I sat weary in bed in a low-lit hospital room, the daughter I’d just met nestled beside me. I was talking on the phone with my father, who was in another dark hospital room, on another hard bed a hundred miles away, holding the phone to the unbandaged side of his head.
It was May three years ago, and I was recovering from childbirth and postpartum hemorrhage, while he’d collapsed at the gas pump and was found to have a large brain tumor. I waited to get my blood pressure up enough to go home; he awaited biopsy results. In the meantime, we put on our best voices and felt worse for each other than for ourselves and joked about who would make it out first.
The minutes that were slow in the hospital flew like grain out of a silo once we both got home. Dad was released without immediate results and I went home foggy and worried, feeling like a window had been opened in the back of my head and my mind had slipped out unnoticed.
My mother called a few weeks later and I left the dozing baby to walk through the garden while I talked with her. The early peas had come and gone now and I plucked the yellowed leaves from the stalk as her words dropped dull on my ears. It’s incurable.
The days took on an urgency that was so palpable I’d sometimes think the blue summer sunlight was pulsing in the sky. While my sister and brothers took time off from work and rushed to Dad’s side for his remaining time, I was bound by recovery and duty at home, scrambling in for a visit once a week, feeling the horror of our time running out.
I miserably failed screening paperwork for postpartum depression. My midwife looked at me with alarm but I just mumbled, “It’s not the baby. It’s my dad … brain cancer.” I couldn’t tell her about the immovable stone of anger also in my heart — anger at God that he had given me a colicky newborn the same week the sounding trumpet announced Dad’s last days on earth. I was jealous of my siblings that had lots of “lasts” with him – last drive down the coast, last ice cream out, last smoke on the back porch — while I sat leaking breast milk and bouncing on an exercise ball trying to get the baby to stop screaming.
As the chaotic summer passed, my garden overgrew. Untamed zinnia blocked the sun from the ground plants; incipient green pumpkins rotted on the grass; my beloved heirloom dragon-tongue beans hung distended and mealy on wrinkled vines. Everything was dying.
In early August we received news we’d all known in some capacity but were too wounded to admit – Dad was blind. The fumblings and uncertainty of movement were because, as he finally conceded to my mother, “it’s so very dark.”
Dad was in a nursing home now and I brought the baby in for a visit one day, knowing I’d have to announce myself because he couldn’t see me. I opened the door and the baby howled at the top of her lungs. “Hello!!” smiled Dad, turning his head toward us. Every shriek that had given me colic PTSD over the last two months he marveled at that day, as the wild sounds of his granddaughter could be savored without the gift of sight. This baby, who I’d thought was getting in the way of my goodbyes to my father, was bringing him joy in his intense and lonely final days.
My last visit with Dad was harsh and beautiful. He could no longer respond to us. As I looked out the window at the blistering August sun, I heard a cry of anguish. Dad was struggling in his coma-sleep. I ran over calling, “Good job, Dad!” Embarrassed, I rebuked myself – “good job?” That made no sense. What was I saying?
But an instant later I knew. His cry of pain spoke primordially to my heart. I saw in him the cry of one laboring, as I myself had been a matter of weeks ago. I bent over him as he suffered the pains of birth into eternal life. The rock of anger in my heart was shattered. That which had prevented me from diving fully into my dad’s final days had given me this unique and terrible fraternity of suffering with him.
Through dawn that last night I stayed by him, his hand warm in my right hand and my infant daughter’s soft palm clutching my left. I felt their two lives woven in and through me. I knew my understanding of time was meager and that God’s providence, holding us in that moment, held as at all times whether I understood it or not.