My father, dying, held out two days to say goodbye to Tommy and Karolyn Burkett, returning as quickly as they could from England. Dad had managed farewells to just about everyone else: his other close friends, the family members calling from Chicago, and the handful of us gathered in the hospital—and the doctors had stopped all care but pain management. He had to work to stay lucid, and the effort showed. It was, as the ominous term goes, “the time.” Still, he lingered. He had one more thing to do.
When you first hear “lymphoma,” you learn the odds of surviving for six months, one year, five years or longer. You learn, hand in hand with the science of your doom, that you’re allowed to have hope, that others with the diagnosis have returned to their lives, able, for a time again, to ignore mortality. We exhausted our allowance of hope quickly, though; a first round of chemo tore holes in his large intestine, and a second was too weak to touch the growing mass. Dad spent his last several days in a hospital bed laughing at old family stories, smiling at my sister-in-law’s bulging pregnant belly, and appreciating messages from friends. Then Tommy and Karolyn arrived, directly from the airport, and he smiled into one last goodbye.
Not long after the funeral, when my grief tried on one emotion after another, I wondered whether Dad might have held out even longer. If it was a matter of willing himself to live long enough to see a good friend, then why not, I asked, sustain himself five months to see my nephew born. Why not, as Dylan Thomas called to his own father, “rage against the dying of the light” and grab every moment?
I recognized the logical fallacy, of course: increment does not imply eternity. Something in the spirit may call on a final reservoir of strength, but neither the spirit nor that strength is limitless. Dad willed himself to those extra days because he saw the clear goal of seeing his friend. That extended time resurrected the hope of even more time, but the calculus of cancer made a lie of such arithmetic.
When the Burketts did arrive, Tommy managed a calm “How are you conversation” and, as it ended, leaned in for a hug-like farewell with a few, mostly hidden tears. Dad stayed conscious another several hours. Then he lapsed, and then his body forgot itself. He’d held himself up a moment to see to one last thing, and then he was gone.
Dying, he reminded me: There is this to do, and then this. And then, though love clamor at both sides of the closing gate, there is not.
IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Thomas