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Dad’s Death
by Puja Thomson • New Paltz, NY

On my way home from celebrating my friend’s 25th wedding anniversary in New Hampshire last summer, I got a call from my brother Iain, confirming that the days of my father’s life were numbered. At ninety-six and a half, he had reached a grand age– still, the news gripped my heart. The next evening, I was in the air to Scotland– just in time.

Iain took me straight from the airport to the hospital. I so wanted to connect with the dad whose eyes always lit up when he saw me, but he seemed far away sleeping in his bed near the nurses’ station. I feared that I was already too late.

Towards the end of the second afternoon, Dad appeared to recognize me. "Are you Anne Joyce?" he asked, (Anne Joyce is my birth name,) smiling and pointing his finger towards me. "Do you have a car?" I’ll never know if he wanted me to get him out of the hospital, back to his residential home, or if it was an expression of his usual concern that I should hire a car when I arrive in Edinburgh. A little later, out of the blue, he said, I’m going to meet people on Saturday." Looking confused, he added hesitantly, "No, Friday. No, Saturday." I risked replying, "Yes, you’ll be going on a journey. You’ll see Ena, (his wife) and your mother and father and your brother Willie. Your body is tired out, but your spirit is strong." I wanted to affirm what I sensed– that he already knew and understood at some level. I hope my words comforted him.

The third day, July the 4th, began gently. The night before, my niece and I each pulled a meditation card. Mine was about letting go of stress, so after a leisurely walk to meet an old friend for a quick early lunch, I took the bus across town to the hospital. Dad was now in a private room. The nurse’s aide told me that he had been in a lot of pain. She was glad that they had just upped his morphine but my heart sank. I registered that it was probably too late to hear him speak to me ever again. The next two hours were bittersweet. I held his hand, and each time his face or voice betrayed his pain, I stroked his head, his hip or his leg.

That evening the head nurse asked the family if we’d like to be called when Dad’s breathing changed, a sign of death’s approach– their usual practice if family members wish it. That’s when it finally hit. I knew in my gut it would not be long. I alone answered, "Yes."

It was happening all too fast. I had hardly gotten my feet on the ground in Scotland and I was still assuming there would be at least another day with Dad. Thoughts raced through my mind: I’m not ready yet. I should have been here earlier when Dad was more alert. I want more time with him. I went to sleep with prayers in my heart and the phone by my bed.

I heard it ring at 12:30am. Nurse Monica’s voice said, "I’m so sorry to tell you, your father has died." A pause as I took it in. "He slipped away quietly, so quickly after his breathing changed there was no time to call you. Would you still like to come to the hospital?" I had so hoped to be there with him when he died. I hesitated, but not for long. "Yes!" emerged from a place within. I called a taxi, quickly dressed and put together a few things– Dad’s Bible, hymnbook and Book of Common Order. Kath, my niece, lit the candle in the little heart-shaped violet box for Grandpa and hugged me goodbye. "Are you going on night duty?" asked the cab driver when he heard my destination. "You might say so," I replied. "My Dad just died."

It dawned on me then why Dad couldn’t decide when he was going to meet people– on Friday or Saturday. He cut it close! I looked out at the night sky and the vacant streets, which echoed my own emptiness. My father was gone.

There was no one to be seen as I approached the main hospital entrance. Harshly lit, it was as empty as a tomb. I rang the bell for night porter. He emerged from the void to unlock the door. I heard the eerie reverberation of my steps as I climbed the stairs to Ward 2. Patients were sleeping and the lights were visible only at the nurses station, a softer scene. A slender nurse tenderly escorted me from the ward, her hand on my arm, to my father’s room. She returned with a tray on which were neatly placed a large round china pot of tea, cup and saucer, a silver spoon, milk and sugar and a plate of cookies. She left me in peace, only checking in discretely every now and then.

From 1am till about three, two peaceful hours unfolded. Everything was quiet. My father was on the bed, covered to his chest by the white hospital sheet and blanket. I closed the curtains as if to protect us from the outside glare. His room had been tidied, all traces of medical paraphernalia removed. A simple vase of flowers graced the bedside table to his left and a soft spot light gently lit the room from the right. The space was clear and open, yet intimate. At last I could just be with Dad. I could experience what I was feeling and follow my intuition with no constraints. I was so thankful. His eyes closed and his mouth open, his body looked the same but was no longer animated by the spirit of Life. Yet his spirit and the spirit of God he so firmly believed in seemed to fill the room. I sat on the chair beside his bed, feeling an immense, tangible peace. I let myself touch his upper body and felt surprising warmth in his chest. I sipped my tea, closed my eyes and gave thanks for his life. I opened my eyes, and gave thanks for the beauty of this moment. I felt I was entering with him into a ritual of transition slowly, slowly, moment by moment. I touched him again– still the warmth. "Surely by now he must be cold," my mind reasoned, but no, not yet!

As I sat with him, sensing the journey he was already on, I read him words of encouragement and faith from the Psalms he loved so much: O Praise the Lord all ye nations: praise him, all ye people.

For his merciful kindness is great towards us... and I will lift mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord who made heaven and earth... The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil: he shall preserve thy soul. The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth and forever more.

From the Gospels, I read: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.

The cadence of the King James version befitted the man and the occasion, and was comforting to me. I began to sing hymns and psalms, sometimes for the words he loved, sometimes for the tunes– oh, how Dad loved to sing! It was a gift he passed on to me. As I sat there beside him, verses came tumbling out one after another, some strong, some muted by tears, some soft but clear; an offering to him, to God, to the Divine.

And then it was done.

I quietly left his side, feeling a fullness, a great weaving of emotions, beyond happy, beyond sad, beyond words.

Rev. Puja A. J. Thomson offers workshops, sessions &/or private retreats and also officiates at ceremonies. She'll co-lead a Healing Retreat for Women at ROOTS & WINGS Country Getaway, near New Paltz, December 4-5th 2004. Contact her at: puja@rootsnwings.com, (845) 255-2278 or www.rootsnwings.com