Thursday, October 22, 2009

Counting Breaths

This day would have been my dad's 86th birthday. The photo here was taken six months before he died at age 72. The cancer had already spread to his bones; he could no longer walk, but was not yet bedridden. We all knew his time was near, so we gathered to take pictures. I wanted my children, then ages three and one, to have something to remember him by. Turns out they didn't need the pictures. My dad's impish humor and his adoration of his grandchildren remain vivid for them.

I called my mom this morning and wished Daddy happy birthday to her. How blessed we were, we said, to have shared our lives with this great and wonderful man. They had been married for 46 years when he died. In my dad's last days, I wanted to capture the breathtaking love between them. So I wrote the piece that follows. This story was published in a magazine and anthologized a book, and is copyrighted. But I can't plagiarize myself, right?


It is a slow, inexorable dance. The conclusion is sure, only the interval is still in question. My father is dying. My mother refuses to lose him. Daddy has fought the internal mutiny of cells for more than a decade, and he is tired now, tired of restraining the invisible march, tired of holding his breath as the doctor shares the newest results of tissue scans, tired of yielding, again and again, to the surgeon's well-meaning knife. And he's exhausted by the way his heart aches at the lines in my mother's face, the tender grooves beside her mouth that belie the determined smile she marshals each time a visitor enters the room.

The cancer is throughout my father's body. It has penetrated the bone, infiltrated skull, ribs, pelvis, toes, and robbed his legs of their ability to propel him forward. Daddy sits in a wheelchair, gaunt, sallow, his preternaturally black hair finally going to gray. His memory skips and falters, and sometimes, in the moment that he awakens, he even thinks he can rise from his bed and walk unaided to the bathroom to perform his morning rituals. But then he tries to move his legs, lying cramped and cold under the sheets, and they betray him. Tears sting his eyes. He averts his face so that my mother won't see. For several moments, he says nothing for fear that his helplessness will cause a ripple in his voice.

I stroke his hair. "To be struck down like this..." he whispers. I just keep stroking his hair.

I worry about my mother. She's talking, walking, moving fast, obsessively focused on caring for my father from morning till night. But sometimes, her stomach knits so severely she is forced to lie still. It is the only pause she permits herself. My father watches her flurry of motion with an intimate grasp of its meaning. He is holding on, I think, waiting for her to accept that he must move on. But my mother will not give in to what she sees as defeat. God, she points out, is in their corner: Daddy will walk again. He will rebuild the muscles in his wasted legs. He will allow God's healing Spirit to storm his body and repair his wounds. He will get, if not well, then better. He cannot give up. She cannot give up.

But lately, there has been so much pain. Flaring, unendurable pain in the joints of his limbs. My mother fumbles with the medicine bottle, her twisted, arthritic fingers fighting the childproof cap. She manages to extract a huge yellow pill. She lifts my father's head, places the painkiller on his tongue and holds the water to his lips. Then she sits at his bedside, counting his breaths, praying silently for the hour it takes for the medication to take effect, for her face to grow fuzzy in his sight as merciful sleep takes hold.

Much later, when he wakes, my mother is in the kitchen preparing a meal. It is her supreme purpose to coax food into my father. She scolds and cajoles him to take feasts as large as my six-foot-two, 240-pound husband regularly consumes. My father's small frame, bird-like appetite, and nausea from the chemotherapy drugs make my mother's task difficult. He complains that he is not hungry. He rebels by pushing the food around his plate, never lifting the fork to his lips. "I am not a child!" he objects finally. "You'd think I was torturing you!" she protests. Once, watching them, I begged them not to argue. They both turned to look at me. A playful light came into my father's eyes, and my mother laughed outright. "Why do you want to begrudge us our fun?" she said. I saw Daddy's hand reach under the table to caress Mommy's knee.

Daddy's only desire, in these months of failing health, is that my mother stay near. In the mornings, when my mother tries to push out of bed to get his 6 a.m. medication and a cup of hot chocolate, he holds on to her. It is far better therapy, he insists with a flash of his old mischief, for them to lie in bed and cuddle. He chuckles as he says it, but he means it fiercely. If my mother goes out, to the grocery store or to get her hair done, my father asks me several times each hour: "Where is Mommy? Isn't she back yet?"

They have been married 46 years. Although they do not say it, they realize that the cherished 50 year mark may not be achieved. My mother will not allow melancholy. She observes that she and Daddy courted for four years before they were married. "This is our 50th year together," she tells him on the morning of their anniversary. My father's mind cavorts in the rooms of memory. His breaths grow full, his chest lifts higher. Robust recollections fill his fragile frame. His groping hand finds my mother's arthritic one and, clasping it, he brings her fingers to his lips and closes his eyes. My father sighs deeply. My mother measures his breath.


  1. What a beautifully written story. I cried.

    Has your mother read it? Such a tribute to their love.

  2. Thanks, ellen. I do miss him still. As I know you will always miss your dad. My mom did read this, but felt she couldn't share it with my dad because it said so plainly that he was dying. She was still coming to terms. Strong woman, my mom. Determined.

  3. what an achingly beautiful and loving essay, thanks. your mom is spot on the counter does start when the love starts and they had 50 years together....and many many more in memory and in heart


  4. mouse, thank you so much for reading so generously, and for the hugs!