excerpt from THE LONG GOODBYE
Twelve years ago, on June 5, my father died. This is an excerpt from my book The Long Goodbye which was published in 2004. The book chronicled the journey of losing him to Alzheimer’s, and this passage is about the end of the journey. There was a small circle of people around him when he died — me, my brother Ron, one of his nurses, and the doctor.
As the morning goes on and sun burns through the fog, his breathing grows more threadbare. At several moments we think this is it. We tighten the circle around him, touch him lightly, tell him we love him. He inhales sharply; he makes a snoring sound and we laugh through our tears…there is nothing else we can do. We are like shifting tides around him — moving, changing, but never leaving. The phone is ringing. More reporters are gathering outside the gates. News reports can be heard from the television in the other room — President Reagan said to be nearing death.
It doesn’t matter. All that’s real is in this room.
Just before one o’clock we know that this really is it. His breathing is telling us — so shallow it sounds like it can’t even be reaching his lungs. His face is angled toward my mother’s. He opens his eyes — both eyes — wide. They are focused and blue. They haven’t been blue like that in more than a year but they are now. My father looks straight at my mother, holds onto the sight of her face for a moment, and then gently closes his eyes and stops breathing. The room is quiet except for soft weeping; my mother whispers, “That’s the greatest gift you could have given me.”
We had thought, the night before, that illness would define my father’s last moments. He showed us how wrong we were. His soul rose above all the damage of these past years and opened his eyes so he could look with love at my mother. His eyes were blue and full and tender. It was his last act of love in this world and it was meant to cradle her until they are together again.
The rest of the day was surreal. The helicopters came, circling the house, trying to get photos of someone, anyone. So many reporters came that the streets of Bel Air were impassable and the mortuary couldn’t get through, so we told them not to try until the police could corral the press behind barricades. We sat with my father’s body for more than four hours. His room was still the center of the house. We still touched him, stroked his hand whenever went in or out. There was no other room we wanted to occupy. “I don’t want to leave him,” my mother said.
Finally the mortuary was able to get through the crowded streets. As my father was taken away, the room seemed suddenly empty, deserted. The hospital bed looked small without him in it. And the rest of our days without him stretched out in front of us.
There will be times when we are lifted up on the back of memories, and other times when sorrow drives us to our knees. Especially my mother, who will have moments of wondering why he had to leave first. We will wait for him to enter our dreams. We will look for him in every breeze that drifts through every open window. We will breathe deep and wait for his whisper to stream into us — tell us secrets and make us smile. And always, always we will remember that he gave us a moment that changed everything. He opened his eyes and proved that love is stronger than disease. That moment will be the silver thread we cling to as days and nights unwind. We’re not always meant to know why, my father used to say; we’re meant to trust.