As I write this, the sun is still well above the horizon, even though it’s nearly seven pm. This is my favorite part of the year-- when the sun keeps our company 18 hours a day. As the day enters night, even with the sun stubbornly refusing to go to bed, the darkness is creeping up on me quickly. One year ago, tonight, right now, I was sitting with my Dad as he prepared to leave the temporary housing of skin and muscle and tissue. I arrived at their house in Texas in the late afternoon after traveling most of a day. He was waiting for me.
Now I am the one waiting. I sit beside the water, the place that grounds me while simultaneously elevating me, and I wait for Dad. Last year I made a secret deal with him. I promised him, looking in to his one good eye with his broken brain, that I would show up for him every year. I asked him to meet me. I asked for him to let me know what it was like. Being me, I joked, “Not sure how expensive postage is, but if you can’t make it, maybe send a letter.” He half smiled with the one side of his face that still followed muscle requests. I fidgeted at the time, using humor as a way of deflecting emotions has always been a coping mechanism. It’s what Dad and I have in common. I know he understood what I was actually saying.
That night was longer than any I’ve experienced since the babies were tiny. Even with the summer solstice only days prior, the night stretched out to weeks. Time is a construct, they say. They know what they’re talking about. Dad had so clearly left his body well before his body decided it was time to stop. Sitting next to him, only hours after I’d arrived, I saw his “shiny.” “Dad! You’re SHINING!” I shifted in my seat and looked again. “No, Dad, I’m not kidding. You can’t see that, but… there are little lights. That’s nuts.” I shifted again wondering if I was having a migraine aura, if I was too tired, or if in fact, my dad was shining. He winked at me, with that one good eye, his half smile amused. I threw my head back and laughed. Real or not, my dad was, definitely, shiny. He was there, in his eyeball, right there next to me. That was the last time he was my dad. The remainder of the night was long and difficult and he never showed up in his eyeball again. He was in there, somewhere, or maybe not. But his body had needs. “Are you in pain? Mom is on the phone with the nurse. It’s ok. We’ll fix it.” And later, “Dad, Mom is going to give you more medicine. It should help in twenty minutes. I’ll wait with you.” “It’s been five minutes, Dad. It should start to help soon.” “Ok, Dad, it’s almost time. Are you better?” The entire conversation was with a human body, not my dad. Over the months of his strokes, I learned when he was in his eyeballs and when he was somewhere else, way back in his head, or in another time. While I know he wasn’t there anymore, a very tiny part of him stayed behind, worrying about Mom. His tense body, the way he stared at the ceiling, I knew he wasn’t letting go. After I urged Mom to call the nurse again she gave even more medicine and I sent her to bed. When she was gone, I sat next to him and said, “Look, Dad. I know you’re worried about Mom. It’s ok. I got it. See? I sent her to bed. If you’re ready, it’s ok.”
The thing about your parent’s relationship is that it’s not yours. You feel like you are a participant because you are witness to it your whole life, but you only have snapshots. There is a history before you were there. There are words behind doors you’ve never heard. There are anniversaries you never celebrated because you, rightly so, moved on to the next phase of humanity and created your own anniversaries and traditions. But somewhere, deep in the back of Dad’s stroke-affected brain, he knew he had to wait for his wedding anniversary to say goodbye to Mom. The man was a Swiss Watch. He was so in tune, even when half his brain didn’t have enough oxygen or blood supply, to know exactly what time it was, what day it was, what year it was. Mom and I marveled at this continuously. At the very end, it is the most significant characteristic of my dad that explains that last night. He waited to have a quiet moment with her on the day they were married. Till death do they part. And so he did.
This year my mom is in the hospital with heart trouble and blood clots in her lungs. She’s not giving up. She’s being strong and getting better and going to follow every doctor's order to heal. She’s not done. I’m so glad because I’m not done, either. I’m not done having parents. I’m not done hearing about their life. I’m not finished showing up for Dad and sharing those memories with Mom. So this year, waiting for Dad next to the water, I wait patiently. I know where he is. He is with Mom, in the small hospital where they both have visited. He knows the hallways and the staff. He knows what time Mom will be asleep and when the nurse shifts end. I know Dad will show up, but I also know he already has. He’s with Mom when I FaceTime her. There he is. Not at the water, but with his wife. Me, being me, I make some jokes and promise to call again tomorrow. But when I hang up I know this is what I promised. “I’ll meet you next year, Dad.”