“I need to see Dad,” I said to Mom. I stood in my parents’ bedroom. My mother’s clothes were strewn on the floor and the bed was unmade.
“I’m in a hurry, Elaine. I have to get to the hospital.”
“I know,” I said. “Take me with you. I want to see Dad. He’s MY dad.”
“Elaine, he’s too sick. You’re too young.”
“You’re wrong. I’m fourteen. Let me come with you.”
We’d had this exchange for weeks. She hadn’t budged.
“Mom, he’s my dad. Don’t keep me from seeing him.” She looked at me with tired exasperated eyes and sighed.
“OK,” she said. “Get dressed. We have to go.”
I ran to my bedroom to change clothes. My heart thumped. Yes, she said yes. Oh no, she said yes. Did I really want to see Dad? My big brother Jim said he was dying? Did I want to see dying? I couldn’t back out after getting my way.
“Come hug me,” Dad whispered as he patted the white sheets of his hospital bed. He was bloated from kidney failure and barely moved, but his eyes were clear and gentle with love. I couldn’t reach him through machines and IV lines, so I crawled on the bed and put my head on his shoulder. He put his hand over my hand, the one I laid on his chest. Tears rolled down my cheeks, first a drip then the threat of a flood.
How could I cry? My father was dying. Mom didn’t want me to make a scene. I wanted to be grown up and calm. My mother and brother didn’t cry. Everything was wrong. I was wrong.
I quickly scooted under the IV lines to the end of the bed. The door, my escape hatch, was only a few steps away. Did I say I love you? Did I say I’m sorry? I only remember the rush to run out the door before I drenched Dad with tears.
As an adult, I know he didn’t mind my tears. I’d seen him weep over his coming death many times. He’d been sick twelve years and knew death was near. He was ready to die, but I didn’t understand.
As an adult, I know he was too weak to help me, too weak to say it’s OK, too weak to pull me close and comfort me. I know that’s what he would have done if he had the strength.
As an adult, I know I could have stayed and wept as I hugged him, but I needed help to say goodbye. In 1959, children were excluded from the death process. No one understood there is something worse than witnessing illness and losing a parent. There is not saying goodbye and not having a chance to say I love you.
There were no instructions and no end-of-life plans. There was no hospice and there were no therapists. No adults supported my decision or helped me through. I’m still grateful I insisted on going to the hospital. Once there, I did the best I could. We all did.
I learned the lesson of a lifetime as a girl and never ran from death again. Still, so many years later, I wish I could have stayed.