“How could one person, not very big, leave an emptiness that was galaxy-wide.”
~Sheldon Vanauken, from A Severe Mercy
On Wednesday, June 6th, I walked through the emergency room with tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat. I made my way over to bed number one and immediately noticed all the loud beeping; they seemed magnified that morning. The loud sounds annoyed me and I wondered if they also annoyed my step-dad, Mahlon.
I leaned in close to Mahlon and gave him a kiss on his forehead. He opened his eyes and I said, “Papa Bear, you scared us this morning.”
Mahlon looked up at me and said, “I scared myself. I didn’t have any control over my body.”
“I know Dad. This isn’t easy. I love you so much.”
He closed his eyes and said, “I love you, too.”
A few minutes passed and Mahlon opened his eyes again and asked, “Am I dead, yet?”
My eyes filled with tears and I said, “No, Dad, you’re in the hospital. You’re safe and we love you.”
I had a feeling this might be Mahlon’s last trip to the ER and it was. Just four days later, on Sunday June 10th, 2012, we got “the call.” When the phone rang, I remember waking up and feeling disoriented and scared. Everything happened so fast and before I knew it my mom was driving us into town. I sat in the passenger seat looking out the window because I couldn’t take my eyes off the eerie half moon floating in the sky.
The next thing I knew we were pulling into a parking space at the hospital and my mom said, “Tammy, you can do this. Be brave.”
“I know I can do this, but I’m scared. I’ve never seen anyone die before.”
It’s still hard for me to believe that that my mom and I sat with Mahlon as his body slowly shut down that early Sunday morning. I remember the nurse coming into the room at 3:15 a.m. and closing the blue curtain to give us privacy. I thought, “Oh, it’s close. They know.”
I held Mahlon’s hand and gently stroked his forehead and cheeks. His cheeks were so cold and the span between his breaths kept getting longer. I kept glancing at the big white clock and noted the time between each breath—five seconds, seven, ten, fifteen, and then he took his last, long deep breath at 3.29 a.m. The clocked ticked on, yet Mahlon’s chest wasn’t moving up and down.
I stood there looking at Mahlon’s face and thought, “This can’t be real.” I felt like a zombie as I walked out to the nurse’s station. Tears were streaming down my face and I said, “I think he’s gone.”
Leslie, one of the nurses, followed us into the room and checked Mahlon’s pulse. She said the doctor would be here soon to declare the time of death. Doctor Lair came into the room soon after and checked his pulse and heart and declared the time of death to be 3:30 a.m.
We sat with Mahlon for another hour. My mom held his hand and kept saying, “Honey, it’s so hard to walk out of this room. It’s so hard to leave.”
It felt so odd to sit with him like this. He was so still and I kept expecting him to sit up and tell us that this was a big practical joke.
We left his hospital room around 4:30 a.m. and I drove my mom home. As I drove northward, the sun started to rise and there was a brilliant orange glow hitting the oak trees and the Sacramento River. My mom and I were quiet, lost in our own thoughts, and I thought to myself, There must be an art to acceptance. How are we going to process this loss and continue to hold onto hope?
this i know
Something that’s helped me process this loss and hold onto hope is an incredible book, called this i know: notes on unraveling the heart, by Susannah Conway. I’ve read a lot of amazing books this year, but I have to say this i know is one of the best books I’ve read in 2012.
I don’t say that lightly because I read a lot of books. However, I’ve read Susannah’s book twice this year and I reread certain passages the day after my dad died. It’s a book that won’t leave my library because it’s given me hope and comfort over the last few months.
As I wrote this post, I reread a few passages in my journal and on June 11th — the day after my dad died — I wrote:
I took away three lessons from Susannah’s book: 1. You never get over loss, but it gets a little bit easier to deal with as time moves on. 2. Stuffing emotions will only cause you more pain in the long-run. Talk about your feelings and use your creative energy to move through grief. 3. Use creative outlets — like writing and photography — to help you hold onto love and hope.
Over the last month, I’ve unraveled my own expectations about love, loss, and hope and I’ve held onto the lessons I noted in my journal. As Susannah says, “Unraveling is not a bad thing. It’s not coming undone or losing control. It’s letting go in the best possible way, untangling the knots that hold you back, unwrapping the gifts you’ve hidden for too long, unearthing the potential that’s always been there, finally ditching the labels and should-haves, and letting yourself be what you were always meant to be.”