“I don’t believe that I want to see that.”
It was the end of a conversation my mom and I had about death in February 2011–more specifically being present at the moment of someone’s last breath–even more specifically being there when my dad and the love of her life–died. The inevitability we all face was rapidly approaching for him.
This was just one of the many things we talked about during that time on the hour drive up and the hour drive back from our home to the hospital where my father was “being made comfortable.” It was all that could be done given the ferocity of the pancreatic cancer that had reduced him from the vibrant man we’d known all our lives to a human who was living in only the most clinical of terms in a matter of weeks. There was little comfort to be had.
We went through the motions in this sort of grim but comforting routine–up and back, up and back–everyday for 10 days. Being that it was mid-February, we had been lucky. The Western New York weather had very been good to us.
We knew, though, that could change in an instant and my mother was quick to inform me, “If we get the horrendous snow that we get sometimes, we won’t do this trip. We’ll stay home.”
“Okay, mom monster. Whatever you think.”
On the morning of February 25, 2011 we watched great, fluffy flakes start to fall–the kind that turn wherever you are into a snow globe. It was the first weather of its kind we’d seen since I’d been home.
“Well, Katherine, we’d better hunker down for the day,” she said.
My mom has been telling me what to do my entire life but never had it seemed more important to obey her–to do as she wished– than it was over those 10 days. It had become my most important role and comfort in itself.
And so we did. We put on our slippers and turned up the heat. We had our breakfast and retired with coffee to “the drawing room” as she and my dad had done countless mornings before. She took a deep breath and remarked again about the weather and dangerous roads and other drivers and how this was best and….
….and then the phone rang.
It was a loud, house phone–a relic in this day–a curly cord with an answering machine attached.
She groaned–one of her friends, most likely, asking again when they could get together for lunch. She stood up and left the room to answer.
The international exchange of people who don’t know each other. It was not her friend.
It was very formal. I stood up and looked outside and standing in our front window..surrounded on all sides by a snowy landscape…I knew.
“Aw, Dad,”….I whispered to myself. I crossed my arms around myself.
The eleventh day.
More than 50 years he had loved her and cared for her and he had protected her.
He did it again on the eleventh day. The snow kept her home and allowed him to slip away, to rest, to actually get comfortable and to not put her through watching him go.
She had said goodbye. We all had…everyday for 10 days. We never knew when it would be the last time.
“Well,” I heard her say, “we did say we would donate his eyes.”
His eyes–the ones with the mischievous twinkle, the ones that watered when he laughed or narrowed in concentration or frustration–the ones that crinkled at the sides every time he smiled and sparkled…well…always. The ones I sometimes see in the mirror.
I snapped back…suddenly very aware that the call would soon end, she would return to the room and I would have to do….something.
The phone call ended. I heard the sound of plastic on plastic as the phone went back into the cradle, I heard the creaking of the floor boards under her feet. She rounded the corner…
“Well…” she said.
And I hugged her. It was all I could think to do and there were no words and then she said three I will never forget.
“My poor darlin’.”
She loved him. She still loves him. She will always love him. There is nothing to compare.
My dad was one of a kind.
In the days ahead, it would fall to me to write his obituary. The words that came to me then still best describe both his loss and legacy.
“He will be missed beyond measure by all those who had the great pleasure of knowing him.”
If you have a chance today…raise a glass to HLW.
In memory: Harry L. Welshofer
October 19, 1928 – February 25, 2011