The Seconds Between

I’ve been thinking about my dad every day on my trek across England. He would have loved this hike–the picturesque views, the mountain climbs, the rolling green pastures, and the wandering herds of sheep. Sometimes, when the trail is steep and it’s all I can do to concentrate on every step and every breath, I think of the last moment I shared with my father before he died last summer. It was a sacred moment-just as this experience is, and I am carrying his memory with me across 192 miles.

The Seconds Between

I hear the song of the bird and look upward, searching the surrounding treetops for the soloist. The sun is bright in the sky and I shade my eyes with my right hand. There was no mistaking its call. My dad had taught all of my six siblings and me to listen for and recognize the songs of a variety of wild birds. There, in the highest branch of the tree, I finally spot the bright red silhouette of a male cardinal. Its song is joyful, without being showy. But at this moment, there is a bit of mournful nostalgia in its tune. Life had changed. Not for the cardinal, but for my family. 47 days ago, my father passed away after a long struggle with Parkinson’s and Lewy Body Dementia. I had been counting the days since he left us. And I recalled my counting on the night he died…

It was nearing midnight on June 14, 2015. After a two-week vigil of singing hymns, reading psalms, and sharing stories with each other around my father’s bed, most of the family had gone home to get some sleep. We knew he couldn’t last much longer; he hadn’t eaten in six days, and was no longer drinking any water. Some of us held the opinion, that having so many people in his room, making noise and hovering over him, was keeping my father from taking that last step to the other side. After all, he was a very quiet man, and far from the boisterous type. During the past five days, the atmosphere around him was more like contained chaos. Now, only my sister sleeping on the divan, my brother sleeping in the recliner, and I remained in my father’s room. I was taking the first watch of the night, sitting next to him. A bit of light from the hallway broke the darkness through the partially open door. It provided just enough light to illuminate him as he lay sleeping. His breathing had changed from heavy, labored inhales and exhales, to short, back-to-back duos of whispered puffs. He looked so peaceful.
After less than five minutes, I gave up squirming in the chair next to him and knelt down by his bed. I took his right hand in mine, but there was very little life left in his 91 year-old fingers. Those fingers that had held mine since I was born. Those fingers that had pointed out the lone scarlet leaf of a tree in the fall, a deer in a winter field, or a rabbit hopping across our yard. Those fingers that had taught me to be still and listen for the two-note whistle of the chickadee, the buzz of the hummingbird, the hammering of a woodpecker, the cackle of a blue jay…and the joyful song of the cardinal. I rested my other hand gently upon his chest and began listening to his barely audible breaths. In my head I counted the seconds between.
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight…breath, breath.
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight…breath, breath.
Laying my head gently upon my father’s chest, I began to weep without sound… so he couldn’t hear my sorrow.
“God,” I whispered, with both my hands folded around my father’s, “Your faithful servant is ready.”
And then to him, “I love you, Papa. We’ll be okay. We will take good care of Mom. Don’t worry.” My tears fell upon his arm, but I didn’t bother to wipe them off. I thought to myself, perhaps they will become part of his skin and go with him.
Again. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight…nothing…
Nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen…still no breath.
I waited, listened, and held my own breath.
Sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty—
(But I don’t really want him to go, God.)
Twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five—
(Should I call the nurse? Wake my sister, my brother?)
Twenty-six, twenty-seven, twenty-eight, twenty-nine, thirty—
(No, please…not yet.)
Thirty-one, thirty-two, thirty-three, thirty-four, thirty-five…
Thirty-six, thirty-seven, thirty-eight, thirty-nine, forty, forty-one…and nothing.
“I’m right here, Papa,” I whisper. “I love you…love you…love you…forever…forever…forever.”

I raise my head and look back up to the highest branch of the oak tree. The bright red cardinal is still singing his song. And I promise my father and myself that I will remember…to keep singing mine.

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