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.