Death of the Patriarch
For years, I had wished for little else than success in my career. I wanted to be the best, which inevitably led to more work, more specialization, and more income. Once my father’s illness worsened, taking over his diagnosis and making decisions on treatment were second nature.
But that was not any patient agonizing in a small hospital room. At least at first, I did not make that distinction. If anything, his deterioration gave me an excuse to be busy. We did not have a strong emotional bond: I worshipped him and vice versa, but it would have never occurred to me to call him just to say Hi, and he, whenever he came to Saint Louis, found a reason to go back home ahead of schedule soon after he arrived to my house from the airport.
To make matters more complicated, my (second) marriage was in deep trouble, mostly of my own doing, and my relationship with my children was veering into the same emotionless territory that I had with my dad. I needed something to do, lest I had time to think.
As my cousin´s calls continued, people began to call to ask for progress reports, and family appeared out of nowhere to see how they could help. I forgot how many days went by, because I did not want to sleep, in case he worsened without my knowledge. I remember that the Hospice nurse provided a Fentanyl patch, because his rapid breathing led her to believe that maybe he was in some pain.
The priest came daily. When he saw that the end was near, he handed my mother a prayer book. He told her to start reading those prayers when death seemed imminent; that they would ease his transition to another life. The hardened skeptic in me bristled, but I remained silent. My mother took the book and placed it in the sick room.
The third (maybe the fourth) afternoon all those present in the house gathered in his room to pray. We read from a book, not the one that the priest had brought in. I distinctly remember that my uncle Cheo was present. I could write a book about him. A kind, gentle soul who would give you the shirt off his back. He had developed severe memory loss in the months before my father became ill.
My mother handed him the prayer book. He told us that he was a Jehova’s Witness; that he preferred to pray from the heart. I asked him to go ahead. A highly unusual set of events followed.
Uncle Cheo proceeded to deliver a ten-minute tribute to my father. This man, whom I was sure did not remember what he had eaten for breakfast, went over my father’s difficult early life, his educational accomplishments, his passion for learning and teaching, and his commitment to educate not only his children, but every other family member and student who was interested and needed help with books, or tuition, or room and board.
I was astounded. A tear trickled out of my left eye. My father was breathing faster. It seemed to me, even though I was sure that he was unconscious, that he was fighting; trying to live longer. Again, I could not understand what was going on. I had done everything that had to be done: he was on medicine; he HAD to know that further resistance was futile.
I began to cry uncontrollably. Sobbing; shaking; my head turning from one side to the other. I realized that I had to stop, but I couldn´t. Someone moved towards me to try to pat me on the back. My aunt Elma spoke.
Let him be. My tears continued, together with low moans.
“Déjalo,” she repeated. “Es su papá.”
It´s his father who is dying.
Suddenly, it came to me. That was my father. The one person in all of Creation who would have given his life for me, from the day I was born. A man whose father died when he was a child; a man who had only known duty and obligations since that time. He did not have a role model; there was no “How to Be a Father” manual for him. He did the best he could.
His breathing intensified. One of my sisters stood up and leaned over his face. In a firm tone of voice, she spoke to him.
“Está bien, papá. Puedes irte ahora. Nosotros vamos a cuidar a mamá.¨
It´s OK, dad. You can go. We will take care of mom.
My mother got the prayer book that the priest had left. She began to read, not loudly, but far louder than in a whisper. With authority and conviction. Again, my jaw dropped. The woman whose idea of Heaven was having a couple of cousins show up unexpectedly (she would turn on the music and rush to the kitchen), the botanist who spent hours on end taking care of her orchids, away from the spotlight, had taken over, and was running the show.
Almost immediately, as if on cue, my father´s respirations markedly decreased. Maybe he understood that he did not have to fight anymore. Within ten minutes I pronounced him dead. For two decades my father had relentlessly educated me. This was one fitting end result.
A deep silence overtook the room for a minute. After which, without warning, I felt as if I was being transported to another world. An indescribable essence of peace came over me. As if there was nothing that I needed to worry about, or fix, or prevent.
My sister Margarita looked at me. She had the same facial expression that I did.
“Do you feel that?”
I nodded. I did not want to talk; I wanted to hold on to this moment. My aunt spoke again.
“Es su alma. Se está yendo.”
It is his soul leaving him.
The scientist, the skeptic, the guy who had to plan and account for everything, nodded in agreement.