My father’s eyes are mostly closed now. There will be no more feeding ducks, no more walks outside, no more jokes about racing through the puddles in his wheelchair. When he wakes, the sparkling brown of his eyes now ringed with a cloudy blue, are the color of confusion.
He scans the room for people he recognizes. Who are you, he asks with his eyes. He doesn’t say the words. He just stares.
“You’re okay dad,” I say to him. “You’re okay.”
Mostly, I am praying he doesn’t feel afraid. I whisper in his ear, bless him with the peace that passes all understanding. He is deep beneath purple layers of consciousness, not able to lift his head above the water.
I stroke his arm, memorizing the feel of his hand in mine.
“I’m here,” I say to him.
He closes his eyes and slips beneath the water again.
I hold my breath, squeeze his hand. Even with his eyes closed, he holds on tight.
Yesterday, Lance arrived. Is it too late?
Lance is, to us all, a brother, a son. He’s flown in from San Francisco. I wish for my father a moment of lucidity, to feel the love for him in the room. We are all here, faces from my childhood, from the days of my father’s strong hands, his four-wheel drive truck, his crazy jokes.
I hope he feels the love in this room for just one moment. One moment would be enough. None of us knew how fast this change would come, blowing in like a strong wind across the water – out of nowhere.
My father sleeps.
Lance is the bearer of music, of laughter, of a thousand memories of sing-a-longs by the piano, all the way from the land of our youth.
“I’ve arranged for you to play the piano for us in the hospice lounge,” I’d said to him from a distance, just days before, grasping for a way to conjure up the magic of years already spent. “Bring your music!” I’d said, with a little too much invested in it.
And of course he does. Lance brings his music. At the time I imagined laughter and rousing Billy Joel lyrics thumping from the piano, all of us together, stomping up a few good choruses, one last time.
But this morning, my father is deep underneath, in a muted world of his own. Even when I reach for him, he’s not strong enough to reach back. How is it this happened so quickly?
And then – when I resign myself to the truth that he will probably not leave his bed again – he brightens. He asks to sit up a little. His eyes focus. He smiles at us all in the room.
“Holy moly,” he says, surprised to see us all there, taking it all in. He smiles and rests his head back, not to sleep, but to take it all in.
“We’re all here,” I say to him. He nods and smiles, understanding. People talk, he responds, even throws out a joke or two. He has come up, lifted his head from the silent purple world. When I see he is truly with us, awake in a way I haven’t seen for days, I ask him gently:
“We were thinking you might like to hear a few songs on the piano. Would you like that or would you rather rest?”
“I’d like that,” he says. But I’m not sure he means it, so I let him sit for a while.
“Do you think you’d like to hear some music?” I say.
“Of course,” he says, and wonders why I am asking him again.
I’m not sure he’s strong enough to even sit in the wheelchair but he wants to try. The nurses come to help him. It takes all his strength just to be moved from the bed. I second-guess myself. Is this my own selfishness, wanting him to be with us as he used to be? His eyes are clouded, he breathes heavily, he shivers. Is he doing this for me?
I wheel him slowly down the hallway to the lounge. Lance is already there with my cousin, Lorri, and her husband Brian. Mostly my father is busy blinking, taking in the new surrounds. His hands shake. He’s not distressed but confused. This was probably a mistake.
“Where would you like me to park you?” I say to him, gently. He points to a corner across from the piano. I’m not sure he knows where he is.
And I see what I know then, I was longing for: my father’s smile.
The music fills the room.
Lance sings. His voice calms my father.
Lorri and I chime in awkwardly with a few lyrics we remember. But Billy Joel lights the place up. I join Lance to stand by the piano and watch for my father’s eyes. The joy of music fills us all. I pretend I’m not crying, hoping my father can’t see. I keep singing because we’re all here, we’re present together in this music as we will never be again.
Sing us a song you’re the Piano Man….
Then I see it. He’s crying. I rush to him and crouch by his chair.
“Is this too much? Do you want to go back?” I say to him. What have I done?
“No, no…” he shakes his head, his tears are somehow happy, sacred even. He is with us in the midst of this music, fully alive on the earth.
“Are you okay?” I ask him.
Sing us a song tonight…
My father weeps but he’s smiling. He is aware now that this moment is a gift. That he is dying. That this is a treasure we will never share again.
Cause we’re all in the mood for a memory….
He looks down at me crouching beside his chair, looking up into his face. Even though I know I should, I can’t stop myself from crying. The music is loud and fills the space.
Then he says to me the words I will remember forever:
“I don’t suppose…” he says carefully, “you’d want to dance with me?” He smiles, tilts his head to the side, with a strange mix of sorrow and joy, knowing it’s impossible.
“Dad,” I say, “if I could, I would dance with you forever.”
So because we cannot dance, I lay my head on his lap like a child and feel the music in the room. He pats my head and lets me cry.
“This is a hard one to take, isn’t it?” he says then, tears flowing like a mountain spring.
“It sure is,” I say, falling underneath the spell of the music, seeking the strength of my father for this one last moment, drinking in the comfort he offers me.
The music plays on and we swim in the memories.
Dancing, if only in our minds, and singing as if there was no tomorrow.