“It’s Dad,” he says. “They found a tumor and gave him two months to live.”
When I walk into Mom’s house, I can breathe.
For over a year, I keep the promise to myself to visit Mom and Mike for a break from my life in Texas and to reconnect with the part of my soul that I left in Florida.
But this time is different.
I’ve only been here two days, and I long for my life in Texas so much so that I can’t sleep.
I close my eyes and try to connect to my wise, confident voice, but something is off, and I want to know what’s changed.
I want answers, but I can’t hear.
At sunrise, I run the beach and push myself beyond my physical ability to that place where I connect.
The salt air moves deep into my lungs, the humid, spring air blankets my skin.
My mind is clear, but it’s not working.
I run faster, breathe deeper, every cell in my body is awake, but that place that’s normally right here, where I am fully united with my wise, confident inner me, the universe, and God, just isn’t accessible.
Then, in a flash, it is. I hear the voice.
It’s not about you anymore.
The next day, I fly back to Texas.
Jeff picks me up from the airport and he is crying.
“It’s Dad,” he says. “They found a tumor in his colon and gave him two months to live.”
But my father-in-law suffers much longer.
For almost a year, I spend more time with my father-in-law, Big Daddy, than I ever would have if he were well.
Big Daddy never wants to talk about God nor anything having to do with Him; he always changes the subject.
He doesn't care to make peace with Him.
He makes it to the hospital before he starts to cross over; when his cognition declines and he sees things that aren’t there, he becomes a child again.
He is pure-spirited, curious about everything, and wants nothing but ice cream and Dr. Pepper.
That’s when he talks about God more freely.
I talk to Big Daddy about his coming back as a grandchild of mine and Jeff’s, and he promises me that when he does, he’ll display an affinity for playing cards from babyhood, so that we will know it’s him.
It is the last full conversation that we have.
Morphine comforts him after that.
The nurse changes his robe and blankets, then tucks Big Daddy in so that his arms and hands are covered.
“Snug as a bug in a rug,” I say, and he moves the corners of his mouth up enough for me to know that he hears me.
Jeff and my sister and brother-in-law, leave the hospital to shower.
They’ve been here for days on end while I’ve been sleeping at home with the kids and dogs.
When they leave, the air in the room is calm, nothing but the sound of the monitor.
I fix the burnt-orange, Texas hat on Big Daddy’s head, move a clunky wooden chair to his bedside and wrap myself in a scratchy hospital blanket to escape the freezing room.
There’s a neon pink pamphlet that the palliative care nurse left for us to read, glowing on the nightstand next to his bed. Its title is The Eleventh Hour.
I open it:
“There are similarities between birth and death. Birth in this world can be seen as death from another world. Death in this world can be seen as birth into a new world.”
With every word that I read, it feels as if God is sewing it all together for me.
From the conversation with Pop-Pop in the hallway, to the Ash Wednesday that I left church, through the time on the balcony in Australia, to the pirates, to the moment I knew that I had to leave the Navy, to St. Augustine, to Ireland, to following Jeff to Texas, all sewn together in this moment where I am again, exactly where I need to be, wrapped in glitter.
I breathe in deeply, I’m electric, then the calm follows.
I focus on the text, realizing I’m here to learn something. I keep reading:
“Labor is another similarity between birth and death. We go through labor to enter this world and labor to leave it. Some labors are short, some long…
“We seem to have limited control over when we die. If there is unfinished business, something that needs to be addressed before death, labor will often be longer...”
The parts of me that felt too weird to share with people who reject the idea of anything spiritual, and giant pieces of darkness, of the shame of feeling unwanted, swirl around inside of me up into my chest.
I’m deep underwater, gasping for air.
Then I see the light of the glitter shining around us again before I breathe out and let it all go.
“What does ‘limited control’ mean? One of the things it means is that we have enough control over the time we die that we will choose who is with us or not with us…
“A protective parent often dies without their children in the room. The child can be fifty years old and the parent may still protect them.”
That’s Big Daddy alright.
I get up out of the chair, the blanket dropping into a pile at my feet and move closer to Big Daddy.
“We will all be alright,” I whisper into his ear.
“We’ll take care of each other like you have. We love you so much, and we don’t want you to go, but we understand that you have to.”
I move back just in time to see his eyebrows lift, then fall.
I move the blanket to reach his hand and hold it in mine, and he clenches his hand around it.
It sends a shockwave through my arm, up then down my spine and into and out of a strange place just behind my ears, leaving goose bumps from my head to my toes.
I fixate on his face.
His mouth that was closed has fallen open and he draws in a long, belly-filling breath, before letting it out along with a sound like he is getting into a warm bath after spending the day playing in snow.
That is the last breath he will ever take.
This is what I put together:
We all have things that we need to make peace with in order to reach enlightenment, to free our spirit from the chains of the past, from the chains of this life, and from lives before this; it is uncomfortable, but the reward is the full experience of life.
Through the spectrum of joy to sadness, we gain access to an ocean of wisdom when we accept all of it as true and necessary, just like the Irish taught me; we have to face it at some point—in life, forcefully at the end of life, or in the next—because we can’t pass over completely unless we heal it, and we need to heal it in order to move on.
I know what I have to do.
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