A Death In Winter
I had always expected loss to be like an avalanche; an unstoppable, irrevocable weight being slammed on top of you. But when my father passed, there was no thundering white avalanche; it was a sure and steady snowfall, piling an inch at a time, slow enough that you won’t worry, but cold enough that you will notice.
He was ninety-three and bedridden. Hardly a few words managed to escape his weak lips on a regular basis. The devices surrounding him and the near constant hissing and beeping made it seem like he was more machine than human. I had moved in to take care of him in his garishly large home. About once a week or so, someone would come in to visit him. Well, visit is a generous term, a distant uncle or cousin would watch as he breathed, watched the television in front of his bed, or have the simplest of conversations. I didn’t know the people who came. They certainly sounded like they knew him, and me for that matter. I believed them. Besides, no one volunteers to be a few feet from a dying man. I didn’t volunteer. My brother and sister were just more fortunate to have occupations that granted them an unstable job of travelling, while I was fresh out of university. I didn’t complain, he was my father after all, but I’m not sure I’d want the past three years to be in any photo album.
On the night he passed, we knew several hours before that that day would be his last. I called my brother, sister, mother, his doctor of three years, and a few other friends. They arrived within a few hours. The doctor informed us that his breathing was erratic, and his blood pressure was dropping. The atmosphere around the house was sullen. None of us were crying, and there was none of the hysteria that one would expect. Occasionally, someone would walk into his bedroom and look at him. Even in his remaining time, he looked strong. His eyes were closed, but opened every so often to face whoever was in the room. His stares were sharp and conveyed his attitude: he was not going to go without spending every last second that he possibly could. His resilience in death caught the attention of the doctor too.
“Well, Mr. Desai was tough as steel for as long as I can remember, not surprising that he is now, too.”
Silence. All three of us stood stone faced, expecting a ‘however’.
“I will be here, monitoring him. I will alert you if there are any changes, or if the time has come.”
At that, my sister and brother pulled out their phones, almost in perfect synchronization, and dialed numbers into them, then glued their phones between their ears and shoulder as their hands pulled out papers and a computer respectively. In a few moments, the table adjacent to the common wall looked like a bank clerk’s desk. Still, there was no melancholy in the air. Even our mother, who normally was often prone to strong fits of emotion, was remarkably quiet. Flipping of pages, and mechanical “mmhms” were the predominant sound, along with the various hissing and whirring noises from the room that my father laid in.
No one looked in the room. I went in once, pushing past the strong uncanny valley feeling gripping my hands, and sat in one of the gray folding chairs in front of the window. My body casted a thin shadow over my father, which somehow had more life that he seemed to have.
“Twenty years ago, I would never have imagined he’d be leaving us lying on a bed in his house,” said the doctor.
“Hm?”, I asked, not quite hearing him.
“Well, it’s just that I always pictured him going out in an exercise related accident, or maybe he finally became so smart that his brain exploded. But this? This is weird.”
“You… always pictured that?”, I responded.
He gave me a knowing stare. “Yeah, exactly, I always pictured him dying, you’ve got to have your hobbies, you know?” He gave a wry smile. “You know what I mean.”
“I do,” I said. The sun behind me was starting to set, making haunting patterns of light as it bobbed and weaved through the clouds. It didn’t set all together, the sun took its time, slowly making its way through the collage of dark clouds surrounding it.
“I’m leaving after he passes. I’ll get started on the paperwork, I can probably get you the death certificate in a couple days. The mortician will come in tomorrow. You don’t need to do anything,” he said, not once looking at me.
I walked out of the room.
I can’t tell you what happened in the next thirty minutes. I can give you the broad strokes, but the minute details escape me. My mother, who had succumbed to her building grief, was holding his hand, and he seemed to recognize her soft, tear soaked skin. My siblings stood behind her and alternatively gripped her shoulders and comforted her. The doctor monitored various screens and devices, keeping a very close eye on his face. Then, like a falling glass ball, he finally broke. The monitor flatlined, and for a second there was no sound. Just the drone of the machine, like the whistle announcing the end of a football game. Then, as if someone pressed resume, my mother started sobbing. The doctor wrote some information on his pad, then walked over to me, signaling with his eyes that he needed to talk to me.
Once out the room, he said “don’t let anyone in that room till the mortician comes. The Argassi Funeral Home right?”
“Yeah, we know them.”
“No, I mean he wanted the services done by the Argassi Funeral Home right?”
“I don’t know.”
He gave me a quizzical look.
“Well, I’m pretty sure he told me. I must’ve written it down somewhere,” he said, “Well, I’ll double check, but my point remains. Until someone comes tomorrow, no one goes in that room.”
“Right,” I responded
I brought my mother out. She was as frail as I’d ever seen her. My brother and sister walked out behind me too. I locked the room as we exited.
An hour later, we were eating cold but palatable pizza on the dining table. Each person sitting a couple seats apart, and eating on paper plates. Occasionally either of my siblings would recall some memory of my now late father. We’d all nod, and give a strong nod. No one dared speak exactly about what had happened.
At the end of the night, all the paper plates in the trash can, and the pizza boxes sitting with a couple slices still remaining on the dining table, my brother came up to me. He put his arm around me.
“I’ll take her to the hotel. You relax tonight. You’ve done enough,” he said, in his lowest, most sympathetic voice.
“Hotel? What hotel?” I responded with surprise.
“I’m not sure. It’s the one near the airport. It’s about a half hour drive from here.”
“But why don’t you stay here? The bedrooms are perfectly clean, I have the maid clean it every week.”
“It’s not about cleanliness. This place…, just, I don’t know. I can’t stay here.” His eyes twitched to find an excuse.
“I’ve stayed here for three years. You can stay for one night.” My voice was rising.
“Look, I’ve already booked it. 2 beds, and there’s plenty of room for three.”
“Three? She’s coming with you too?” I pointed at my sister, who, seeing that, walked towards us.
“Well yeah, we already booked it before we came. Me, her, and mom will stay there for the night. We’ll drive back up here. Someone needs to take care of her.”
“Yeah, you’ve done enough already,” my sister chimed in.
I’m sure my face revealed more of the anger and frustration than I wanted it to, but I listened. Like I’d done most of my life, I obeyed. I heard the door shut behind me as I was clearing the boxes away from the table. They didn’t even tell me where they were going.
I didn’t want to walk into his room. Funnily enough, I still thought of it as his room, like he could stop me from entering. The white door was spotless, and the black handle showed little signs of age. The house, despite being old, was still in near pristine condition. I went back over to the dining table. Walking past it, I stubbed my toe on the tableside shelf. Despite no one else being in the house, I restrained myself from swearing.
It was a glossy brown shelf with two drawers. It looked old, but I had no way of confirming that. On top of it sat two framed pictures of my siblings and our parents. Both were nearly identical, but apparently worth separate frames. I’ve never looked good in pictures. And, this one I’d seen nearly everyday for the past three years. But somehow, there was a fleeting second where I saw the photo again for the first time, the strong arm pressing down on my shoulder, and the smile on my face, that I was surprised. I genuinely looked happy. I couldn’t’ve been more than 15, and as the youngest and shortest, I stood dead center in frame, in front of my towering father.
It’s so weird to see him smile. It’s hard to believe that death is an event that occurs presently, not an event that erases the past. I looked over at the door again. Closed still. I put down the photograph and picked up the other one. Nearly identical. I think the camera angle was slightly different, but that’s about it. My eyes were starting to burn, perhaps from the constant glare of the lights.
His hand was still on my shoulder, a firm grip with his muscles in his forearm visibly contracting. I don’t remember when this picture was taken. The air around the photograph had changed, pushing the light into my eyes at a different angle.
“He looks nothing like he did an hour ago,” I caught myself saying out loud.
I put the photograph back and walked on. I didn’t feel tired. My chest was tightening and my head felt warm. You know, that day I realized that there is a difference between knowing something and comprehending it. You can know that you’ve planted a seed for instance, but I doubt you’d comprehend the impact that the seed’s growth will have. I knew what had happened in the room twenty feet from where I stood, and little by little I was starting to comprehend it as well.
I imagine it’s numbing. It would have to be, what a cruel exit it would be if you could feel the clock ticking down. It’s not numbing to be around, though. I wasn’t in control of myself. My hands felt heavy, and unfamiliar, and again my eyes were burning, forcing me to shut them tight. I thought maybe some of the dust must’ve flown into my eyes, so I scrubbed my eyes when I realized that I’d been crying. My entire head felt warm and unstable. Some glass panel that was holding within me was starting to crack.
He wasn’t coming back. It’s unfair how all of life is incredibly uncertain, but right at the end you can revel in pure joy as you get the sweet certainty of never coming back. Maybe enjoy isn’t the right word.
Anyway, I walked as far from the room as I could. The snow fell steady in me, freezing my nerves.
I’d never realized how many photographs of my family were in the house. I guess you stop paying attention. Pictures are imperfect mirrors. The person in that photograph is you, or some version of you; long dead, but still playing an old reel. They’re also imperfect in the sense that you never get the full context. It’s a game of hangman you play, where you guess what was happening around that time. They’re all ecstatically happy too, even the sad ones.
It was numbing. I felt disconnected from my environment. At some point I must’ve broken down. The foundation of reasonableness snapped within me, and all alone, I fell to my knees. I’m sure the shift sounds sudden to you, the reader, but it was sudden to me as well. I wasn’t making decisions. I was realizing that decisions were being made. I found myself crawling back towards the door, my feet dragging through the laminated wood flooring. All alone, like a child crawling back to his parents, I inched towards the door, and rested my head against it. My body felt new and incapable. I was a shattered child kneeling on the floor, crying about something I didn’t understand.
I thought this would be my start. I didn’t need to live here anymore, I didn’t need to take care of him or this house, it would be the beginning. But it felt like the end. What do you do when the road you’ve been walking on turns to quicksand? I slammed my fists against the door in anger. Could I wash my hands of just looking out for me?
I don’t remember what I did after that, nor do I wish to document it here. Call it laziness or fear. But as I sat there with bloodied knuckles at the door behind which my late father now lay, it seems impossible to document. I succumbed, as all people do to grief. My eyes were red, and my face tear stained. There was an understanding there. I felt like I finally understood. Somehow the confusion made sense, there was sanity in the delirium. Joy pierces through the vapid haze that engulfs you, even if you don’t know it. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but to be fair, I never did. However it felt new this time: I was more alone than I was yesterday.