When my mother finally died the long death she never wanted to talk about, I had a moment. Alone in her apartment the night after she died, I walked into the little dressing closet to the side of her bedroom, looking around at her things.
There was the shelf of photo albums she’d assembled, sitting high on one wall. There was a shelf with other books in there. Her robes and house dresses hung on a rod on the opposite wall. The tiny room smelled of the powder she dusted herself with, it smelled like her. I stood there suddenly unable to take my next breath.
I never had a moment like that in connection with my father’s death. On the drive back to the hospital in the early morning hours of that last night of his life, I felt my throat close up slightly as I waited for a light to change near the hospital. I felt close to tears. The feeling passed quickly and was replaced by the feeling that I had a duty to do and needed to be calm and centered to do it.
It makes sense, though, the difference in the intensity of the pain I felt. I was much closer with my mother than I’d been with my father. My father had never told me how much my first cousin Ann smelled like me, as my mother had. My father and I were not aware of each other’s smells, except for the bad ones.
I was always surprised whenever I noticed the color of my father’s eyes, which I noted for the last time before I closed them forever. They were the color of a cold northern sea, somewhere between green and grey. Or they were a pale hazel color, close to the color of the bullrushes of a salt marsh as the cool weather descends. It was hard to tell, since the eyes were rarely shown directly to anyone, were apt to shift away at times you might have otherwise noticed their color and they were always displayed behind the thick glasses that corrected his 20-400 vision.
I can remember my mother’s eyes very well, they were dark like mine and my sister’s. I remember her many facial expressions. I remember the way she smelled, even now. I think of my father’s eyes, and their elusive color, and I recall the thought that drifted away as I fell asleep last night. It was about the difficulty of ever truly putting yourself in another person’s place.
I had entered my father’s death chamber in the way I’d learned was right: like I was entering a holy place, a temple. In the opening of How We Die, the author, Eli’s first cousin on his mother’s side, mentioned this, and the feeling of reverence one should have approaching a person close to death. The time and place were all about my father leaving this world, and, whatever my issues, I was on hand to help him however I could.
We were both aware that he was dying, though neither of us knew the exact moment, but the clock was ticking loudly and his voice was getting weaker and weaker. He had waited up for me, hoping I’d arrive for this last conversation. He’d told me earlier the day before that he wanted to talk to me, that he was still gathering his thoughts. This was the time for that talk.
At one point, underscoring some difficult thing he was trying to express, he said that he’d never expected to find himself here. The reference threw me for a second, I had a hard time making the connection.
“Find yourself where?” I asked.
“You know, where I am now,” he said weakly, gesturing around him at the room, the tube draining ugly fluid from his body, the machines counting his bodily functions. The most obvious point in the world, you know?