Sometimes hope and prayer and good intentions are not enough. Sometimes, even refusing to give up is not enough. You are beaten down by a faster, stronger, more ruthless nemesis. That’s what Leukemia is–a nemesis to humanity. On one side you have human will, and with it medical knowledge collected over the centuries. On the other you have a disease that simply confounds everyone and defeats the human spirit. Hope is all you have to hang on to against an opponent you do not understand. That is the brutal, truth about Leukemia: the essence of it, the reason it exists is not yet understood. Doctors have their theories. Some may even be based on truth. But theories do nothing when up against a disease so strong it can destroy a person from the inside. When something can so quietly and quickly tear apart so much, it’s enough to make you question everything you believe.
It changes you forever.
On every face in room 421 of the Cancer City section of Martin Luther hospital I see shock and disbelief. Numb resignation and the look of total emotional overload, beyond breakdown, beyond anger–beyond anything describable. Every part of that night, every breath and heartbeat has been seared into my mind. But the moment I will always remember most clearly is Uncle Tommy, finally breaking down, grabbing Dad’s face with his hands and yelling at him, cursing him, sobbing at him to pull out of it.
“Richie, Richie, come on now little brother, this is not for you lad, pull out of this now. Goddamn it, Richie, you’re too young for this, too damn young.”
Tommy looked as old as the world as he looked down at the withered, comatose face. I could see the remorse of letting years go by, of strained relations and silly fights deeply etched into the lines of his face. This was blood–the strongest kind of bond, forged on the streets and fields of Liverpool, to be torn apart in a hospital room six thousand miles away. How in the hell did they get here?
I often wonder if it all seemed real to Uncle Tommy.
There was a natural order of importance among the people gathered at the bedside. Mom was at the side, holding Dad’s hand. Everyone else was one step back, watching from afar. They were not in the way. We were not in the way. Yet I wanted everyone to leave, to walk out of that hospital room and give Mom the chance to sit by her husband’s side in peace and privacy.
“Let’s tell everyone to step outside and give Mom some time alone,” I said to Carole and Sheila. “Just for a bit.” It wasn’t hard to get everyone to leave–at least for a little bit. Looking back as we left the room, Mom looked so small, and yet so dignified, saying good-bye to the only man she had ever loved.
We were waiting around for Dad to die–not for a miracle, but for it all to finally end. There is a certain beauty to the sadness and melancholy feeling that surrounds a death scene. There’s a feeling of good-bye, and a feeling of mystery, as though no one knows for certain exactly what will happen when the person passes out of this world. In a way, it is equally as beautiful as a child’s birth. A birth, a beautiful moment of celebration–months of preparation, hours of struggle, rewarded with a new life. A death, a beautiful moment of incredible sadness–a lifetime gone by so fast it seems a shame to only get to say good-bye so late, as the light gracefully fades from the eyes. Some of the process of dying can be explained by medical fact, such as how the body stays alive longer than the mind. It’s as if a person’s mind is a light switch flipped off–but the body, with its nerves, muscles and fluid, slides into oblivion gracefully. No medical fact will ever explain the strange smile that brightened his face as the last bit of life left him, a smile that filled those of us who saw it with a brief moment of tranquillity.
Death is the only thing we cannot measure or test, the one thing we can not replicate. There’s just an ending, and whatever lies on the other side to be determined by each person’s individual belief. What is most fearsome about it is the finality of it–we are reared to believe that there is always another day, always another opportunity somewhere, somehow to make a comeback or start over again. Always another season. One more chance to score. But when the game is up and death looms, there is nothing but a hollow feeling, and in that way death is a big disappointment. It’s quiet, leisurely and secretive. You know it’s coming, you’re just not sure when, and the actual moment is not ever truly known to those witnessing the final scene.
Except the Oncology nurses. They have seen death take patients so often they have the routine timed almost to he minute. I don’t know what it is they look for. Throughout the night, I noticed how they would quietly slip a head into the room to see a sign that it had been played out, and then just as quietly slip away again. I too was looking for a sign–I felt sure that God would grant me the ability to see the angels come through the window and take Dad’s spirit up to heaven. I was sure of it–I would, at least, get some sign that all would be all right. I kept glancing out the window and waiting for the angels to appear, lift him out of his diseased body and take him to paradise. Or for a strange light or another symbol that told me he had safely gone to the other side. Fool that I am, I thought I would be able to see it with my eyes. Through that big window in the room I saw only the dusk turn to night and the lights of the city below begin to twinkle.
I saw no angels.
I saw enough of death.
It is only he and I now, he with the most contented smile and I with the tears and the sobbing I can no longer control. That smile–I had never seen one quite so peaceful on my father’s face.
The silence in the room was so heavy I felt as though something was weighing down my shoulders. It surrounded me, crushed my senses, and even though I spoke to him, at times even shouted at him and cursed him, I could not hear the sound of my own voice over the silence of the room. The silence of his responses drowned out my voice. And all the while he just lay there, motionless. For some reason I expected him to get up and walk out of the room. Or call my name. Or tell me to stop talking so much. I suppose the least I expected was for him to tell me I’d be okay without my Dad around. But he did none of that–and I’m not sure what I would have done if he had. He just lay on that bed, looking calm and peaceful, as if he did not have any worries anymore.
He didn’t hear my shouts. Or the banging on the walls. Or the cursing. He did not even see the tears. After a while, Christina walked into the room and quietly began helping me put the family belongings away.
“Honey, I’m sure he hears you, and in his own way, maybe he’s answering you. Maybe he was looking down on you, and trying to make you understand on your own.”
“Yeah, maybe,” I said. “More likely, he had decided not to answer me anymore, not to take me by the hand and guide me through the minefields and away from the wrong turns. He just sat there and smiled, Christina, that same, stupid, frozen smile of a man who had lived a full life and died with his family around him.”
I looked at him and it dawned on me that the body on the bed no longer belonged to my father. The life was gone, and so it was only a cold, stinking piece of meat waiting for the mortuary men to come and take it away.
I did not look back as I followed Christina out of the room and into the hallway.
They were waiting for me.
Death is a big business and it starts the moment the body goes cold. The first thing to do is arrange for a mortician, and Yvette was pacing in the nurse’s station with forms to process and decisions to make.
“I just wanted to tell you how sorry I am,” she took me by the arm and led me to a chair in the office. “Would you like some coffee?”
“That would be nice.”
“Your father was very fortunate to have a family that loved him so much. “I’m sure he passed away a happy, content man.”
“He sure did have a great smile on his face when he died.”
She looked at me coolly for a moment, then got straight down to business. “We need your Mom to sign these–don’t worry her right now, but we need them before she leaves tonight. The main thing we’ve got to do tonight is to arrange for a mortuary home. Here’s the one I recommend. Let me know what you want me to do.”
“What will happen to the body tonight?”
“When you pick a mortuary, they’ll come and take your father’s body away. There’s no need for you to do a thing. Just make sure all of his belongings are out of the room.”
I made the choice and stumbled out of the room, clutching the forms and hoping Mom had not left so she could release Dad’s body to the mortuary. I didn’t want to know what would happen to the body if it wasn’t released.
At the family home later on, I made the phone calls, and offered consoling words to relatives and friends. Some were not even aware he was sick. Others were holding prayer vigils. It was something I had to do–Mom was not up to the task, and she was really the last person who should handle such details. That’s what Dad had raised me to do, and I was simply trying to do it when it was needed most. At this point I was numb, so the pain of repeating the same message was not too bad. “I wanted to call you and tell you that Dad passed away tonight, yes, it was peaceful, thank you so much, I’ll make sure my Mom calls when she’s able.”
Some were stunned into a fumbling silence, others tried to come up with words of condolence. I didn’t hear anything but the sound of my own voice, repeating the same lines, without trying to make sense of it. I could sort through my overloaded senses and put it back together later.
I stood under the shower and scrubbed the smell of death off my body. I tried to wash it out of my nostrils and my hair. No matter how many times I stood under the steaming hot water coming down in torrents on my face, I could not get the smell out of my head. It was in my senses, in everything I ate, everything I touched. It dawned on me later that night that maybe that is what we all took from the room–the smell of death. Either that or the sensory overload that left Chris and I staring at the walls of our new home, trying to figure out what had gone so wrong. For Chris, it was the death of a man she looked up to, whom she loved though only knew for a few years. There was a special connection between the two, and I could only listen to Christina go through her pain and try to be of help. I did not cry. I just listened, and stared at the wall until I had mustered the courage to speak of the thing running through my head like a broken movie projector.
“And then there was just him, myself and the pain that would no longer stay down. Just him and I in that room, me yelling, he just sitting there in blissful silence, away from the worries of the world. That’s what I remember most of all, honey, the moments he and I had together, when everyone else had left to be comforted or stand in a corner, bewildered. When I was cleaning the room, before you came in to help me.”
“I wasn’t sure if I should go in, because we could hear you outside. I thought you might need a friend.”
“Yeah, well, I sure did. You know, that moment in the room is something no one can ever take away from me. He was dead, and at peace, I was alive and at war.”
“Funny how death doesn’t change a thing.”