A Few More Thoughts About Time

When I got the call from my sister, during a festive meal at the home of old friends, that my father had been admitted to the hospital after being brought to the emergency room, time changed.   

“When I saw the doctor’s face I knew this was it,” my sister told me, “he looked like the malach ha mavet (Angel of Death).”  The specialists my father had been seeing regularly — cardiologist, endocrinologist, hematologist — collectively had no clue that their patient was in the last stage of liver cancer, days from death.    The ER doctor, assessing my father’s jaundiced color, difficulty moving and tapping his stomach, distended with ascites (liver-related fluid build up in the abdomen) [1] knew at once that this man was in the last days of liver cancer.

Two doctors were at the dinner table when I got the news.  When I mentioned the ascites they both told me not to worry, that ascites can be from many things [2], that I should wait and talk to the doctors at the hospital.  I consider their reassuring lies to have been a kindness, under the circumstances, and always think of their unspoken, united determination to shield me from extra worry with great fondness.

“If you have any family who want to see him before he goes, you should call them right away,” the ER doctor told my sister.

A couple of days later I arrived in Florida.   My father was attached to a bag hanging off the side of the hospital bed.  The bag was filling with the most unhealthy looking liquid I’ve ever seen.   It was the color of cancer.  It dripped away, along with what was left of his life, for the three or four days I was in Florida before my father breathed his last breath.

My father was eager to see his little brother, a man he had always bullied and dismissed.   Once, late in his life, when my father was returning from a short visit to his brother I asked him how my uncle was doing.   My father paused for a few seconds to reflect then uttered this great line:  “let’s just say, he remains unchanged.”   At the end my father was anxious for his brother to be there and his brother rushed to Florida.

I went to pick my uncle up at Ft. Lauderdale airport.   When we got to the hospital he immediately stopped the doctor, who’d met us in the hall to update us about the patient’s condition, to ask if there was any chance of a liver transplant for his dying 80 year-old brother.   I had to take my uncle by the arm to let the uncomfortable doctor get away.  The way the two brothers clung to each other at the end was poignant to see.

My uncle was a bossy man and he instructed us all, at around nine pm, that it was time to let the dying man rest.   For some reason we all left the hospital.  I even attempted to get to sleep, hours before my natural bedtime, which is around four a.m.    Suddenly I sat up, thinking “what the fuck?,” got in the car and headed back to the hospital.   

My father, who’d told me earlier in the day that he wanted to talk to me, that he was still assembling his thoughts, was wide awake when I arrived around one a.m.   He appeared to be expecting me.  I’d always had an adversarial relationship with my father, one I’d tried many times to improve, but my father was so deeply, fundamentally wounded that meaningful peace with him was pretty much out of the question.   

I’m a fairly creative person, with an active imagination, and, once I left my parents’ house, I’d tried everything I could imagine over the years to make peace with my old man.  In the end, when he angrily told me that if he ever told me what he really felt about me it would do “irreparable harm” to our relationship, I saw that his desperation was too great for him to overcome.   He would “win” by destroying what was left of our ability to discuss things beyond the weather, baseball, history and politics.   I stopped banging my head against the locked door at that point.

I am writing about time.   Two years passed from that final slamming of the vault on any hope for real dialogue with my father.  Nobody knows from one minute to the next how long the rest of their life will be.  I can measure it now:  two years elapsed from the time I became certain that no true peace with my father was possible.   

During those years I was in psychotherapy, and I finally reached a point where I was able to understand that my father was incapable of doing any better; that he was actually, sad as it was, doing the best he could.  Knowing this allowed me to let go of a lot of the anger I had toward him.   

Luckily, I had this revelation a few months before I got that call from my sister than our father was not long for this world.  I was ready, in a sense, in a way I couldn’t have been holding on to the pain and anger my father’s righteous prosecutorial rage inspired in me.

Now, on April 29, 2005,  it is after one a.m. on what would turn out to be the last night of my father’s life.   The first question he asked is if I’d brought the digital recorder I’d bought for him earlier in the day.   I’d left it with the nurse, got it, turned it on, propped it on his chest.   

The next thing he said was that his life was basically over by the time he was two.   He didn’t mention why, it was something I already knew (though not from him) — his angry, religious mother had whipped him in the face from the time he could stand.   Add to that “grinding poverty” and turning five as The Depression began, being the poorest of the poor in a small town as everyone in your family back in Europe is being rounded up and killed, you begin to get the picture.   Betrayal by a mother, shame and humiliation are not easily overcome.   I can’t imagine the struggle my father had, to appear strong, infallible, while making only glancing references to the “demons” we all must deal with.

Because I was no longer that angry, because my father was dying, I knew my purpose in that room was to make his death as easy as it could be.   I was not there to challenge him, I was there to comfort him.  I understood without needing to think about it that these moments were not about me, they were about him.

When he apologized for putting obstacles in front of my sister and me, making our lives harder instead of helping us in times of need as a loving father should, I told him he’d done the best he could.   

When he told me he’d felt me reaching out many times over the years, I nodded, thankful to hear him finally acknowledge it.   He lamented that he’d been too fucked up and defensive for us to have this kind of conversation fifteen years ago.   

At the time the number seemed off to me — thirty years of war, fifteen of peace?   Later I realized that fifteen days, or even fifteen hours, of this kind of honesty would have been an amazing blessing.

We spoke quietly for several hours, the door to my father’s hospital room open, everyone else on the floor asleep.   The nurse, an angel in human form, sat outside the room.    The look of love she gave me when I left I will never forget.

Early next evening, as the sun was beginning to set, my father told my sister, my uncle and my mother that since I’d arrived it was a good time for them to take a break, go to the cafeteria and get something to eat. 

As soon as they were gone my father said to me “I don’t know how to do this.”   I assured him that nobody did, that it would be fine.   The nurse helped take down the bar on one side of the bed so I could sit closer to my father.  I don’t remember if I had my hand on him, or arm around him, or anything like that, but I sat close by.   

His breathing got shallower and shallower, death from liver cancer is supposed to be one of the gentler ways to go.   After the liver goes, the kidneys shut down and you go to sleep, only forever.   

A friend later told me the Talmud poetically compares the moment of death to removing a hair from a glass of milk.  It is an excellent description in the case of death from liver cancer.

Within twenty minutes or so my father took his last breath.   I reached over and closed his dead eyes with the fingers of one hand, like I’d done it a thousand times.

[1] A 0.66 second search reveals: 

Ascites is when over 25 milliliters of fluid fills the space between the abdominal lining and the organs. It’s usually caused by cirrhosis.

[2]  It turns out they were misleading me, not lying:

But the most dangerous problem associated with ascites is infection, which can be life-threatening. Ascites may go away with a low salt diet, and with diuretics (water pills) ordered by your provider.

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