In a haze I boarded the plane to Texas, having purchased my ticket the night before at a special bereavement rate. I was trying to submerge the thought that it will be the last time I ever talk with my Dad.
Making my way through the airport, I felt marked, as if 'my Dad is dying' could somehow be readily obvious to strangers around me. But it wasn't. "How are you today?" "Fine, thank you." "My dad is dying and I'm traveling to talk to him for the last time" was stuck in my throat like a secret, for fear that admitting it aloud to airport personnel would rupture a swelling ache. And yet I wanted to scream it to relieve the building pressure. For those who inquired, I replied that the trip was to visit family. To keep my wits, that is what I kept telling myself too.
On the drive 'over the river and through the woods to (my children's) grandmother's house' in Kerrville, I had mixed feelings: excited to see Mom and my step-brother Dan, anxious to meet Kayetta (the step-sister I'd never met), and dreading seeing my Dad in the hospital bed delivered just days prior by hospice. The nurse had then conveyed to me over the phone that I'd better come quickly if I intended to talk with him while he was still able. Mom greeted me at the door with a hug and tears in her eyes.
He looked so gaunt. His eyes were already sunken and his lids droopy, his lips dry and his voice faint. He greeted me with a tiny smile (all he could possibly muster) and "Hello, daughter." Looking back, I wonder what crazy preparations my mom did to ensure he was awake and alert to greet me.
Throughout my life, he has always been a strong and muscular figure: a skier, even a pilot, a construction worker with a hard work ethic, and a manager and consultant. Working alongside my mother, his strong hands built the home in which he will ultimately die. It was hard for me to see him weak, shrunken and bony. I remember a time when he would swallow me whole in a too-tight bear hug, and now if I were to hug him, I fear he might snap. I caught him sleeping with his jaw agape and his body so still I had to watch his chest to ensure it continued rising and falling.
During my visit, I did enjoy running under Texas blue skies, meeting Kayetta and seeing Dan (they both have his blue eyes). We were blessed to pray with Pastor Joe (their approachable yet sharp country preacher), their small group, and my in-laws who made a special trip to see him and support us. It was my first and last gathering of the entire Robert family.
Dad's final days are being punctuated with the careful yet loving fidgeting of my mother, gentle banter with family, friends, and neighbors, and dosing of his Parkinson's meds, pain meds, and an anxiolytic which all leave him intermittently fuzzy. During his lucid times, he'd recall happy memories or give advice about life or things to do after his departure. (Don't forget to fill the propane tank, make your IRA withdrawal.) When fuzzy, he'd simply stare into space, or ponder aloud his past wrongs and the hope of Heaven. I shared with him the story I'd heard at the A&M Church about the rooms God prepares for us in Heaven, and how there MUST be a '12th Gate' in Heaven where we Aggies (home of the 12th Man tradition) will rendezvous.
Occasionally he'd let slip a pearl of truth buried in the haze of his dehydrated drugged fog. But he always recognized me, except once on the day I left him in the capable hands of my my mom, when he called me his Doctor Wife. The margins of his confusion were wispy; even amidst his perseveration, when asked he accurately described the location of his safe deposit box key (after Mom's exhaustive yet unsuccessful search). Looking back, I'm not totally sure which conversations were lucid and which were fuzzy, or maybe they somehow coexisted. Nonetheless, I will treasure this pearl: "I love my children. You will go on. I am ready to go. There is nothing more I can teach you. Fabulous daughter. I love you, daughter."
As we parted, I hugged his stiffened frame and said to him: "I love you. This will be the last time we talk. I'll meet up with you again the other side of Heaven. I'm gonna miss you. Say hi to my Camille for me. We can meet at the 12th gate."
The last thing he said to me: "I love you. I hope it is not that far."
And I to him: "I love you. Bye, Dad."
As the plane pointed north on its ascent over San Antonio tonight, I looked into the western sky toward Kerrville, which was painted flame-red in the beautiful sunset, trying to hold back tears for the sake of neighboring passengers. The sun has set on my time with him, just as it is setting on his life on this earth.
Dad, I hope it is not that far either.