The Intimacy of Grief

Ellen Birkett - Louisville, Kentucky
Entered on April 27, 2009

I believe that the impending death of a loved one is an invitation to get close to them and discover them anew. When I got the phone call from my father that his prostate cancer had metastasized to the bone I was afraid and sad. I remembered the death of my father-in-law from cancer and the unique combination of powerlessness and a sense of urgency that comes with a short prognosis. I was determined that I wouldn’t let my fear stand between me and my father. I went to see him that day and wrapped my arms around him. I sat with him as he processed the news and offered my hand to hold and a listening ear. Following the Hospice philosophy that death is part of life, I began asking him what he wanted out of this final, important experience. In the two months he had between diagnosis and death, we talked about his life and how he wanted his memorial to go. Much of our time was taken up with daily concerns, from finding something appealing for him to eat (early on this was spaghetti and chocolate cake, later it was oatmeal and hot tea) to watching Rod Blagoavitch make a spectacle of himself on CNN. My father and I shared a passion for writing. I spent hours reading him chapters from his latest novel. He asked that I read my own work and offered suggestions. He had me take writing books from his bookshelf. During those hours, he wasn’t the guy with cancer. He was John, the father, the writer, the teacher. I asked myself why we hadn’t shared our work before. The truth was that his illness created a magic circle of time that was untouched by the demands of daily life. There was simply nothing more important than spending that time with Dad. As he got sicker and couldn’t hold a book or magazine, I read him profiles from the New Yorker that ranged from an exhaustive look at the writing of Ian McEwan to a the story of the Van Dykes, a radical lesbian group that traveled the country in a van. We shared laughter and tears. I watched his unflagging courage and witnessed his physical deterioration. Through it all, I stayed by his side no matter how hard it was to witness. On his last day, my sisters and I were all there together (not taking our usual shifts). We read him the Dutch lullaby Wyken, Blinken and Nod that he’d read to us in childhood. We stroked his hair and whispered “I love you” in his ear. We watched his labored breathing, breathed with him and finally saw him draw his final breath. When he was gone, we stood in a circle around his bedside with the Hospice chaplain as she read a poem in his honor. Helping him through his last phase of his life will always be one of the most painful, beautiful, meaningful experiences of my life.