Last Words

My father passed away December 12, 2021. I laugh now, recalling his final words to me.

I don’t recall my mother’s specific last words to me before she slipped into a coma while she lay dying over a long and arduous two weeks. But I do remember the last word I heard her speak clearly, and it still sends chills down my spine when I think of it.

She said, “Lying.”

At the time my mother spoke that word, I was standing with two relatives at the other end of the long, narrow hospital room. We huddled by the window, speaking together in whispers, while the TV above Mom’s hospital bed played some banal afternoon talk show and a nurse checked her vitals. Our relatives were asking me why my older brother was not there at the hospital with my father and me, and I explained, haltingly, reluctantly, about the family problems—Mom’s addictions and sometimes violent behavior–that had resulted in my brother removing himself from all contact with our parents for nearly 20 years.

Our relatives were shocked by the details I imparted, although in no way disbelieving; they were aware of Mom’s alcoholism and had always suspected her mental illness. Saddened, they spoke of the interventions they’d have made to our troubled childhoods had they known at that time the full extent of our problems. All of this was, as I said, spoken in whispers far across the room from Mom’s hospital bed, impossible for her, even had she been awake, or the nurse caring for her to hear.

But it was just as I finished my account of Mom’s problems that she spoke up for the first time in days, clearly and forcefully uttering a single word: “Lying!”

She could not possibly have heard me, any of us, whispering so far away or over the sound of the TV. And yet she had somehow done so, and protested, proclaiming me to be a liar.

Later, a cousin who worked decades as a nurse told me that she believed many of the dying are not actually tied to their own bodies as they begin to transition to the next life, especially when in a coma; their spirits go wandering. It was likely, she explained, that Mom stood right there beside us, listening to our conversation, and incensed at its content. Her explanation seemed reasonable. How predictable, then, Mom’s response, for she never did develop the self-honesty necessary to work with her addictions or control her rage.

I had cause to think of this event a lot when my father lay dying 12 years later. Dad had slipped from hospital to care home over a tortuous six months, never quite believing that he would not go home again. Finally, as his condition deteriorated even further, we prepared to initiate hospice.

I spent much of that last weekend at his bedside in the care home. He wasn’t truly in pain, although uncomfortable. He claimed not be frightened of death, but, as he explained to his pastor, “It’s just that I’ve never done it before.”

And he worried. He worried for the welfare of his little cat, although all of us assured him that Lucy would never be homeless, never sent to a shelter. We would care for her ourselves or find her the perfect family. (We did.) He worried over my younger brother, who had endured a terribly rough patch in his life, although he was now happy and stable. He even worried that the weather reported heavy rainfall coming in, and sent us scurrying from his room to reach home before the storm broke. And he worried because I was driving to and from the care home in a car with nearly-bald tires, and urged me to get them replaced immediately.

Finally, in those last few days, after asking me time and time again to apply lidocaine patches to his aching feet, he would beg me to stroke his hair, or to hold his hand. At one point he asked for both, and I, laughing and crying, trying to stretch across his bed both ways, exclaimed, “Dad, I’m fat, but I’m not that wide!”

But on the final afternoon that I spent at his bedside, Dad mostly slept. I sat at his laptop, going over his e-mail—the e-mail that he enjoyed so much and which had provided so much of his entertainment in the final years of his life—replying to contacts with updates on his condition. And as I sat there, working quietly, he suddenly woke and demanded loudly, “Rebecca! Did you get those tires?!”

Those were my father’s last words to me. The next night, after chatting amiably with a nurse, he slipped quietly into the final sleep of death.

Months later, driving down a nearby road, I glanced over at a newly-opened tire outfitters business. And I smiled to myself and nodded.

“Yes, Daddy,” I told his lingering spirit. “Yes, I did.”

If it seems I have been publicly mourning my father in my blog posts this year, well, yes, I have. But it’s my hope that these words touch others who may be enduring grief. And if you found something helpful in this post, you might also enjoy, “Emails to Dad”, published May 4, 2022.

Emails to Dad

On a morning soon after his death, I began to email my late father, sending him messages almost daily.

My father passed away in December, 2021. His email account remained active for four months after his death, and during that time I sent him almost daily emails. When his account finally closed in April, I was shocked to realize how much I was going to miss sending those regular emails to him.

Dad Young Man_20220416_0001

You see, Dad never became very technologically competent, so his voicemail was actually set up under my voice. It was I who told callers that they had reached his number. I was also usually the person who went through his messages for him, remembering the password that he could never recall and dialing into the account; listening to each memo and noting it down; telling him who had called and what they wanted, and deleting or saving his messages.

Yet despite the fact that, after answering machines became passé, Dad could never quite get the hang of voicemail, he managed to adapt to email and even enjoyed it. He often needed help with the minutiae of his email program—adding or deleting contacts, downloading photos or videos–but Dad loved email. He received and forwarded an endless stream of jokes and cartoons and highly-opinionated articles. Never more than a “two-finger” typist, Dad was still able to initiate simple emails and transmit them (aIthough I never managed to convince him that TYPING IN ALL CAPS was considered shouting!)

Following Dad’s death, I spoke with many people who continued to call a deceased relative’s voicemail for weeks after the individual had died, until the disconnected number was transferred to a stranger. They yearned to hear their loved one’s voice again; they just wanted to say, “I love you; I miss you.” Sadly, I couldn’t do that with Dad’s voicemail. There was nothing on his recording but my own voice.

Dad’s email account, though, was another matter. It remained active, and I was in charge of it. During the six months of his final illness, I’d spent hours sitting with him in his room at the care facility, logging in to read his messages aloud to him or turning the screen so that he could see the photos and videos. I laughed with him at the jokes, and typed to his dictation the answers that he wanted to send to a few select contacts.

Now, following his passing, I was still scanning his email account daily, checking for bills and clearing out spam. Often I sat with tears trickling down my cheeks as I notified contacts who had not heard of his passing, and reminded others to remove him from their mailing lists.

And so, having access to remove my own messages, I decided one morning soon after his death to begin emailing my late father, sending him daily notes. Sometimes I merely described the events of my day, just as I might have during phone calls and emails during his life. In other communiqués, I related stories of his little great-granddaughter, occasionally even attaching a photo. I discussed painful and distressing recollections of his last months, explaining to him how much some of those memories still hurt. Remembering how much he’d enjoyed eCards, I went to my favorite site and selected a birthday card to send him. Throughout the endless weeks I spent cleaning out the home where he’d lived for 58 years, I berated him, time and time again, for leaving such a gawdawful mess for my brother and me to sort out: the decades of accumulated paperwork that had to be shredded; the dirt and disorder and disarray of all his personal property. I reminded him when my birthday rolled around, and told him about my gifts. I railed at him for his years of smoking, the vile habit that destroyed his lungs and contributed to his death. I described the two men who arrived from a museum in Evansville to collect his hundreds of hand-crafted wartime aircraft models and his library of aviation history books, delighting in their excitement at obtaining his collection.

There was something healing about those emails; something much more cathartic than merely writing a letter and then discarding or even burning it. There was a sureness, a certainty, that I was, somehow, actually conveying my words to my father there on the Other Side.

The dismay when I could no longer do that was palpable. A few days after Dad’s email account closed, I found myself utterly at a loss, bereft of this unusual but therapeutic communication.

For four months, I grieved my father with each keystroke and each press of the Send button, and I sent that grief into the ether, trusting that he was waiting somewhere, eagerly receiving each of my messages; understanding my need to communicate; and, finally, simply glad that I cared enough to remember, and to still talk to him.

If you appreciated this essay, you might also enjoy the post “My Dad Called the Japanese ‘Japs'”, which was published April 6. You can find it by scrolling below, to the Archives.