September 27th was the last day I saw you alive. Well, alive alive. The last day that I saw you as yourself. We hugged on Field Street.
I remember how, a few days later, on October 1st, the day that you died, I was sitting on the hospital floor and holding your right hand, crying. I held it the same way I did when we went to church and it came time to say the Our Father. That was my favorite part of church. That and kneeling next to you in silent prayer after Communion. I always wondered if you were praying for your mother and brothers, who had preceded you in death. We prayed in different ways. I had always known that. I think I spent my time asking God for ridiculous things. But I did always remember to ask that my family and friends remain happy and healthy and safe and strong. I still ask for that, but I send out the same plea to the Universe now too. For safety.
Everyone was crying, that day in the hospital. Obviously. We knew why we were there. Well, I didn’t know until I showed up and Mom told me “it’s really bad” after I kept trying to make myself stop crying. I wanted to be brave, like the time I showed up at the hospital early in the morning before you went in for heart surgery. You weren’t supposed to go in that early. I thought I’d get some time to visit with you before Mom got there and you went in that afternoon. I didn’t tell anyone I was coming up that morning. I called Mom from the hallway outside your room and told her that they were taking you in. She told me I had to be brave and that I couldn’t get upset because it would make you upset to see me upset. You and I didn’t say much to each other, and I know that’s because we were both trying to be strong for the other. You didn’t want me to see that you were scared. I didn’t want you to see that I was scared.
That was the trained nurse in Mom, though. While I sat there on the hospital floor, holding your right hand, she kept saying nice things like how much we all loved you and how it was okay for you to pass on. I was angry at her for saying those things, at the time, because, to me, it wasn’t okay. But that is what Mom does. She’s trained in end of life care. She’s seen this dozens, if not hundreds, of times before. She knows that these are the things you’re supposed to say so someone will let go, and not linger and suffer any longer than they have to. That didn’t make it any easier for her to say those things to her own father, I’m sure. The actual nurse that day assured us that you were too sedated to feel anything.
I remember the sounds of your last breaths, though. It sounded to me like you were fighting it. Trying to tell us that you didn’t want to go. Or maybe it was just me who thought that. Maybe it was just me who hoped that. Hoped that you’d decide against the whole thing and talk to us, tell us to get you a Budweiser and get you the hell out of there. Maybe it was just me who thought that you were stronger than death. You were the strongest man I had ever known! If you didn’t want to die that day then surely you wouldn’t have.
I’m sure we were only there with you for minutes. I think it all happened so fast after I got there from school. But it also felt like hours? I sat on that floor, and I held your hand, and I cried, and I stared at our hands together, and I realized, for the first time ever, under those fluorescent lights, that your arm hairs had a burnt red in them. I had noticed the same coppery redness in my own long brown hair a few years earlier. I had always wondered where it came from.
From you, apparently. I got a lot of things from you. Those chronic purple bruises and swollen bags under our eyes? Quite a few of us got those. The gap between our two front teeth, mine, which Mom tried to fix with braces 13 years ago, slowly widening itself back out again? The way our left eyes squint smaller than our right, and the roundness in the apples of our cheeks, when we smile? I noticed these shared traits only this year, when looking back through some of my favorite pictures of you, and while aching over how much life you managed to pour through into the stillness of a photograph.
There are other, not looks-related things, too. Our lower back pain, which gets particularly bad when we drive for a while. But, oh, how we love to drive. Our contentment to sit quietly with those we hold most dear, because we’re comfortable in that. How we can’t turn away from any opportunity to break it down on the dance floor. Our need for crunchy textures in everything we eat, and something sweet to cap off every meal. The way people treat us like their nucleus sometimes. I struggle hard with that one, I don’t know how you did it. Our love of solitaire, which you must have taught me how to play. The happiness we find in small adventures. Our preference for car radios.
It’s been five years, Papa. I’ve learned that that’s the funny thing about the speed of time. Some days, I feel like it was only yesterday that I was sitting on that hospital floor. Some days, it feels like 20 years have passed. I still find myself wishing for more time with you, but that seems to lessen as time without you stretches on. Instead, I turn to those photographs. I look at little me and younger you and I wish to go back to those times, the ones spent together in such obvious ultimate happiness.
For a little while, I was worried that I was forgetting you. But, it’s not forgetting. It’s being my own person. It’s being alive and growing older and filling my mind with new years of people and memories and experiences. I know that now. You were so much of my life for so long, and now you aren’t. What I have left of you is everything that you’ve left in me, as me.
I think this might be it for us, Papa. At least, for a little while. I could write about you for lifetimes, and I’m sure that I will, but not around here. What’s ours is ours now. See you in the morning.