On April 28th, my father lost a short battle with cancer.
To be honest, it wasn't much of a battle. Dad spent five of his last six weeks in the hospital and in rehab being treated for a persistent pneumonia that taxed his ability to breathe. He kept insisting that he didn't have pneumonia ("I've had pneumonia before. This doesn't feel like pneumonia.") and he was right. Over that brief five week period, pneumonia became pleurisy and, after two procedures, pleurisy became cancer. The oncologist was very kind but the only words that mattered were "very advanced", "aggressive", "untreatable" and "life-ending". She gave him six months ("maybe") and Dad got what he wanted all along: he got to go home.
Hospice set up the bed and the commode, they brought the wheelchair and the walker and the oxygen machine and my father took up residence in the living room. The living room was a television free zone, but we made an exception, ran the cable and gave him his Jeopardy and Law & Order. In the corner stood a small oxygen tank on a cart. We saw it as a way of taking him to a restaurant or the movies; Hospice saw it as back-up in case the power went out.
Dad came home on Good Friday. Because of various obligations (my nephew had to get back to college…I, and my branch of the family, lived 200 miles away and had to drive home) Easter Sunday was celebrated on Saturday. We prepared the classic Italian meal piling more food than humans were meant to eat at one sitting at one table. A little later, my nephew sat with his grandfather and shared a scotch. To be clear, my father has craved a scotch - and the doctors have said "no!" - for a good many years. He even asked the hospital nurses to bring him a drink. That last glass of Pinch gave him one of his last, cherished memories. I watched him sip his favorite amber liquor and smile. He even smacked his lips when he was done and, as was his way, sucked the ice cubes. Not one drop of Highland whiskey would be wasted.
The tribe said their goodbyes on Easter Sunday and we drove back to Lake George and Bolton Landing. On Monday, the phone calls started. "Dad can't get out of bed." "Dad is breathing too quickly." "Dad's not eating." "Dad can't talk." By Wednesday I knew I had to go back. It was a decision I had been avoiding. If I didn't go back, he wouldn't die. I arrived at 12:10 on Thursday afternoon and he was gone at 12:20. Ten minutes after I walked through the door. Somehow, six months had become six days. The only consolation, the one humans cling to, is that he passed peacefully.
Over the mantle is a photo that he loved. It was taken on the occasion of my Mother's eightieth birthday and, from time to time, he would point to that portrait and exclaim, "I really like that picture!" He wouldn't always remember when it was taken or where we were at the time (memory was no longer his strong suit) but, somehow, he recognized that we were all together and he was proud of that. Towards the end, I used to hate his loving that photo. Eleven months ago, two of my grandchildren died and his "we were all together" hurt deeply. Two chairs were empty. And now, the patriarch's chair stood vacant but it was not the same. The sense of loss was different. It occurred to me that, at the end of his life, my Father got it right. Families change, they grow, they contract, the characters in the portrait change but the members who came before never leave. They are still there. I do not see the empty chairs when I look at that snapshot. I see Albert and Hope and Mackenzie.
It is the love we share that keeps us "all together".
Dad will always be "Poppi".
He will always have his place.