It is only a matter of days now, dozens or perhaps hundreds of hours, before my dad succumbs to his cancer. I am faced--all of us, I think, are faced--with the prospect of what to do with those hours.
This is nothing like I imagined it. Early on, I thought the chance of recovery was slim, but still believable. I made real efforts to maximing the value of our time together, but real life--work, kids, marriage, money, friends, et cetera--asserted their hold over my life as usual. Dad was in and out of the hospital. Each time, he'd recover from whatever condition sent him there within a few days. Or recover enough that he felt "100% better" by the time he left. But when he went again, it was always for something a little more dire. During one visit, his last before being admitted to ICU a week or two later, he walked around the floor with me, slowly but surely, and we talked. Having never really talked to him like that for longer than a handful of sober minutes, it was awkward, and we both knew it, but each of made a noble effort. It was embarrassing when he'd do things like get bossy with the desk nurses, or call the very cute one "honey," but that's Dad, and I was just along for the walk, and the thought that, despite my embarrassment, if any one of them thought badly of my dad for it, they could go to hell.
This is how I thought it would be until the end. My belligerent old dad, being his belligerent old self until, well, he died. But this wasn't the reality of it at all. The truth of it became a slow decline into an over-medicated state of mindlessness. When he came home from ICU, he could barely speak. His responses to comments and questions were only a few words each. Sometimes he'd start to say something, but never finish the first word. Because he couldn't speak above a loud whisper, even these fleeing thoughts were meaningless by the time I could ask, "What did you say, Dad?"
Now, a scant week after his return home, he is barely aware of his surroundings. His body is destroyed, both due to his disease and its treatment, and his mind is deprived in the name of comfort. I cannot say goodbye to this man. I cannot tell him, during his final hours, what he meant to me. I cannot express my fears and be comforted, or comfort him of any fears he may express to me. All I can do now is hold his hand ask, "Are you warm enough, Dad?" and hope he can give me an answer.
I pray for some clarity. I pray for peace. I pray for these for both he and I, and everyone else dealing with this reality. I will hope for a moment of connection before he is gone forever when he will know what is in my heart, that he may take it with him when he goes. What I will say or do in that moment, should it come, is as much a mystery to me now as what I will do with my grief when it comes, but I pray for it just the same.
And despite all else, I will say goodbye, I will tell him what he meant to me, and I will comfort fears, both his any my own, in the knowledge that no matter what, he's my dad, and that will never, ever change.