tries to fall
asleep

He was not supposed to know how near death was, but admitted to a daily ebbing of strength. He supposed the next few years would be difficult ones. I admired his optimism, but could not restrain a feeling of pity. I cannot imagine desiring a few more years in his condition...

Visits from friends and family increased, and the celebrations of milestones—his eighty-fourth birthday, his fifty-seventh anniversary—became more pointed than they might otherwise have been. At each there was a lingering of the crowd, a need to remain close, as though a few final kindnesses might absolve each of the slights or neglects which a long life inevitably produces. And perhaps they are enough. When everyone had gone, in darkness I lay in the bed in which I had lain throughout my childhood. The moon cast patterns on the far wall through the wind-blown winter branches, and I considered such attempts at reconciliation. We suppose God willing to forgive souls who have spent a lifetime sinning because of death-bed recantations. To ask as much from human beings is to ask much more, that we be godlike and merciful, patient and mild. But there can be no fault in the asking.

In the next few days dad's strength failed him utterly, and he became totally dependent upon the solicitudes of others. And as he suffered it, the cord connecting those around him grew tighter, and the watch began, with its tug of gravity at bedside, his failing presence at its epicenter—

deathwatch
the long moment
between breaths

—and a radiating of emotions outward towards lightness and laughter in direct inverse proportion to the distance from the bed. Neighbors and cousins dispelled the air of gloom with discussions of spring training, while siblings refurbished themselves with sandwiches and beer in the kitchen.

When the moment came, there was no knelling of bells, but a palpable pressure, a collective holding of breaths, which lingered, a mixture of weight and release. Nothing disturbed this time outside of time, and everyone present found something within themselves worth reverencing. After a long while, a baby's gurgle from an outer room broke the mood, and slowly the moment dissipated, the soul slipped away as the crowd drifted off after a few comforting words and another bite of coffee cake. And only then, when just the nearest family remained, did the pulse return to the house. There were things to be done, and doing them was the best antidote to the emotional welling up which had held us this long.

The funeral arrangements had long been made, and the dullness of the routine was a comfort to all. Nevertheless, there were a few surprises. The city planners hide either a pawky sense of humor or a truly stoic perspective on the human condition behind their conservative demeanor:

we bury dad
in the cemetery
beside the landfill

And my father's taste, never consistent in the best of times, would out in an unexpected fashion:

a plain man—
geegaws and filigree
on the oak box

The rites at the cemetery were brief, and as uninspired as they were sincere, until, at its conclusion, my father's last wish was honored:

lowered in the grave—
the accordian band begins
to polka

Perhaps it was simply his favorite music, but I like to think this a final bit of cheekiness, and it coaxed from me a smile, and prompted me to recollect my father's being in earlier times. This last light touch was a perfect conclusion, a wonderful way for those assembled to think upon him, as I do: the things material and immaterial he has given me, his love of words and paradox; an equanimity he most times felt about how a person lived in the world; a craftsman's care for things that come to the hand; an inventiveness of mind which, if not always realized, was never squelched; a sense of humor which did not always concur with polity, as his choice of exit music suggests, but which nevertheless was often marked with a sense of proportion. These are things I took with me from the cemetery back to the social welter of the following reception, and into the budding days of spring. And here, within another spring, there are reminders of him in much of what I see, and do, and cultivate in this world:

first anniversary
of my father's death—
his Christmas cactus blooms