Circle of Love
A TRUE STORY
“I am here now,” I say, bending down to kiss my father’s cheek. My lips linger, taking in his grey pallor.
Here in the apartment I grew up in. Familiar pale green walls. Picture window overlooking the service road of the Long Island Expressway. Constant swish of cars. Loving faces of my parents and my brother.
Everything is the same except cancer. Its presence looms in the air like a parasite hungry to feed.
I slip off my shoes, tuck my legs under me on the flowered couch facing the TV.
Dad is in his recliner with his legs outstretched. Behind him is his organ, one of many instruments he plays by ear. His favorite is the harmonica. As a young boy in London he’d sneak into bars to play for the patrons to get a few coins thrown his way. Now, he’s in a harmonica band that performs locally. Whenever he does a solo he plays a heartfelt rendition of “To Dream the Impossible Dream.” I doubt he has the strength to play it now.
Mom sits facing him. Wavy grey hair frames her kind eyes. She looks worried, this must be so hard for her.
Dad starts to stand; mom and I both jump up.
“It’s okay,” I say, putting my arm around her shoulders and kissing the top of her head. Has shegotten shorter?
My brother and l help dad into bed. Soon mom joins him. We all say our goodnights and head into our respective rooms. My childhood bedroom is a dining room now with a single bed.
I unzip my suitcase and pull out a nightgown and my toothbrush. I change, wash up, pull back the covers and lie down. My eyes fill with tears. I should have come the minute he was diagnosed. What was I thinking? I’ve been working with a graphic artist and so close to finishing my first book. It seemed important then. It doesn’t now; it doesn’t now; it doesn’t now.
I awake in the middle of the night. I hear movement. Probably someone going the bathroom. I better check to be sure everything is okay.
Dad is in the hallway wearing his worn blue terrycloth robe; it matches his eyes which are half closed. I sense he doesn’t know what to do with himself. My heart hurts seeing him this way. I loop my arm through his. “Come on dad, you rest on the couch. I’ll lie on the floor next to you so we can hold hands.”
I adjust a pillow to put under his head and grab the blanket draped over the recliner to cover him. Then I throw one of the couch pillows on the floor for myself without bothering to get a blanket and lie on the carpet close enough to hold his hand.
A few minutes pass. His breath softens. Good, he’s asleep.
I bite the side of my check to keep from crying and tighten my grip on the hand I know so well. From the time I was little girl dad used to make a game of drying my long hair after I’d have a bath. I remember the feel of his strong thick hands rubbing my scalp with a towel. Years later when I was an adult and he was approaching eighty, we traveled through India together. Many times we shared a bed and would go to sleep holding hands. “I don’t want to let go,” I scream as loud as I can inside my head.
With my brother’s help we turn the kitchen into an apothecary shop and begin blending vegetables and green drinks for dad in the hopes of improving his condition.
“If I have to eat like this the rest of my life, I may as well die,” he says.
It quickly becomes apparent his illness is in the advanced stage. We change tactics and begin to serve his favorite foods.
Comfort is all that matters. The three of us attend to him around the clock. Neither of us eats or sleeps much ourselves.
It’s morning now. My brother gently helps dad into his recliner and puts on one of the nature shows he loves.
“Can I get you something?” I ask.
“Just come sit near me.”
I pull the green hassock close to his chair and sit down. He rests his hand on my shoulder, something he’s done all my life.
A lion stalks a gazelle on the screen; then jumps, opens his huge mouth, and sinks his sharp teeth into the back of her neck. Glad they edited out her screams. She goes limp, and he begins to feed.
My mind drifts back to the phone call. Shortly before I arrived, my mother and brother asked me if I thought we should tell dad he is dying. I’ll never have a more painful decision; I felt he had the right to know.
Just realized something. I’ve been so focused on dad’s physical comfort; I haven’t give much thought to his emotions. I wonder how he feels, if he’s afraid of dying?
The commercial comes on. Dad mutes the volume.
What can I say to soothe him? What do I know about death?
“Dad, when your time comes you will see your mother and father and all the people you love again.”
He turns to face me. How many times have I looked into those smiling eyes?
“You may be right honey,” he says in a hoarse voice, “but my three favorite people are right here.”
I’m dying inside.
He squeezes my shoulder. The show comes back on and dad un-mutes the volume, taking us into the African jungle for a brief reprieve.
The days that follow are blurred by fatigue and disbelief as dad weakens and takes to his bed.
“Tell me again what will happen,” he says.
“You won’t be alone,” I reply.
“What do mean?”
“When you take your final breath, your soul will effortlessly disengage from your physical body and you will reclaim your original form as a soul or light body. The instant that happens all the uncertainty, discomfort, and pain you are feeling will be replaced with a wonderful sense of elation and freedom. And other souls …”
“Yes, spiritual guides will lead you home where you will be reunited with your loved ones. They are waiting for you now. But you’re not ready yet.”
“If you say so,” says dad, sounding less skeptical and more hopeful each time he asks me to explain what will happen when he dies.
A friend overhears our conversation. “How do you know those things?” he asks.
“I didn’t until recently,” I reply. “I haven’t thought much about death before, but I felt such a strong desire to comfort my father that I began to speak, trusting that the words would come, and they did. Now, the more I talk the more I know.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s like the love I feel for my father opened a door in my awareness and I remembered what lies beyond. Maybe remembering isn’t the right word. It’s more of an understanding of the order of things. Like knowing that you and I are eternal souls aligned with human bodies, and when we depart, like my father is about to, we will also return to our real home, our celestial home. This earthly life is only temporary, much like going away to boarding school. Not sure why these insights are concealed from our human minds since our souls know all about them.”
A day passes. Dad’s not strong enough to get out of bed today. I have the feeling he is drifting between worlds. The three of us sit in chairs around his bed with piano music playing on the tape recorder.
His breath seems labored. I place my hand on his arm. It’s cold. One of the Hospice nurses told me that might happen! She said it’s a sign death is near. It’s happening now!
“Hold hands,” I say more harshly than I mean to.
I take one of dad’s hands and mom’s. My brother takes mom’s other hand and dad’s. A circle of love.
Our eyes are glued to dad’s chest as it rises and falls. Each breath seems shallower than the one before. We each call out parting words of love. It reminds me of being at a station waving goodbye to someone as their train leaves.
The air. It is as soft as a cloud. I’ve never experienced anything like this. The entire room is aglow, bathed in pink creaminess.
Dad exhales. His body deflates like a balloon. A light-filled version of him rises up out of his body and floats above it. I feel his feelings. His surprise. His awe. He is free and out of pain.
I blink and the picture changes. He is floating upwards in a tube of golden light, as if someone were shining a giant flashlight through the ceiling.
Suddenly he stops mid-flight. I look up and our eyes meet. I can see he is gripped by the sight of my mother crying.
I have to do something to help him.
“We will take care of her,” I assure him silently.
With those words he lets go of whatever hold he has and lifts upward, disappearing from view as the light envelops him.
I am immersed in silence, comforted by my glimpse of divinity. Dad is continuing his journey just as I envisioned he would.
The Neptune Society performs the cremation and provides a boat ride as part of their services. We invite about forty close friends, family, and members of his harmonica club who agree to perform on the boat.
It’s a bright sunny day. The wind picks up once we get out to sea and the boat starts to rock from side to side. I overhear a conversation between two of the harmonica players.
“Now?” asks one. “Shouldn’t we wait until they put down the anchor?”
“Hate to break it to you,” replies the other, “but they already put down the anchor. We may as well start playing.”
Some of our guests are under a covered roof; others are outside on the deck with us. My brother holds the urn. He and mom and I hold on to the rail for stability. With harmonicas playing, “To Dream the Impossible Dream,” we sprinkle my father’s ashes into the foamy blue water. He would have loved it. Some of his best memories were of the time he traveled the world as a seaman in the Merchant Marines.