Breath & Shadow
A Journal of Disability Culture and Literature
Father’s Last Breath
By Pearl Stevens
My father had been dying for months. His mind, scuttled by advanced Alzheimer’s, had more left to it than his starved body. At times I feared I would also die of Alzheimer’s, because it ran in the family, and because I thought my epilepsy might make me more prone to that plundering of mind. Today or tomorrow would be the day, his last day, hospice assured me over the phone after a week of vigil. So, thirteen hundred miles distant, wheeling above an expansive early green spring, I flew from Maine to the compressed snows of a Wisconsin clinging to winter. Perhaps I could lay hold to something no child should have to touch upon – the moment at which one’s parent dies.
My father lived through the night I had arrived late on the plane. I sat with him, the child in me frightened, and touched his cool, purple-mottled feet. I tried to understand why he was still clutching life. “Maybe if we brought my mother into the room he would be able to let go,” the adult in me told the hospice nurse, aching for his release, for him, for me, for our family.
My mother, at 108 pounds--down from 160 in her 81st year--slept twenty hours out of twenty-four. As if mocking his own authoritativeness, her doctor, in shin-length white coat, stethoscope around his neck, had been unable to explain to the three of us girls why she slept so much. In truth, my mother’s sleeping was the greater mystery than my father’s decline, but at least we understood why my father’s malady rendered him unable to eat.
When I last visited, Wisconsin’s maple leaves shifting burnt orange, umber, twisting off their stems, sifting to dry ground on October winds, my father had been incapable of maneuvering his spoon. He’d picked up the utensil, remembering from some long-trodden neural path that it was the means with which to carry food to his mouth, but the spoon skewed off to one side of his face. Creamed corn smeared his bony cheek, plopped in his lap. So he gave up on the spoon and shuttled his fingers to his mouth, gumming them as if he could take in nutrition and implement at once. Instead, I fed him.
Yet I lived in Maine and could not feed him every day. The assisted living attendants catered to him when they could, but he had signed living will directions for no feeding tubes. Come March, he was as shriveled as the fall leaves.
Now in the still room, Tommy Dorsey’s “Star Dust” crooned from a CD I’d made. Music they’d cut a rug to floated over the blanketed bodies of my parents. My mother, tiny and white-haired, curled up and asleep like the succession of cats she’d had over the years. My father, breathing peacefully with morphine, his air-hungry skeleton mouth finally closed.
I padded around the bed, my fingers adjusting the white cotton blanket covering my Daddy’s emaciated shins, his knobby-jointed knees, my hands coming to rest on his feet. In my childhood he’d hummed with contentment when I’d rubbed his feet. He’d tolerated the pink plastic curlers I rolled up in his hair as he lay across our orange velour footstool after dinner, letting me play “beauty parlor” when I was six. My Daddy. My Daddy, who danced me on his leather shoes and took me to see Herbie the Love Bug one memorable weekend. My Father. My rigid Navy Father, who argued with me over politics in my teen years over the dinner table, scowling his disapproval of my liberal tendencies. My Dad who drank oatmeal stout with me in a Scottish pub during my graduate studies.
His feet felt even cooler now, no longer purple, but yellow. As one song blurred into the next, “Anchors Aweigh” played on the CD.
Then in a single movement, his frail body urged upward. His boney head and open mouth sought air, once, twice, my hands on his feet, and his body settled, his life-lights twitching out. His chest did not rise again.
I wailed on the keen air, as if my cry could press another inhalation upon him, as if I could pin my father’s spirit to his bones. But his spirit, unlike his feet, was not something I could lay hands on.
My cry woke my mother, her eyes sleep-befuddled. “He’s gone,” I cried, helpless. Her chin puckered and one tear ran out of a blind blue-grey eye. “He was a good man,” and her head nodded onto her chest. It was all her dementia could manage.
Stretching across his soon-to-stiffen body, I covered his cold feet with the soft, white blanket, squeezed them one last time, then kissed his cheek. I could have stayed in Maine. But then, I knew, every child should be so blessed to touch that moment of a parent’s death.
Pearl Stevens writes for American Whitewater magazine and has two novels out with Wipf and Stock publishers. She has an upcoming EEG which will most likely confirm she continues to have a mysterious case of epilepsy that has been ongoing for thirty years. She misses her father greatly.