(L to R: My sister, Lisa Strouss, my dad, Conn Bauer, and me, at my dad’s 60th birthday party in 1987.)
I have written about my father, Conn Bauer, before. He has struggled valiantly against a variety of ailments in the last several years. They have inexorably crept forward, robbing him of his physical strength, which is now nearly at an end.
When my parents moved from Michigan to California, I stayed in touch by phone. I began calling them daily a couple of years ago, a connection that has been a marvelous thing to build and sustain. Over the last few months, I have been able to talk to Dad less and less; the window of each day when he has the energy to talk has decreased in size much too quickly for me. Around Thanksgiving, he lost his ability to even make the small movements from one room to another of his and Mom’s home, and Hospice set up a hospital bed for him in the spare bedroom early this month.
He’s fading quickly, and there was some concern that he wouldn’t live to my arrival, which was Sunday. But death is a strange thing. It is notoriously inconvenient, as well as unpredictable. It snatches some people without warning. With others, like my dad, it plays cat and mouse. I sometimes wonder if death has met its match in this mighty heart and soul that is just too tough to die; death has dug its claws into my dad’s back and now joyrides through his life.
There is something particularly cruel about the way that death can tease. I encountered it with my first husband, Karl; in the last 10 months that he lived, I was told on six separate weekends that he would not last another 48 hours. Over the decade and a half since my father began to decline, we have had numerous such warnings, many more than I had with Karl. I can empathize with my mother in a way that few people can. It is customary for the dying to rally, often vigorously; it is extraordinarily difficult to understand the agony of the primary caregiver when this happens. Saying goodbye that final time, as I experienced today, is a kind of death in itself, as arduous and exhausting as the most rigorous test. When, after that, the dying person suddenly sits up, filled with energy, the caregiver collides, hard, with dozens of gradients of warring emotions.
The hardest to deal with is anger. It doubtless seems cruel to most observers, but it is most cruel to the person who feels it. We do not want to be angry with the people we love most in the world. But saying goodbye is not something that you ever get right, no matter how many times you practice. Having to do it again and again creates tremendous stress, such that will break even the most stalwart.
“Goodbye,” after all, means cutting off a conversation, and most of us want the luxury of finishing our thoughts. Death is a goodbye that you have to mean. Imagine getting the courage to jump off a cliff and expect to be finished, only to find out that you have to haul your bruised and broken body back up the cliff and jump off it again. And again.
I feel blessed to have had extended periods of time with my dad on each of the three days of my visit. It is truly bittersweet to realize that, however many days we had together, we would always find more to talk about. To my father’s credit, I laughed almost as much as I cried. Laughter has always been important in my house, and both my parents are gifted with dry senses of humor, love of stories, excellent timing, and an appreciation for the absurd. Early yesterday morning, my dad held my hands in both of his.
“You have small hands,” he said.
“It just seems that way because yours are so big,” I said.
“Too bad you didn’t get my hands. You could’ve played the piano.”
(For the uninitiated, I’m the family pianist.)
Family has gathered. One sister lives a mile and a half away. My brother came up from SoCal, my oldest sister down from Sacramento, my Michigan sister flew out ahead of me. My local nieces and nephews are there, and my nephew who’s a minister flew in from Washington state. My ex-brother-in-law drove up from Arizona. Cousins, aunts, and friends popped in. Dad’s always loved company. He rallied, hard.
And finally, with the help of the marvelous Hospice nurse who’s been assigned to my dad, my mom made the tough decision to tell people to go home. Rather than not last the few days it took for me to get to him, the tremendous energy and love surging up for my dad has extended his time, which is increasingly painful and exhausting for him as well as my mom.
In the course of it all, I have remembered something I had forgotten that had happened with Karl: Death, for those who have learned to live on very little strength, is a lot like going to sleep. Often, when I’ve been the most tired and desperate for some rest, the smallest thing will give me an adrenalin surge that makes it impossible to relax into the sleep that I need so badly.
And I knew I would have to be the first of the kids to say a very final good night. My Michigan sister can stay; her kids are adults, her job is flexible. My California siblings are near. I’m not. I must get back to my son—I have thought, until now, to comfort him when the final news arrives. But of course, it is also so that he can comfort me.
I stayed on the couch in Dad’s room last night. Mom slept soundly in the other room. Dad had been somewhat disoriented and in pain last night; with only Mom and I there, I’m pretty sure he didn’t know which kid I was or even if I was one of his kids. I listened to him breathe, deeply, but sometimes verging on that hollow, soft vacuum-like sound that happens in the hours before death. I was horribly torn; how could I leave if he might be so close to the end?
At some point, I must have fallen asleep because I woke up to hear Dad’s breathing even and deep. I could also hear my mom in the next room, and I realized they were breathing in perfect unison. I felt a wave of peace, and I knew that it was time for me to come home, and that it was all right.
In a rather beautiful gift, Dad was up at seven; I had to leave at 8:30 to catch my plane. And of course, we talked. We talked about my kids, and a wonderful phone call I had had with my daughter last night, one where she had expressed that she was ready to take the first tentative steps back to the big dreams she’d once had and has, over the last few years, seemed to shy away from. We talked about our lives, how happy he was that I had finally become so happy since meeting Steve, and how glad he was that Steve had become part of our family. He said, again, how wonderful his life had been with Mom, and I told him that they’d taught us all that it was possible to stay in love for 65 years.
And he talked about prayer, that it had become a tremendous joy to him, how he spent each day praying for everyone on a very long list, asking that God would order our steps, that we would walk in God’s ways, and that God would give us power, love, and a sound mind. Simple, humble, loving; exactly like the man who prayed it. He said that the song “Sweet Hour of Prayer” had become very, very real to him.
My sister had come to take me to the airport. I climbed up on the bed, and he held me. I stopped sobbing and felt at rest.
“I’m not going to see you again on this side,” I said.
“If I get there before you,” he smiled, “I’ll bore a hole through the wall and pull you through.”
I kissed him. We told each other, as much with our eyes as our words, how much we loved each other. How grateful we are to be in each other’s lives.
“See ya later, alligator,” he said. I started to get up. But I couldn’t stop telling him I loved him. I wanted one last kiss, one final touch.
Finally, I somehow got to the door.
He said, “Parting is such sweet sorrow…”
“..that I shall say good night til it be morrow.” I kissed him one last time. “Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels take you to your rest.”
Finally, my degree in theater came in handy.
I told him, “I’ll play piano for you on skype.”
“Yes, that will be wonderful.”
“We’ll dance together again, Pop.”
“We will, baby.”
I waved. Quite bravely, I might add. He blew me a kiss. I managed to catch it.
One of the toughest moments of my life. And yet, I realized, even on the short drive to the airport, the tremendous grace it had afforded both of us. My dad has many goodbyes that must be said, many periods to put on the end of sentences. By creating a definite end, by having the courage to face the fact that we will not see each other again on this side of eternity, we managed to give each other the strength to get on with, respectively, the hard work of dying and living.
Dad and I could find things to talk about for a thousand days. We both know that. But now, I have to be a good guest, say good night so that my host can get some rest. I can play for him over the phone, but he won’t need to say anything back; at this point, I only want to give to the man who has given so much to me. His voice, his eye, strong arms. and his beautiful big hands have comforted me thousands of times in my life. They always will.
And we’ll dance.