The Quiet Light
I sat by my father’s bed.
If there was one place in the house I was often sitting, it was there. Holding his hand, reading to him, listening to him reminisce about how still, after all these years, he hated his mother, or that he loved his grandmother, or that the light was fading.
This was metaphoric: Dad’s light was fading, the embers cooling—as were his hands, his circulation now committed to keeping what remained of his vital organs ticking, with the consequence of deathly cold fingers and feet. Even the tip of his nose was cold, although that might be a feature of our family, since my nose is often cold as well.
Sometimes the fading light was literal, my father lying in his living room, waiting for his last hours to unwind with the ebbs and flows of day turning to night and back again. There was little else that changed there from his vantage point; stillness enveloped our days, punctuated by visits from hospice workers, or strange mortality-driven crises, and then back again into the tides of changing light.
This light might not be enough for some people. This light might be too slow in its ascents and descents: the coolness of morning summer dawn, shedding blue ripples through the curtains before spectrum changes of orange and pink, arcing up through the trees and over flowers, creeping along the vinca and lavender, sprays of crocosmia, touching spots of dusty earth and moving into the cracks of sidewalks, tipping further north in the sky. Tinting and warming where it falls, the windows through which my father gazed, where my father lay, looking out into his garden with eyes which could no longer see.
But the light was enough for him. The artist Charles, who spent his life looking at light—as it fell across the water, as it trickled through the trees, as it revealed mysteries of skin on top of fabric in a life drawing class, exposing the knob of an ankle or hiding the shape of an eye under a brow—this was Dad’s natural realm, and he was quite at home with the slow changes of light, including his own.
If one has never been a witness to death, as I hadn’t, we do nothing but fear its aspect. How do people die? Is it grisly? Gruesome? Painful? Is it slow, fast, horrible? Shocking and surprising? Eerily mundane?
It is all these things. One thing I hadn’t counted on was its beauty.
There were so many things I didn’t know when Dad was given word that his time was up. We had worked through his cancer diagnosis for a year, but it was a zero-sum game: the cancer was bigger than any medical intervention. I knew that “hospice” was a service people had as they died; what it meant or what took place during hospice care was completely mysterious. So when I was given the names of agencies to call, I didn’t know what was on offer.
It turns out that hospice is a lot more, and a lot less, than I imagined. Their involvement was imperative but, in the big scheme, limited. Two visits a week by a nurse, unless there was an emergency. On-call access to medical care twenty-four hours a day; they even dropped off nausea medication at one a.m. when my father couldn’t take his morphine because of a crummy tummy. A physical therapist, who arrived to show my brother and I how to move Dad around in bed without throwing a disk; she came once a week to help us learn how to wrap a belt around Dad and plunk him on the loo, until it became clear that he would actually never leave bed again.
And his personal aide, perhaps the most important piece of the hospice puzzle and the least romantic: Ric came twice a week to sponge bathe Dad, swaddle him in new sheets, buff him up, trim his nails, comb his hair—what was left, anyway. Ric was our cheerleader when my brother and I were at sea; he told us raunchy jokes (presumably not usually a part of hospice service, but imperative in our case) and encouraged us to believe that we were doing the right things at the right times. Ric was heroic in our very small universe.
But that was it: a sum total of four or five guaranteed visits a week from hospice workers. Emergencies were attended, but if there was no emergency, no visit. My brother and I were Dad’s only caregivers. This left us with a lot of time.
Dad looked through his windows in his last days with eyes trained to see by years of teaching others how to see. An art historian and professor for over thirty years, his vision was tempered by light, could see the absence of it. Objects are meaningless without both, and so he saw both with clarity. Light and shadow were tangible to Dad, forces that created shape out of nothingness.
At the end of his life, Dad’s eyesight became dim, retreating into uselessness just like his circulation. But because he was trained to see light—when light was the only thing that remained—it still moved him. He traced the lines in his sheets with a finger, his mind creating paintings with what was left. He traced pictures there, like a child creating elephants out of clouds. “I see you there,” he said one day. I couldn’t; it was for him alone.
Dad watched from his window as the light tipped south; he was bedridden from mid-July, and by August, as his light was wavering, the light outside was sinking as well. He noted this. He wanted to make it through summer and the warmth of direct sun, but not longer. He didn’t want to be without light in the cold, long dark of Portland winter.
In mid-summer the sun was too far north to fall onto his bed by the window, but by August it began to creep across his sheets, splitting his body into islands of light and dark as it fell over divots in his skin or his shin bones, sharp like blades; over his sheets, wrinkles cast in sharp relief at morning or dusk, but losing contrast at the height of day. His glasses, thick, ponderous, cumbersome, were now useless to Dad and so they were abandoned to his bedside table. I hadn’t seen my father without his glasses since I was a child; his face came forward, broke through the illness and suffering, and I found the younger man from other days, strong cheekbones, arched brow, devilish smile. His eyes, with rings around them, still twinkled with impish delight at jokes we would tell. And his beard, stark white, growing fuller with neither of his children clever enough to master the task of trimming it, made him regal in aspect, a goodly King Charles lying in his chamber waiting for his end in peaceful repose.
Hazel eyes which turned cerulean like the eyes of newborns; I thought I was making it up, that maybe his eyes were always blue and I had made a mistake. They became fog-enshrouded wells which saw only the light, and hints of shape but no form. My mother asked, “Did his eyes turn blue?” and I was relieved. I couldn’t believe I would have made up a basic fact like the color of his eyes, eyes which turned blue as the ocean, shades of twilight.
I sat by my father’s bed, shadows and light filling in the hours through which we waited for his end. And when it came, the world was blue, day hinted in the barest needle of light peeking through his thin linen curtains, the outlines of trees and plants suggestions to be filled in at some other hour. The stillness of the hour and the light was one in which Dad was quite at home, painting them in deep purples and blues, echoed in dawns and dusks, the bookends to each day, hinting at wonder without revealing too much.
In these quiet hours, in this quiet light, Dad was at home.