Written by Mark Joseph Kevlock
I watched him dying every day. He was my father. I had a mother too. And a brother and a sister. We all watched him. But not together as a family. That was too hard to take. Seeing each other’s pain. So we went in alone, each of us, and spent our time studying his decline.
He spoke when he felt like it. Most of the time he was somewhere else. Somewhere inside of himself. A place that none of us could know about or understand. He spoke to long-deceased relatives. He spoke to the dog we had when I was a child. I didn’t think he was crazy. I just thought he was going through a transition, from living to whatever comes after.
He’d been very stubborn about his death. He’d gotten ill before, been placed in nursing homes, then recovered. Just when everyone counted him out, he kept coming back home. But this time, they said, was it. Too old. Too weak. Body shutting down. Faculties waning. Everyone kept waiting for him to just give up. I knew better. Stubborn, like I said. Until the end.
“I’m not going to die,” my father said. “I’m going to get up, and walk out of here.”
I didn’t really not believe him. He sounded so sincere. They had him hooked to no machines. No tubes. No wires. Just a bed, by a window, in the middle of a winter’s day.
Each of us in the family feared, I suppose, that he would die during our “shift”. He wasn’t the type to utter last words. Or sentimental declarations. None of us were. So, what did that leave? Just waiting. Like I said.
“When he comes for me, I’ll go,” my father said.
We weren’t having a conversation at the time. We hadn’t had any conversations since they put him in here. Outside, the snow was falling. I just sat in the chair where I always sat. In the afternoons it was usually pretty noisy out in the hall. Nursing homes were a madhouse of despair. We never let people die the way they should. Then again, the decision, ultimately, wasn’t ours to make, was it? My father wanted to stay alive, so he did.
There wasn’t much left of him by the standards I had known. He wore his skeleton on the outside now. They didn’t shave him often enough. And his hands never did what he wanted them to. I could remember, only fifteen years ago, how he crawled out the attic window onto the roof of the house to repair some loose siding. More than seventy years old, three stories above the ground, he insisted on doing the job himself. Stubborn.
He stared off, like he usually did, while I sat there waiting. Then he turned toward the door and watched, as if someone had come in. He sat up a little, and pushed back some of the blankets. Then he pushed back all of the blankets. He sat up all the way, and braced his arms against the mattress, and swung his legs out toward the floor.
I didn’t know what to do. So I didn’t do anything. I didn’t speak. Because I couldn’t.
On wobbly legs my father stood up, dressed only in his pajamas, with no shoes on his feet. He lifted one arm, bent at the elbow, and took a step away from the bed. He didn’t fall. But he should have. What was it that was holding him up?
I stood up, behind him. He didn’t seem to know that I was there. He took another step toward the doorway. Then another. Then we were out in the hall. Everything seemed quieter, muffled. I stayed right behind him, in case he fell. But he didn’t fall. He kept on moving, one step at a time, down the hall. No one came running up to stop him. The people around us became peripheral, suddenly, going about their business, but distant, somehow, one step removed.
I followed my father as he passed the nurses station, as he approached the front desk. I tried to ground the moment in reality, but it refused. I should’ve stopped him. But there was no way I could.
He went past the front desk, down a corridor toward a side exit. As a security measure, none of the residents could get out without punching in a code at the door. But when my father pushed against it, the door opened.
I stayed where I was. Outside, it was snowing. The side exit led through a garden to the parking lot. My father stepped outside.
As the door closed between us, I became overwhelmed by the notion that he was still in his bed. That he must be still in his bed. I turned and ran back toward his room. When I got there, his bed was empty. I then ran back the other way. I punched in the code at the side exit and stepped out into the snow. His footprints were there, but nothing else. Then, after a moment, even they were gone.
featured in our summer 2018 issue