My dad died last week, from a glioblastoma. Cancerous brain tumor. Death, like childbirth, has its own elastic timeline. At hospice, all parties are allowed their dignity. When the nurses offered me a shawl, a more comfortable chair, and plied me with chocolate cake, I recognized them as a type of midwife and thought my heart would unhinge itself with gratitude. My friends took care of me, too, sitting beside me in shifts. It took days.
Dad’s last moments of consciousness were rife with Cold War intrigue, double agents, betrayals, and abduction. Glios do that, make you paranoid. The Tom Clancy subplots he supplied himself.
In late-night phone calls, the nurses explained that he was seeing shadowy figures, said his room was too crowded, and that there were skaters on the pond outside (there weren’t).
I arrived at daybreak, still in my workout clothes. At the sight of me, Dad reported there had been a plane crash, and coolly informed me that he knew I was working for “the other side.” I took his left hand, the one that still kind of worked. The other was inert, under the blanket, killed weeks ago by the tumor. They did drug him, that part was accurate. He wasn’t in pain. There weren’t any anti-submarine missiles being launched.
“I’m here,” I said, crossing my left leg under my right and settling onto the edge of the mattress. He peered at me, his eyes an intense gold under his salt and pepper brows.
“Tell me,” he struggled to get the words out. “Was it all a sham? Am I still dying?”
“Yes,” I said. He shook his head, his eyes on the move.
Hours passed. His breathing and pulse were disorderly, but his color was good. I didn’t feel like I could leave. I made calls, made arrangements for the children. My husband stopped by. Dad held court with the shadows, mouthing words with his eyes closed, his hand clenching mine.
My friend Melody arrived. She is my go-to person for waiting out unpleasant, frightening and painful experiences of unknown duration — life, in other words. Usually, we wait for babies together. For them to be born, for them to stop crying, for them to stop being sick, for them to walk, to sleep through the night. To come out of surgery. We wait for margaritas, for it to be beach season, for her EKGs to come out normal, for the maple frosted Dunkin’ Donuts. That day, we waited for my father to die.
Dad noticed Melody, identified her as ‘another fake person.’ I asked who else was around.
“Anyone we know? Celebrities? Is Bette Davis here?” He was silent.
“Come on Bob,” Melody piped up. “Who’s here with us?”
My father glared.
“I am under no obligation to tell you people anything.”
Melody cleaned out her purse, found a bottle of quick-dry nail polish. The color was “Greased Lightning”. She did her nails, then went to work on my toes, dragging a chair over to the side of the bed, where I sat, still holding my father’s hand. It was quiet, the birds busy at the feeder outside the window.
“Isn’t this a nice color?” She was bent close to my foot, my toes spread out across the knee of her jeans.
“It really is,” I answered. “I can’t believe you are spending the afternoon here.”
“Wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” she said.
“Dad,” I explained, “Melody is painting my toes even though she hates my feet.”
“It’s true,” Melody leaned closer with the brush. “Her toes are so long. Like fingers.” She cocked her head, trying to figure out how to deal with my pinkie toe, finally running the brush crosswise against the nail. She pointed it in my dad’s direction “Are you next, Bob?”
Dad started, offended. Muttered, “What else will I be subjected to?” But he was enjoying himself. Even if he had been betrayed by his government, abducted by spies, and sentenced to death, toenail polish was still taboo. There were still truths to be known. He would not be meeting his maker with feet adorned by Greased Lightning.
“Everything but the bloodhounds snapping at your rear end, right Dad?” I was quoting All About Eve, one of our favorite movies. I lowered my voice to Bette Davis’ gravelly register. “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”
The familiar words broke the spell of the tumor for a second, and Dad’s mouth opened in recognition of me, his eyes suddenly sharp, unclouded by confusion. I held his gaze and kept reciting, each line of the screenplay a reprieve from our inevitable separation. I did Celeste Holm, and how she discovered she was different from little boys; Marilyn Monroe, asking why producers all look like unhappy rabbits; and George Sanders, telling Anne Baxter she was a worthy adversary, talking to her “killer to killer.” “Champion to champion,” she corrected him. Dad hung on my every word.
One last time, we walked in that familiar landscape together, the words of the film temporarily tethering him to me. Then he blinked, and the spell broke.
“Was it all a sham? Am I still dying?”
“Yep,” I said.
It was a long vigil.