Saying goodbye to the dying without expectation

looking at daddy

The living place pressures upon the dying—even if both are unaware of the dynamics of this dance while it is occurring.

So many times I walked into my father’s hospital room and at the times he was awake and aware, I wore “Expectations” as a heavy cloak. Oh, at the time, I didn’t recognize this state of Expectation. This hanging in mid-air with the thought he’d somehow catch me in his arms and hold me close and say, “It’s all going to be okay.” After all, he’s a daddy, right? And I’m a daughter, right? That is how it should be, right?

I thought we’d look at each other and in our eyes were all our years behind us that we’d share some secret laughs and cries about, but we’d forget the regrets and hurts. And then our eyes would change slightly and all the years ahead of us that we weren’t going to ever have again would display as poignant gleaming but no tears allowed to fall, for that would be too much too much—my father and I, eye to eye, heart to heart, moment to moment, together, one person for just that speck of time as we communicated through time and space our Last together.

I didn’t get what I wanted. Instead, my father went about the business of his dying in his own way. I couldn’t understand all those ways, and at times I was shamed at my frustration, my restless standing by his bedside, searching him out, waiting, watching for The Moment—you know, like in the movies, right? Where there is this struggle between how things were but as the final moments slip away, there is the connection and all is understood and there is some kind of resolution that has the audience dabbing their eyes, and then the death arrives but the connection has been made, so there is no Expectation lingering.

But Real Life isn’t always like the movies, now is it? Real life brings us surprises and tosses and turns and slaps and disappointments along with the wonders and beauties.

My father had his own Expectations and needs and desires and struggles at his end. Perhaps he didn’t see the need for that Last Connection I so sought. Perhaps he thought we were done, that we’d had our say, that we were just fine. Perhaps he knew I’d be okay. Perhaps he was unaware of everything but the need to breathe and Stay until he knew there was no staying—and then, it was a private thing between him and death. Perhaps he was remembering his youth and how strong he was. Or, perhaps he gave the eye to eye to the one who needed it the more.

Just as in life, there are things we children seek that we may never find. We can always be that little child staring up at our fathers, waiting for them to heal the wound on our knee, and they, well, they can’t see the scraped knee, for they are too tall, and their eyes are on other things—non-fatherly things, bigger things, things that have nothing to do with something that is so large and complex to us while invisible or tiny to them.

Once we brought him home, I held his hand almost continually at that last of his life, afraid to leave his beside, keeping a finger on his pulse, whispering everything I had to say into his ear, believing he heard me, seeking out the resolution I so craved. I also slept by his side the night before he died, finger glued to pulse, thinking he may awake, suddenly turn to me and tell me everything I needed to hear—even if I didn’t know just what that would be.

He didn’t wake. It was a one-way conversation. He slipped away and no holding onto his hand would keep him with me. No Expectations would hold him to the earth.

It was only in my at last facing this Expectation that I was able to let it go. Let him go. Let him be who he was in his life and in his death. The dying did not change him, and why would I expect it to be so? He was the man he’d always been. He loved me, and was proud of me, and really, after all, was there a need for that eye to eye moment of poignancy, of saying goodbye in the way I Expected? Instead, there is only the letting go by accepting what is and ever was between my father and me.

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