Waiting for Charon
When his lungs began fighting the very air, Dad confided, “Maybe there’s something to it.”
“What?” I asked.
“I was waiting for Chris after all.”
I didn’t rub it in.
Untitled, gouache on paper, from the book "On Mortality," 2001
“The boatman sure is taking his time,” Dad whispered.
“It’s a wide river with a lot of passengers to pick up,” I replied.
“Worse than the airlines at their worst, and that’s saying something,” he grumbled.
I sat next to his bed in the quiet pre-dawn, Dad having woken up from the morphine wearing off. He could no longer feel anything at all except the cold washcloth I passed over his pale, mottled skin. He was no longer drinking water. Sucking ice chips was all he could muster.
Still, he wanted to talk when he wasn’t sleeping.
We talked about silly things. Dad recounted vivid anecdotes from his long teaching career, one in which he played the sage but also the prankster, keeping people uneasy and engaged by being unpredictable. Always in the aim of higher education, of course, he smirked.
Dad looked at the photo of his grandma again. “I want you to know what an amazing woman she was. She was the woman I loved as a child. Feisty and funny and brave.”
His voice was a reedy whisper. “She was a town girl, but married the company man from the company town,” he began. “He owned the mill, the feed store, the grocery. He lived way out in the country where he had his farm. My grandma loved people but she had to move away from it all.”
Dad welled up. “She was all by herself out there, and her husband would go on the road for weeks at a time. So it was just my grandma, and a few of the laborers on the farm.
“One night, she heard something outside. They were in the middle of nowhere and it was the middle of the night; no one would be coming around at this time. A man started rattling the windows, trying to get in.
“Grandma was terrified, and ran off to find some help, but the laborers were all scared to death too. She went and found her husband’s shotgun, which she didn’t know how to use, and flew out on the porch.
“‘I don’t know who the hell you are or what you want,’ she shouted, ‘but I got a shotgun and I’ll shoot!’ A man jumped out of the bushes and ran down the path to the road.
“Grandma always laughed so hard when she told me this story. ‘That man run like a deer, he run so fast!’’’ Dad choked with pride talking about her, where he came from, time pressing like a vise.
“All these pictures, but none of you,” Dad said, looking around his bed at the photos Chris and I had set there. There were very few of me when I was younger.
“You were such a ham!” Dad quibbled. “We couldn’t get a good picture. Always mugging for the camera. I don’t know where all those pictures went. I wish I could see some of them again.”
I was happy to be given a meaningful chore, one with which I would be rewarded with Dad’s gratitude, his final appreciation. I went into the basement to clamber through old photo folders, looking for the ancient snapshots Dad remembered from our childhood. I found thousands of photos he shot for landscape paintings, perfectly organized by date and then location, which were stacked along the top shelf in his office. Down below were notebooks, filled with his seminars and school notes from a career in higher education. And finally, in an unmarked box, our family albums, the same tacky padded binders with gold debossed letters: PHOTOS, their pages sticky with a photo-destroying backing and the brittle plastic film which was supposed to protect them. I remembered most of the photos as I flipped through the cracking pages, though I hadn’t seen them in over twenty years.
I carried up the stack of albums, and handed one 8x10 photo to Dad, my school picture from kindergarten, wearing a white sweater dress with a strawberry applique and a baby-faced grin which I wore exclusively for him. Jane and Dad had divorced two years prior; from that point I was the North Star in Dad’s sky and I shone for him alone. The over-saturated autumn backdrop and my hands placed primly on a rustic fence prop firmly dates the photo in the seventies.
“My sweet girl!” he gasped.
I handed him others: Chris as gap-toothed second grader or remarkably composed teen; Dad daubing face paint on all the sixth-grade cats from their musical presentation one year, including Chris, a tabby. Dad and a friend building his art studio in Boulder when I was around six months old. Mom wearing a mod dress and Dad wearing a beard like Karl Marx, tapping nails into an eccentric building fashioned out of found objects and reclaimed wood forty years before the recent trend. Me jumping in leaves before I got braces, my teeth so snarled I looked like a vampire written by Dickens. Dad in his Air Force uniform, getting discharged with a handshake by his superior; a stranger fit for military duty you could not find.
I dug through the albums and pulled the poignant ones of my brother and I, either with Dad or just evidence of growing up, and scattered them between the photos already adorning his living room. Dad held the one of kindergarten Q for a while, and then I moved it to the table at the foot of his bed.
I felt the weeks turn into days.
All summer, with Dad imprisoned in bed, Chris and I took photos which captured the summer light and showed them to him. We shot sunsets and clouds, the shadows on Dad’s street, giving him a sense of other directions and different angles, his artist’s view now confined to one perspective from his window. We took pictures of what might be a painting he would paint in other days, and shots of his garden which now had been absent its most ardent fan for the breadth of the season. The day lilies faded and one last lily peeked out of Dad’s abandoned courtyard; sprays of mauve lavatera attracted bees which I sought to record for him.
I cut two bowls of roses, one for gazing at, tiny ivory blossoms with pale pink hearts no more than one inch across; and one for smelling, a look of ecstasy washing over Dad as he’d wave his hand over the bowl to gather the scent.
When the aide, not Mary Bailey this time but a young Filipino woman named Cherry arrived for the evening watch, I went home and gathered one last bouquet out of our own fecund garden, wild with neglect. “Beautiful,” Dad whispered when I returned, and then he fell asleep.
The hospice nurse Richard, a sensible man who managed to piss Dad off the first time they met, came on Friday. I was grateful for Richard. Ingrid, Dad’s perfect hippie, feral-cat-loving dirt worshipping nurse, was a little loose with defining what we were looking at. I never felt that she could explain what was going on. Dad loved Ingrid because she was of his tribe; I respected Richard because he was businesslike in his attention to detail. It was a relief to talk to someone about tangibles, facts.
Richard asked Dad how he was feeling; he croaked that he wished he could talk and then fell back asleep.
After reviewing his retreating circulation and blood pressure, Richard told me I should now give Dad morphine as often as once an hour and put him on the Lorazepam full time. I understood that I was essentially waiting now.
That was it: Dad’s last words were that he wished he could talk.
Dad wasn’t conscious any longer, so I spent the day moving art and packing boxes: things I thought Chris might want, things I would take home someday. I wandered by Dad’s bed and rubbed his hand, touched his face. I talked to him in a rambling one-sided conversation.
Cherry came in for her shift and though I thought better of it, I went home for dinner. When I returned, Dad hadn’t moved, and his breathing was ragged and erratic. No longer drinking water, Richard had left me with swabs to dip in ice water to cool and moisten his mouth, which was disintegrating into sheets of peeling skin. The aide, accustomed to such tasks herself, told me that even though Dad hadn’t woken up, he was still wrapping his mouth around the swabs, meaning he wasn’t completely gone yet. I could still talk to him, she said. He could hear me.
She packed and left.