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Caseythoughts My phone had rung four times in the past two hours with the same unrecognized return number. Since I don't call or talk to that many people these days, the number was unfamiliar and I didn't answer it. There are so many robo-calls, and efforts to get you to answer your phone that I just ignore any number I don't recognize. In this regard, I am told I am not alone. But when it rang a fifth time with the same number, I happened to be with a tech-savvy acquaintance who had her laptop open and she searched the number: the exchange indicated a Cortland source, and since my daughter and granddaughter live in Cortland, I thought maybe she was borrowing someone's phone for whatever reason and trying to reach me.

I decided to call the number back, and if it's someone selling insurance I can always hang up. It turned out it was my daughter, and when she answered (after berating me for not answering, naturally) she told me my father was in Cayuga Medical Center, maybe dying.

This information stopped me cold, to coin a phrase. I had not spoken with my father in probably fifteen years, perhaps longer. Perhaps reckoning day had come, unbidden as it always does. She told me she was unaware of a room or section he was in, or what had happened. Thanking her with a promise that I would get back to her as soon as I could, I hung up and sat at Wegman's cafe staring into a very turbulent space.

The fifteen years of silence was filled with events of magnitude in my life, and in retrospect these years had moved at the speed of light. Recovery from addiction and alcoholism, change of career, two grandchildren, love found and spiritual renewal. I had not considered the loss of contact with my father to be of any real disadvantage in my life, as our relationship had been rocky and angry since my mid-teens, fifty years ago. The details of the warfare are only important to me, perhaps him, so I would not presume to bore you with the ins and outs of what is probably familiar territory to many of you; after all, parent-child relationships are so often fraught with what can be inadequately described as ambivalence, hatred, or every emotional whistle stop in between these extremes. We had viewed each other warily since the late sixties when he threw me out of the house when I was sixteen, and finally ended in the breakdown of diplomatic relations about fifteen years ago. Mild entreaties and efforts by my life partner and sisters resulted in angry silence. Mine.

I called my partner, and to boil the call down to one sentence, she said: "This is important. I'll meet you at the hospital." Her voice was strong, loving, empathetic. She knew few details of the chasm of non-communication with my father, but was supportive and very concerned. Her clergy credential might also be of use in the hospital at night, or beyond normal visiting hours.

He was on the fourth floor: broken ribs and punctured lung from a fall, and his octogenarian system was in a state of suspended shock. It appeared that modern medicine was going to be inadequate to bring him back to a semblance of health, weakened as he was. In the jargon of the medical world, it was doubted he would survive the shock to an already weakened body.

I will not focus on the people in the room, for they were somewhat on the fringe of my awareness. I had expected tubes, wires, hanging plastic bags, beeping machinery, blinking lights; I saw none of the accouterments of modern medical science. A private room, a raised hospital bed, and a face which shocked me into frightened silence. It was me. My face on the pillows. Purely and simply, I saw me in the wrinkled, slack-jawed, pale face lying four feet from my stare. The sheets and blankets covered an emptiness: he was apparently so thin that the flesh and bones underneath barely wrinkled the bed coverings. It was his face, almost bald pate, wispy white facial hair that reminded me of Ho Chi Minh, protruding pale ears and nose, mouth hanging open, unaware of his surroundings. Breathing perhaps five or six times an hour, but breathing interfered by raspy, wet clogged gasps deep in the lungs and throat.

I saw me. My father and I had a million differences over these sixty some years, but I also recognized many physical similarities. Even the voice, facial similarities and dry humor. We both loved to read, but had radically obverse views on the world, possibly owing to the "times", possibly due to my year in VietNam. Over the past few years I would see my face in the mirror and recognize him staring back at me. To see him now, essentially helpless, rasping, struggling to remain alive, pain relieved by morphine (which also indicated foregone medical conclusions) I was shocked into that empty silence. I saw no one else in the room, heard nothing but his racked respiring, and had come, face to face, with myself. Almost Dorian Gray-like.

In the hallway, next to the nurse's station, inhabited by smiling, competent humans (so often female......have I considered the merciful gender in this way?) and non-human beeping and control boards and computer screens, my partner put her hand in mine, and her other hand on my chest and asked me "What are you feeling?". My honest answer was that I didn't know how I felt, but did tell her what I saw: me. She nodded and told me that if it was numbness, that was OK, too. Just being here was huge, and I could walk with that into the next minute, hour.

I said goodbye at 9PM (though no one had told us visiting hours were over) and came back the next morning at eight or eight thirty. He was awake, if that word might be used, recognized me and I still felt the same fearful emotions, or was it the same numbness?? The same incapacity to speak. His hands and arms were skeletal, bruised from past IVs, the back of the hands almost transparent, every bone obvious just under the pale skin. He was constantly asking for a tiny sponge to be put in his dry mouth, which my sister accommodated. He recognized me, held his hand out and said "I missed you", twice. A little later he said, with no context and without looking at anyone, "He could never hit a curve ball", which made no real sense: I could never hit anything in Little League; I was too afraid of the pitch, feeling every at-bat was a potential exercise in suicide by baseball. I don't think he knew that, back then. No sense in updating him now about that ancient history.

They were sending him home, on Tuesday, by ambulance, and Hospicare would tend to his dying at home. The hospital chaplain spoke with him for awhile, while I wondered at the bedside how such a young person could deal with aging, dying, agony on the fourth floor, and soon recognized the young chaplain's experience and competence.

I asked him to spend a minute with me, and we ended up sitting for more than a half hour in a quiet space down the hallway. He listened to me drone on about my feelings, the separation of father and son, and some ancient history that was bubbling up from my often inaccessible interior. He asked sensible and sensitive questions that drew from me many pained answers. His response, to boil it down, was that families, most certainly ours, are so very complicated and that it seemed there were many layers of complex interactions and emotions, as well as pain which now, somehow, were exhibiting in numbness, confusion and fear. Sideways, you might say. Out they must come, though, and the most volatile of these emotions would be the ones which were going to force their way through layers and layers of suppressed feelings: covered, coated for years by the dirt and dust which buried them, only to come back zombie-like. Anger and fear are the two sides of the same coin, and they would join forces in refusing to come out of me, holding on for dear life, by their bloody fingernails, refusing to be outed and drenched by the sunshine of recognition and admission of all the pain deep inside. But, out they will, and the impending death would bring out that which was hidden.

Another way to put it, death is not about he who is dying, but in so many respects death is about those who are living, those who survive to tell. It is the survivors who must then choose the lessons they have learned and are learning associated with the lessons of watching the death of those we choose to love. Onward, maybe upwards. If the dying have not given us pause, taught us a little about who we are and how we really feel about life and living, then what is left when we say goodbye to them (perhaps long after their physical death) defines what life is, and whether it will be lived a little more fully, or, conversely, a step toward our own mortality, and despair. Death is about living, and seeing myself as a tiny, wrinkled, bewildered man in a hospital bed, and this is an undesired, unexpected living lesson. A lesson in what, I still ponder at this writing.

As I write, I have been informed that Father has died. I am in an emotional no man's land, in the greeting card store of my mind between 'Get Well' and 'With Sympathy'. My battle is new, now, but also ages old, fought by every son who has looked upon his own life, and his own mortality, his own mistakes, his father. Father's last words might well have been a quote from Harry Chapin: "My boy was just like me...he'd grown up just like me."

There is no tomorrow; only today.

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