“Celebrate more in life, even the little things. I didn’t do that enough.”
—Herman Soichi Noji
When I think about my father’s journey at the end of his life, the word that comes up is MAGIC.
There were days in which his dementia took full force, and the nurses would see a vacant man… but I knew better. He was traveling. Searching in the nooks and crannies of the earth, in the tiny spaces between our thoughts and in the fields where our ancestors play.
I knew this was a precious time. A time to touch, penetrate and heal. A time to connect with a man, whom I hardly knew: my father. As a little girl, friends would ask me what my father did for a living. My answer, “His job is to fight the monsters under his bed.”
My father struggled with his own demons of alcohol, pain and self-loathing. But little by little he grew tired from his battles, the monsters won, and I drifted away.
Visiting my dad at the nursing home was never easy. His once flushed cheeks and hearty torso were now sharp bones hiding under a sheet of thin skin, and his atrophied arms and legs bent to the side like broken branches of a tree. He no longer recognized me as his daughter. With a perplexed stare, he would refer to me as “the pretty girl” who fetched him water and nagged him to eat.
Most of the time when I left the hospital, my heart would ache, as though I had just broken up with a boyfriend. Each visit was a chapter ending, and each time, a part of me felt like it was dying — the part of me that hung onto the hope of having my father SEE me. The part of me that wanted to believe that things would change. All of it, dying. Until one day all that was left was me, naked, vulnerable and light as a feather.
It felt like a rebirth. Starting over anew. Suddenly, I saw my father with fresh eyes, a man who just wanted to be loved. So each time I saw him, that is exactly what I did. I placed my hand over his heart, caressed his head, and simply loved him unapologetically and unconditionally, over and over and over again.
A few years ago, my father made two demands:
1) That I would be next to him when he passed away
2) That he depart at 2:30 in the morning.
Such requests seemed quite ambitious, but I simply looked back at him and smiled as if to say, “Okay daddy, we’ll see what happens.”
Fast forward to the day my father boarded his rocket ship to heaven.
I’m sitting next to him in a room full of hospital noise, my head spinning as I fixate on his gentle hands. Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out, Sanford and Son plays in the room next door. Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out, Yolanda’s nurse shoes squeak in the hallway. Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in. STOP.
As if I’m violently catapulted into space, suddenly all the sounds around me come to a halt. His breath stops. Everything stops. We are weightless.
I stare at him in silence, waiting for his stiff chest to move, expecting him to start breathing again like they do in the movies. This can’t be it, right. I don’t hear the epic, booming music crescendo, the outline of his ghost soul sitting up from his body, a ray of warmth beaming on my face as his body floats up into the bright light! None of it. Nothing. Just silence.
In desperation, I lean in and press my face against his, trying hopelessly to hear any sign of breath escaping from his mouth. I want to be there with him in that space between this earth and the heavens. This is the last time we would be together in this physical form, so I savor it and hold it, and then I whisper into his ear, “I’m here daddy. You can let go now. I love you. I love you. I love you.”
And just as a newborn baby takes in the first gasp of air and cries out to announce it’s arrival, my father suddenly inhales a deep breath in, closes his eyes, and passionately exhales his final breath of life force. He departs.
His tense body settles into the soft blankets around him, and his face becomes what I can only describe as a sweet baby, peacefully asleep dreaming of his mother’s chest. With my face still pressed against his, I look up at the clock and there it is, in all its glory: Time of death, 2:30 a.m.
I don’t know how my father did it. But he declared what he wanted and achieved it: dying at 2:30 in the morning with his daughter by his side. Many people say he was very lucky to have me next to him when he passed, but in all honesty, I’m the lucky one. To have the opportunity to connect with my father in this lifetime, to get to know his heart and to love him, has been my greatest honor. I am forever changed.
What I learned from all of this is: all we ever really want is to love and be loved.
That’s it, and that’s enough. So today, I honor you, my father. I honor you for the life you lived and for the man you are. I honor you, and I love you, I love you, I love you… deeply and forever.