She has always been a strong woman, my mother. She had buried two of her sons before any of this even began; she held me when I wept for their deaths. Dave and I are left. And here we are, supporting her as we can, doing what sons do. He takes her to swim lessons on Mondays and I take her on Wednesdays. He shovels her driveway and I clean the deck. We have families of our own now and even if those units weren’t thinning – if our own children weren’t going to college and work and leaving us behind – we would still be here. Our father, her husband, is dying.
What’s that thing people always say when cancer is taking someone they love? “It’s been a long road and hard, but we knew it was coming.” Something like that. That’s where we are. But it doesn’t matter what people say. This isn’t any easier because we can see it coming.
The swelling started subsiding after Christmas, but with it went his speech and his coherence – him, really. He’s thin now. Thinner than I’ve ever seen him. Thinner than when his hair was still golden. Goldy they called him. She still calls him that sometimes, my mother, even though his hair has been gray or white – anything but golden – for two decades. It’s who he is, it’s who she is.
But the who has all but vanished from him. What is all that’s left. Bones. Dry, leathery skin draped across the architecture of his frame. We carry him to the bathroom now, Dave and I. The man who held us when we were infants, held our children, changed the diapers of both generations, is wearing one himself now, just in case.
I read once that, though everyone looks for it – hopes for it, even – there is no dignity in death. I disagree. I’ve never seen more dignity than what I see in Dave and in my mother right now. And I hope they see it in me, too. We are mirrors, all of us, reflecting one another, the best and worst, the strengths and weaknesses of each of us and Dad at the center of it all like the bulb in a flashlight whose light grows brighter and brighter as it reflects off the faces surrounding him. No, there can be dignity in death, even if it’s not in the dying.
It is a Tuesday. Dave and I have been spending a lot more time at Mom’s lately. It’s almost here. It’s almost done. At least this phase of it. Dad’s in a hospital bed now, in their bedroom. It’s been years since they slept in the same bed, but this is different. We stand around him, holding onto the railings, trying to goad him into remembering us, into seeing something with those blank eyes. This is what we do now. Occasionally his eyes will open and the pupils will move, but most often the lids are shut.
Yesterday, though, we were standing around him, all three of us, and he in the middle. His eyes opened. They locked on Mom. And then his arms started to raise, slow and steady, the halves of a drawbridge rising interminably and with purpose. The loose skin on his arms was shaking. He was weak. He took her face in his outstretched hands. “I love you,” she said. But no, he was not weak. He was strong. Right then, in that moment, he was strong. He pulled her down to him, holding her face with both hands. He pulled her down to where he was, his head lifted imperceptibly off the pillow, and he kissed her. For a moment he held her, locked in the embrace. And then he let go. His arms fell back to his sides. His eyes closed. Dave and Mom and I looked at one another and all of us at Dad.
I sit on the couch, next to my mother; Dave has gone home for the evening. She is a strong woman. She has not cried during this. When Dad kissed her the other day there were tears; there were tears for all of us, but they were slow and heavy, a welling up, not a pouring out. Mom has not had the sobbing that death brings to those who are doomed to survive.
Dad hasn’t moved since the kiss. His chest rises and falls, the breathing continues, but it’s inconsistent. His eyes remain closed. He is still save for a wincing grimace that he sometimes makes; his hands clench, too, when this happens. He is in pain. But he doesn’t seem to hear us. We can’t seem to help. We increase the morphine that drips into his blood, but it’s never enough. Whatever demons are wracking his insides, it is beyond our weapons to fight them.
In the living room, we sit, side by side, in silence until she speaks.
“He’s not coming back, is he?” she asks. Her voice, like her husband, is thin and weak.
“No, Mom. He’s not.”
She puts her head in her hands and begins to weep. I put my arms around her. I hold my crying mother as she once held me. We are mirrors, all of us.