My Father's Final Hours

The circumstances of my father’s death were ordinary: he died in a nursing home after a series of small strokes and one massive one. My brother called me to tell me about the latest stroke and said I should come to Virginia if I wanted to see Dad again. Our sister lived too far away to get there, and he wasn’t going because he had already said goodbye. So I would be on my own. I had visited at the nursing home before, and it was difficult, both to see my proud, image-conscious father in that drab institutional setting and to face the state of physical and mental decline that justified his being there. I still wanted to go.

What did I imagine would happen? Before leaving, I bought some knitting needles, yarn and a pattern, so I guess I thought there would be some hours when I would sit quietly by his bedside and just be a comforting presence. I did spend a few hours that way – enough to cast on stitches and knit a few rows – but I doubt I provided any comfort. He was unresponsive but could have heard me if I had said anything, which I didn’t. I didn’t even say goodbye; I didn’t know how. I left to return the car to my stepmother so she could visit him, thinking I would go back the next day for more knitting and “comforting.” But he died at dinnertime, alone except for the guy on the other side of the curtain that divided their room.

At the time I was thirty-seven, had two young children and a PhD and was busy with two part-time jobs. I was an adult in outward appearance but far from it in terms of having dealt with childhood wounds. I was also part of a family culture that discouraged plain speaking about difficult emotions. I could talk endlessly with my sister about Dad and all the anger and sadness I felt toward him. Yet, when the opportunity and the need arose to talk directly to him, from the heart, thoughts deserted me and feelings were inaccessible. I wasn’t able to give Dad and myself the gift of forgiveness – for his alcoholism and the meanness it brought out in him; for the way he didn’t seem to see me as an individual or honor my aspirations and ambitions; for the fact that he had wanted me to stay home and take care of him and Mom the way Mom’s older sister (“a saint,” according to Dad) had done for my grandparents. I also missed the opportunity to say I was sorry for the pain I had caused when I left.

Dad has been dead for nearly thirty years. With a fair amount of inner work, I have managed to grant both him and myself the forgiveness I could not offer in those last few hours of his life. Yet the memory of that time with him still brings a pang of regret. I take this as a reminder of why I need to keep working to overcome my conditioning and fear and learn how to access and speak my truth, however difficult, in the moments when it really matters and to the person who really needs to hear it.