I got the first call Friday, on my way to the airport in St Louis. Dad had slipped into a coma, and his breathing was suddenly different. I was on my way home, with two colleagues. I was glad they were there when I heard the news. As usual, for me, I felt a big blank, but this one had a sound of distant roaring static behind it. When I got to the airport in Raleigh at 9:00 PM, I called Mom and everything was still stable, but unchanged. Dad had had a few words for other family members that evening while I was on planes, but mostly he remained asleep. I have lots of siblings and loving in-laws, and Mom was being kept company around the clock. She advised me to go home and to come in the morning, because his coma was deeper and he was not rousing, as long as I was OK with the possibility of him passing away before I could get there. I was wiped out from a week of travel, and I had said goodbye the weekend before, because Dad already seemed different, and much more frail to me.
I slept like a stone. My sister's call woke me at 8:00 AM; "Dad's gone." My sister has one of the softest, most soothing voices, and somehow it was the best way for me to find out. I felt nothing but a snap, like the sound of a door being blown closed suddenly.
During the drive down to Mom and Dad's I had my first lengthy moments alone to feel and think, and driving opens parts of me. I was driving our old van, which makes even 45 feel and sound fast. I wanted to drive fast, on and on, more and more assertively taking curves... No, I wanted to take a powerful speedboat and roar flat-out straight away from shore, lunging for the open water and the sky ahead... No, I wanted to be flying a fast plane, open cockpit, heading up and out... That wasn't enough, either - I needed to be heading out to space at the speed of light...
And I realized I was chasing Dad. I needed to go fast enough to catch up with him. The static rose up from my chest and roared in my ears and all around my head. I was suddenly terribly lonely. I came to that same meadow with the herd of black angus cows and calfs, where I'd laughed last week at the little ones prancing around in the newly fallen snow, and found them all lying quietly. The sky was overcast with one of those quilted looking cloud banks that only form in the winter and I was suddenly grateful it was not sunny and beautiful. I have felt that the world has done some of my weeping for me, raining softly for the last two days.
I thought long and hard about this painting by Andrew Wyeth, which is owned by our state museum, and has long been one of my favorite pieces there. On the wall beside it the sign says, "Winter 1946 is one of the artist's most autobiographical works, painted immediately after the death of his father, the celebrated illustrator N. C. Wyeth. According to the artist, the hill became a symbolic portrait of his father, and the figure of the boy, Allan Lynch, running aimlessly 'was me, at a loss—that hand drifting in the air was my free soul, groping.'" Wyeth painted in egg tempera, with tiny brushes, and he said of this hill that he spent months working through his grief, painting every blade of grass. In the car I felt just like this, groping, searching, running, wanting to paint every tiny leaf of my father back into existence in some way. Over thirty years ago, when I first saw that painting, I knew it somehow held my future story, as well.
Yesterday was a hard day, especially for Mom, full of change and parting. The end, even when it's long anticipated, is so sudden and so final. The change for my mother is so hard, after more than fifty years of marriage, and three years of nursing Dad, the last three months round the clock. They truly were like two halves of one loving human being. "I don't know how to be one person," she said yesteray evening. "You'll learn," said her sister Rose, very gently.
Today, as I write this (the writing like laying another stepping stone on my journey of grief) it feels more like the painting at the top of this post. Dad has changed, and flown on, and we will only be able to catch up with him when we, too, have shed our current shapes. His body is now like the last garment he took off, the one he wore the longest, and wore out the most completely. But it's also part of him, and his last location with us, and we will preserve the ashes of it in memory.
For now the static is back to a quieter roar, something I will wade through, up to my chest, but not something that interferes with normal thought. I can keep walking. I know I will have days where I will run, hands loose and groping in the wind.
But soon my hand will take up a brush, and I will start to chase my father.