I wasn’t sure if I could talk to you today, especially about this. I don’t want to impose my grief. But I’ve promised myself always to be real with you. This is as real as it gets.
You’ve had your own losses. And right now, the entire country seems adrift on an ocean of misery and sorrow. We have to talk about what hurts. We have to help one another through.
My parents live in an elder care community in North Carolina. This past Monday, Mom received her first vaccination against COVID-19. By sad irony, the very next day Dad entered hospice care, suffering from the virus. He isn’t expected to live long.
Scattered across the country, my brothers and I are struggling to companion my parents through Dad’s final hours. How to be present where you can’t be? How to comfort? How to make farewells?
In this room where I’m sitting, the quiet ticking of the clock drowns out the howling of the wind through barren trees. Snick…. Snick…. It punctuates the low drone of traffic creeping along the snow-covered street. Snick…. Snick…. I try not to listen.
Since the start of the pandemic, everyone in our family has feared for Mom and Dad. Both are in their eighties. Dad’s health, in particular, has been fragile for years, requiring skilled nursing. We’ve been grateful for the strict quarantines and safety protocols followed by their elder care community.
All year long, those measures protected Mom and Dad. Then, on Christmas Eve morning, just as the COVID-19 vaccine was becoming available, Dad tested positive.
Hearing the news, I was gripped by a sudden urge to clean. Ordinarily, household chores aren’t near the top of my to-do list. But that day, setting our house in order felt like binding up my stricken heart.
Since Christmas, dreams about Dad have crowded my nights. Sometimes they wake me up. More often, memories of them surface during daylight hours. They aren’t nightmares. They’re just … true. They follow me around like old dogs, begging for attention as I read, write, fold laundry.
In one dream, I’m racing toward Dad across the landscape, feet flying as they never have before, even back when I was a sprinter on the track team. I’m running not from worry or from desperation but for sheer joy. I feel no pain in my joints, no weariness at the distance I must cover. I’m as free and fast as a cheetah on a savanna. Strangely, though, my running never gets me any closer to Dad. He’s always within sight, a younger, able-bodied version of himself, but he’s far away. Unreachable.
In another dream, I walk into a place where Dad has been living—a small farmhouse, perhaps, or a cottage. I find the interior of the dwelling blanketed by sawdust and heaped with wood chips. Dad, I suspect, has been cutting trees into firewood to feed a huge furnace. By the look of things, he must have stacked up cords and cords of wood somewhere. I don’t stop to wonder how he could have done all this from his wheelchair. I grab a shovel and begin scooping wood scraps into a wheelbarrow (yes, cleaning house again). But for every shovelful I toss off the couch or the floor, another appears in its stead. Where’s all this wood coming from? I ask myself. At once the dream supplies the answer, as if it possesses a voice: “This house isn’t full of wood chips. It’s full of would chips.” As in: Dad, I would be with you, if I could. I would ease your suffering. I would sit with you through the long, dark night. Would…. Would…. Would…. Would.…
The clock’s ticking is more regular than a heartbeat. It runs on a battery, just like Dad’s pacemaker.
Our dreaming selves know better than our conscious minds that a frontier exists between life and death, not marked on any map. In that space, Dad is both full of vigor and passing away; both here and beyond reach. What Was is all mixed up with What Is and What Will Be. We experience this same frontier even in the mythical turning of the new year, don’t we? What we’re running toward is partly behind us. What’s behind us is partly ahead of us, and it isn’t standing still.
I love Mom and Dad. But as unique as they are in my eyes, they’re also the Everywoman and Everyman of this pandemic. They represent all the people who, one way or another, have been afflicted by COVID troubles. Most will survive. Millions will not. None of us with half a heart will emerge unscathed.
Yesterday, through the phone, I played Dad some of his favorite hymns on the piano. “I love you,” I said through tears, “but it’s time to go.” I hoped that he might hear and understand my words; that, being reassured, he’d give up the fight and slip away in peace. But I didn’t really expect him to. He’s a tough old farmer. He has a mind of his own. Sheer stubbornness, twined with his love for Mom, has kept him alive for years.
Yet today, suddenly, he’s scarcely breathing. Maybe some part of him did listen. Maybe, despite my dream, he had been reachable.
I picture Dad snug and warm under the colorful fleece blanket my family sent him from South Dakota for Christmas. His gift arrived a week ahead of the virus. He’s said to have “glowed” when he saw it. I’m comforted to imagine that blanket of ours helping to swaddle his body as his spirit returns whence it came.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, the clock’s still ticking. I have some heavy-duty shoveling to do. This place is full of wood scraps, and the sacred fire in the furnace needs tending. Thanks, Dad, for teaching me the importance of feeding it. You always cut a great stack of wood.