Dear People of Earth,
The last thing I remember, it was Halloween. My costumed kids headed out with their friends just after dark, with the competitive spirit seen in older trick-or-treaters. Goal: Cover as much ground and collect as much candy as humanly possible. And, a couple of hours later, they had. Instead of counting individual candies as they have in past years, they weighed their haul this year!
That’s all I remember. And then, the phone call, the last-minute cancellations with clients, the airport, bad airplane TV, and finally, the car ride to the hospital. Leaving Earth’s atmosphere.
My father, 84, had had a stroke and was not getting better. Mind you, I’ve been in the hospital with my father before. He has had dementia for years, and medical problems that would have done in most of us. However, while his mental capacities have steadily diminished, his body has soldiered on, like the Energizer Bunny or a cat with nine lives. But, this time was different.
The doctors, and there were a few, agreed that this time, there were just too many strikes against him—his heart was failing, his lung (yes, just one—the other had been removed years earlier…cancer) was filling with fluid, and he was no longer able to swallow. It was time to let him go, to let the Energizer Bunny rest. For good.
Let’s face it, hospitals are strange places. They’re their own little worlds. Those who work in them think they’re just another workplace. But, those of us who visit them know the truth—we’re visitors on an alien planet. The air is different, the light is different, the inhabitants speak a different language, and the passage of time…well, it’s just different. Launch lunar module.
When I entered the hospital room, straight from the airport, my father was awake with the rest of my family around him. He looked thinner and weaker and very, very old. And yet, he turned to me and smiled a gaunt smile. With garbled speech, an after-effect of the stroke, he tried to say, “What are you doing here?” Now, something to remember is that my father has had dementia for over a decade. In recent years, he hasn’t remembered my name, or necessarily known my relationship to him. But, he knows me. He recognizes me as familiar. Another thing to know about my father is that he was, in this moment, as he has been all of his life, a cheerful and kind man. So, in spite of tubes, wires and beeping monitors over his shoulder, he greeted me warmly…whoever I was.
For the next 30 hours, my family, including my mother, sister and brother, let my father go. Actually, we didn’t just let him go—we sent him off. Initially he was in and out of consciousness. We talked to him, we cuddled him, and told stories about his life. By the next morning, he was no longer waking up. His breathing became increasingly more labored. Caring nurses and doctors helped to keep him comfortable with morphine and oxygen. And we continued to send him off.
Imagine this modern-day bedside scene—a dimly lit room, with my family gathered around the glow of my brother’s laptop, singing songs from googled lyrics on the screen—Let It Be, Swing Low Sweet Chariot, Amazing Grace. We sang, we read to my father from his books, laughing so hard we cried. We stroked him, we hugged each other, we called loved ones back on Earth. And, we each had time with him, to whisper whatever thank yous and farewells and reassurances were needed.
The day’s shadows turned to the dark of night, and we sent him off. Yes, it was sad. But, there was also a sweetness, like putting a small child to bed, reassuring him that it’s okay to let go, to surrender, to release the day, and sleep. At 12:20 a.m. my father took his last breath, with me and my brother by his side. My mother and sister had bid him a final goodnight, knowing that it might be their last. And, as often happens, he waited. He waited to go until his wife of 58 years and his gentle, eldest daughter had gone. He waited until my brother and I had fallen into a fitful sleep on cots next to him. And then, with the same tenderness he exhibited in life, he rose into death. Enter deep space.
I am not a religious person. But, when I say “rose” into death, I mean just that. When the nurse roused us moments after his death, and my brother and I sat at the foot of his bed, we felt it. The room had changed. A great weight had been lifted. I thought I must be crazy, because I felt almost expansive. But then my brother echoed that he felt it too--an amazing lightness, an incredible peace. It was very clear to me that my father was gone, and that he was free. Begin descent to Earth.
Since that night, we’ve fielded phone calls, written obits, and answered e-mails. We’ve put together two memorial services, reunited with extended family and old friends, shared stories and laughter and tissues and tears. We’ve consoled my Mom and comforted each other. We’ve been bolstered by partners and children and cousins and aunts.
And, with Thanksgiving around the corner, I’ve begun to re-enter my life here on Earth. Re-entry isn’t easy. The emotional pull of space rivals the gravitational pull of Earth. By day, I might be walking here on Earth, but strangely, my thoughts are in faraway galaxies. At night, my dreams are filled with the dark rooms and labored breaths of another planet. On one of the first days that I was home, my 10-year old son, a very astute Earthling remarked, “Mom, even though you’re back home, it doesn’t feel like you’re back yet.” He’s right. It’s hard to come back to Earth when you’ve been in deep space. I think I’m still arriving.
A Fellow Traveler