Cloister Commentary, Days 92-96: “Because I Could Not Stop for Death”

My dad Ron (1935-2020), me, my brother Brian

Friday, 92:

Traveled to Monett for an up-and-back visit with my parents, to limit our exposing them to virus risk. As we were leaving, my dad experienced a dizzy spell, fell to the driveway, hit his head, and briefly lost consciousness. We followed the ambulance that spirited him away to Cox South in Springfield, where he eventually landed in the neural trauma ICU after a CT scan: brain bleed. He had been on blood thinners for another health complication, which wasn’t a great situation. But the last doc we talked to before we headed home sounded cautiously optimistic. Dad had spoken to us: “I’m ok.” “Where am I?” “Oh, God.” “Jesus.” But also garbled syllables…

Saturday, 93:

At 1:15 a.m. Cox called to inform us Dad had taken a turn for the worse and would likely not last beyond Monday. Stunned, we returned to the hospital to begin a vigil. He did not regain consciousness. Calling Dad’s friends to tell them was exquisitely painful. We rotated by twos to sit by his bedside, though a few times we cheated and snuck in by five. Many readers have experienced the gradual succumbing of the unconscious by dying-gasp phases, which is among the most excruciating witnessing one can do; it was my second time. My dad was a hard-headed man, and twice conjured laughter from us out of despair by seeming to be ready to depart, drawing us together in tears and embraces–then beating death back. Finally, his exhalations faded, then stopped at around 8:45 p.m., 3:15 short of Father’s Day. Following the chaplain’s visit, we trudged out as if shackled to ball and chain, and drove home. Through it all, my mom was wondrously strong.

Sunday, 94:

We vowed this would be a buffer day: no business. Only decompressing and dealing with waves of sadness, happy memories, shock, grim humor, confusion, relief, and the agape, frightening state of being overwhelmed. We were fortunate also to enjoy waves of support, though we could not finish my cousin Jim’s made-to-order truckload of delicious biscuits and sausage gravy. We were all surprised that we were so drained we could go right to sleep: it was as if we’d been hurtling smoothly down life’s highway, the driver had stomped on the brakes, and we’d mass-exited via windshield and were airborne in a blur of forward motion, just feet above asphalt stretching out of sight.

Monday, 95:

I am a big believer in routine and ritual in times of stress, as I’ve demonstrated in earlier commentary entries. I chose to continue teaching (my peers at Stephens had offered to cover for me), and my brother and I agreed to deal with three-four post-death imperatives per day maximum, so we would also have time for self-care. I almost regretted the former choice when an NPR Tiny Desk Concert by Alicia Keys left me sobbing two minutes before class started.

We met with the funeral director and knocked out details for the service, but totally preoccupied by tragedy might not have wrestled with the coronavirus factor thoroughly enough. I knew I would be writing Dad’s obituary after the Saturday early morning phone call, but I dreaded it. I found an isolated corner in which to write, poured some Canadian courage, plunged into the task, struggled, cried, had to pee, walked down the hall to the bathroom, and happened to notice the framed commendations of my dad’s service that have been hanging on the wall for almost 20 years. I took them all off the wall and back to my cubbyhole, where they fed me the linchpin segment of the obit. By the time I was finished, I needed a cup of Twining’s Extra Bold Breakfast Tea just to relax. After dinner we had a great religious discussion that drained us enough to go to sleep immediately again.

Tuesday, 96:

Mom awakened to the impact of sudden loss. She let it all out, then recovered after embraces and shared tears. She is tough–even tougher than I thought–and though this road will be long and full of potholes (it IS Missouri), I know she’s equal to it. I awakened and realized I had neither shaved or applied deodorant since Thursday–I addressed the latter. At the funeral home, we viewed Dad’s body one last time prior to its cremation–not easy, but we were together. I tried to grade papers through the masked and unmasked friends who streamed through Mom’s door, and succeeded, though I couldn’t (as usual) go full-medieval with editing commentary. Our dear friend Hiedi continued to look after our culinary needs and offer beaming smiles, laughter, and hugs, and the highlight of my day was wandering around Dad’s fascinating and slightly insane workshop with my brother, Hiedi’s husband and our honorary brother Greg, and his son-in-law Logan. I am the opposite of a craftsman, but as I watched them wander from skillsaw to lathe to air compressor to sander, remarking on their qualities and vintage, I told them, “Dad’s lucky to have three people who know exactly how special and how unique these machines are, and how special this spot is. Some folks leave things behind only to have survivors complain, ‘What do we do with this junk?'”

I’m trying like hell to keep this commentary going. I’m nervous about the crowd coming to Thursday’s service. Dad had many friends, but these times are threatening. Folks need to be cool.

Streaming for Survivors:

For my brother Brian, who I watched the Netflix ZZ Top documentary with, but who hadn’t heard of this band, which was mentioned as a kind of influence.

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