Dad’s appointment with his final day on his beloved earth was just about as precise as the prognostication of a baby’s delivery date. We thought he was going to die on Sunday, then Monday, but on Tuesday morning, the doctor said Dad had stabilized and could live for a few days more. We were at the hospital and didn’t know what to do. Some of the family from California started making plans to fly home; the grand kids who were in college in the Northeast started booking train reservations. Jeanne and I headed home with our kids and had a hesitant lunch with Anthony, Alina, and their family.
At about three P.M., my sister-in-law Linda called: “Your dad is fading really fast. Hurry over here-it may already be too late.”
We bolted out the door and drove like lunatics to Suburban Hospital, four miles away.
Anthony and I burst into the hospital room, and Linda and Courtney Kennedy gave us kisses and left.
Dad had died in front of them moments prior.
Bobby, Maria, and Timmy arrived about five minutes later.
I called our local parish priest, Bill English, and asked him to come over.
We started to say the Rosary while we waited for him twenty-nine of us jammed into Dad’s hospital room. Father English arrived and led us in prayer. He then asked if anyone wanted to offer some thoughts. Timmy said a prayer of thanksgiving for Dad; others offered reminiscences, each unique to that person’s experience with Dad, each heartfelt and beautiful.
I said, “I would like to offer a prayer of thanks for all the nurses and doctors and caretakers who have helped Dad over the years, especially for Rags, his great friend. We pray to the Lord.”
And then Anthony blew us all away.
We’d all had a great relationship with Mom, though Anthony had had a particularly intense one. He was the youngest; he looked a lot like Mom’s oldest brother, Joe; and it was clear that Mom had had a huge crush on Joe growing up. Although Anthony gets credited with starting Best Buddies and growing it all over the world, he himself says Mom was his closest partner and confidante in building the organization.
“I hope that every girl in this room finds a man who respects and loves her every day in every way like Dad loved and respected and took care of Mom,” he said. It was the shortest prayer of all of them, but the one that seemed most perfect to me.
Together we all said, “Lord, hear our prayer.”
After a few minutes, family members started to stagger out of the room. Each person stopped to take one long, last look at Dad, and most then turned one last time again, as if hoping still that this was a mirage.
I faced my siblings and asked whether I should call the two funeral directors, John and Terry McHugh, who were waiting outside the hospital. I had phoned them about an hour earlier and told them to wait out front until I called again. We all agreed that it was time.
I knew that once I called, they would be there quickly, but I still found their very presence jarring-two young men, in suits, with somber looks on their faces. I was relieved to see two professionals there to help-but also repulsed by them. They were going to take Dad away from me, right? Who the hell were these guys to do such a thing?
I walked them into Dad’s hospital room. John told me that he and Terry had everything under control and that I could leave now.
But I said that I wanted to be there, to help move Dad onto the gurney they had brought and to accompany him to the hearse. John agreed. We started the process of getting Dad prepared to leave, making sure that he was free and clear of needles and tubes. We lifted him from his bed and slid him into a body bag. I watched as John zipped the bag closed.
Then the three of us wheeled him to the elevator. John suggested that we take the back elevator so that the press that had gathered out front wouldn’t see Dad being put into the hearse. As we wheeled the gurney down the hallway toward the back elevator, I suddenly saw the gurney itself as the enemy, as a malevolent force that was insistently carrying Dad away from me.
We finally arrived at the elevator and pushed the Down button. I wanted to drag the gurney back, resist, make one last stand against this impossibility.
The elevator doors opened, and John and Terry pushed the gurney inside. The wheels made a jarring sound as they crossed the steel threshold of the elevator.
John turned to me and said, “We have it covered from here, Mark. Go home and be with your family.”
I stared blankly at him, then looked down at that goddamn gurney again. That was what I called it in my head. In his final years, Dad, so devout a man, had taken to saying “goddamn it” often. But it wasn’t a curse; it was a superlative, a term of endearment. “I love you, goddamn it!” he would say at times. It was as if he knew God had a sense of humor, and with a bit of a devil-may-care epithet, he was making that humorous God complicit in his declarations of love.
In my head, I used it in the vulgar sense. I felt angry–angry that I hadn’t been there when he died, angry that he was gone, angry at the damn gurney that was so determined to have its way with his body. Angry at God.
I stepped into the elevator, too.
I stuttered, “Are you sure?”
They both nodded. They were doing their job well—they were standing firm, almost giving me orders. I relented.
I turned and walked out of the elevator, then turned back. The two of them flanked my dad, one on each side. John said, “We will take care of him. Don’t worry. Your dad was a good man.”
I looked at them. The elevator doors shut. I stared at the closed door. Numb.
I heard that phrase, “a good man,” repeating itself in my head. The accumulation of the use of this tag, this epitaph, would make it the defining description of Dad for me over the coming weeks. But the first time was the sweetest. It wasn’t too much; it wasn’t too little. John, with his boyish looks and steady voice, had said the words that enabled me to allow the doors to close on Dad’s life on earth.
Copyright © 2012 by Mark Shriver
Reprinted with permission
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