On March 9, I looked in the mirror and saw his eyes looking back at me. I’d never noticed before how much my eyes are like his. It hurt me to see his eyes looking back at me and know they’re only mine. His eyes won’t see me anymore. A girl loves for her dad to see her. He saw each of my children. But not two of my nephews.
Why does the pressure still rise from my throat to my ears and spill out these strange eyes that sometimes feel more his than mine? It’s been five years. But these five years, he could’ve been part of my life. I needed him when our house caught fire and we had to rebuild the whole thing. I needed him to know that I would do what was best. It wasn’t that he had all these important words of advice all the time. It was that he really did think we were going to make the best choices. And when we made bad choices as teenagers, the look of surprised betrayal clouded his sky-colored eyes and he furrowed his brow.
I need him to trust me with the choices we’ve recently made to change our career. It’s a risky move, full of sacrifice and emotional turmoil, but also I know he would understand, and he wouldn’t question it. Being dead, he can’t trust me anymore. Too many times I earned his distrust but he gave it away. He turned in his proof of being right all the time. He walked away empty-handed, again expecting the best from me.
I really don’t think he expected anything unreasonable. But I have so wanted to surprise him with good. Possibly I want to deserve his expectations.
The way I’m describing him, it sounds like he was an idealist. And I guess he was an idealist in the sense that he was driven by ideals. But he was painstakingly pragmatic. He believed in eternity, and he staked all his pains on practically influencing that reality. He believed in eternity like he believed in old age. Though we can’t see it yet, it’s coming. He believed in eternity like he believed in a lake we were visiting for the first time. Having mapped it out and planned our trip with airtight detail, there was no doubt that the mass of blue on the map was going to equate to a peaceful body of water in real life. My childhood was charted with the confidence that he wouldn’t mess up something important like that.
For a man so set on eternity, watching him die was impossible. It seemed not possible. Eyes that had looked into mine for my entire existence now had no seeing behind them. Where is he? How could he not be in there? Can he see me now, from somewhere else?
He was awake on Saturday afternoon, March 7. My sister and I sang to him – I don’t even remember what we sang. Maybe “How Great Thou Art.” Why, God, did we not sing longer? Because we both had small children who couldn’t visit the Cardiac ICU, and they were too rowdy to hang out in the waiting room for long. Anyway, as we sang, he turned his eyes to look at mine. A few silent millimeters of movement and my heart filled with the communication of his love. He saw me for the last time that day.
The next morning was Sunday—both actually and symbolically it was a Sunday—March 8. I came to see him again on my own. I had another song that I wanted to share with him. Why is singing such a natural part of sending someone into the next life? I think it might be because there’s singing in heaven. It helps people get ready.
I killed a fish once because I dumped it into water that was too warm. I thought he would like it, since he was a tropical fish, a beta. And for a moment, he seemed to enjoy it, swimming around fast, very fast, so very fast until he shivered and stopped and floated to the surface, tail first. So far, I haven’t shaken the feeling that I am a terrible pet owner and will probably kill anything we get. I have also killed a lot of house plants. The point about the fish is that I learned—too late—that you have to change the temperature of their water very gradually. You’re supposed to somehow get them to swim into a little bag that you seal very tight and then you sit the bag in the water you want them to get used to. I haven’t yet tried this method for myself. But I sang to my dad when he was dying and it felt like getting him used to something new.
While I sang that song, my father’s eyes were closed, but it was a song he knew and a few tears rolled down the creases of where he laughed the most. My God, how I long to hear him laugh. I used to be really sassy at the dinner table. He would come home from work quiet and sometimes a little sullen. But I wanted to hear him laugh, so as everyone was chatting, I would throw in these punchy lines. He would laugh with surprise that I was using grown-up humor. Certainly not vulgar humor. That would’ve brought on the furrowed brow of disapproval (my siblings and I called it the “badger look.”) I wish I could think now of an example of things that would make him laugh. It never came to me ahead of time. It was the surprise and slight daring that caught him off-guard and made him laugh, sometimes loud, sometimes with relief at all the pent up seriousness of his world.
That last morning, I sang to him, “My Jesus, I Love Thee,” and I focused on getting the words right. I had memorized it by singing it to my infant daughter. That sounds really sweet, but it was when she was fussing and wouldn’t go to sleep that I ended up singing that hymn. If she went to sleep easily, I would only sing “Jesus Loves Me” and maybe “There’s Just Something About That Name.” But if she was really giving me a hard time, we’d get to “My Jesus, I Love Thee,” which has four verses, and by the time my dad was dying, she was two months old. We’d gotten to “My Jesus, I Love Thee” lots of times by then. So I knew the words, but I wanted to get it right. And I was really focusing on that, until the tears came out of his eyes. I looked up at the nurse attending him—she was always doing something with the machines or tubes or blankets. I looked up at her to share the joy that my dad could hear me singing, even though he appeared to be unconscious. And she, the nurse, was dripping with tears all down her face while she worked on the machines.
By then I’d gotten to the third verse, which I sang with a wobbly voice and my own eyes crying, blinking to see my dad this last time. “I’ll love thee in life, I will love thee in death, and praise thee as long as thou lendest me breath, and sing when the death dew lies cold on my brow, if ever I loved thee, my Jesus, ‘tis now.”
I don’t care that it’s a pitiful scene, I hold onto it. That moment was a gift to me, and I hope to him too. I hope it helped him get ready to sing. His singing is the other thing that I need him for. He and I sang together in church once. In front of everybody, just him and me. We sang, “I’d Rather Have Jesus.” And I would rather have Jesus. I truly would. But I would also like to have my dad.