By Andrea K. Hammer
Four hours after my father drew his last breath, my mother was still holding his hand. We waited for his doctor to sign the death certificate, so his body could be transported to the funeral parlor. Side by side and hand in hand—as they had walked together for the last 50 years—my mom refused to leave his side.
I sat watching her try to keep him warm, staring at the well-manicured nails that were so at odds with his flying tufts of hair. His jaw had dropped open and finally seemed to let in the air that had been escaping him in life. Tracing his face with my eyes, I memorized every detail and wondered how I would go back into the world without seeing the last link to my grandmother’s arched nose.
Hole in the World
A hole was left in the world without this spirited man, who went down with his fists literally raised high, during private conversations only he could hear at the end, ranting against the cancer that had consumed his body and robbed his spirit for 8 years. When one of the tumors pressed on his spine and made walking next to impossible, my dad—by sheer willpower—dragged himself inch by inch to get to family gatherings. A man who had always loved driving, he sacrificed his last shred of pride when, at last, he surrendered himself to bed and released his car keys.
I tried, in the last months, to sit by his bed and hold his unresponsive hand, the one that felt so all encompassing as we walked on the boardwalk during my childhood summers in Atlantic City. Back then, he owned a tire business; after a week of blackened fingernails, he took pains to spruce himself up for my mom. The smell of his English Leather aftershave competed with the salt air as I looked up at my 6-foot, 2-inch hulk of a father.
Memories of Fathers
At a lunch with colleagues during the last months of his illness, the conversation coincidentally turned to memories of fathers. The 80-year-old in our group talked freely about his sergeant-like father, who died 20 years ago.
“You all need to make peace with your fathers before they go,” he said, hanging his head in the face of a still-present ghost. My boss described his father’s dislike of the first moustache he had ever grown. “’Shave that thing off, or don’t come back to this dinner table,’” he said, mimicking his father’s stern tone. And another staff member in our group, at that time, said we all hear our father’s voices in our heads, still trying to please them.
So my fingers tap away on my dad’s laptop, the one possession of his that I desperately wanted. When we first lifted the screen and tried to start the unresponsive computer, my fiancé said, “Your dad’s hands were here.” Now I listen to the clicking keyboard, taking comfort in the rhythm.
Here, in this quiet space that I share alone with my dad, I still feel connected to him and his strength—although unsettled as I piece him back together through his files. When I first couldn’t get his computer to work, my coworker said: “Surely there must be something of his that would mean more to you.”
But here his spirit still has shape in letters to my brother about the brutal pain and constant cold he felt, in his work files that showed a determination to keep working until it was utterly impossible, and even in his last CAT scan report that states: “Prognosis for recovery is bleak.”
I sob thinking about how he carried that information in his head and still managed to tell us an off-color joke.
My father’s face comes to me in a dream 2 months after the birds fly free from his grave. Gusts of wind swirled around those of us huddled by his side that day, when, even then, he seemed to refuse to go down to his resting place—near a busy traffic intersection, watching the swirling patterns of cars that had always mesmerized him. In the dream, I am kissing his cheek, and he tells me to believe in myself. So I race back to his laptop at every free moment, trying to heal myself and honor both of our spirits.
Everywhere and Nowhere
Many years later, my dad is still everywhere and nowhere. We are able to think of him now, laughing heartily without constant arrows in our hearts, wherever we go: in New Jersey, where he drove over the bridge from Philadelphia, just to buy the cheaper gas; and at his favorite restaurant, which serves a seven-layer cake that he could inhale before turning to sharp bones and asking with disbelief, “What’s happened to me?”
In the first years after his death, I was consumed by an unrelenting gnawing. But now, many years later, I’m simply urged on by a cluster of swooping birds—the safekeepers of my father’s soul—making formations above my head and leading the way forward.
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