“Thank you, Dad,” I say to my father almost every day.
In September 2009, my sisters and I flew to our father in Florida. In the Delray Beach Hospital’s Intensive Care Unit, we watched him sleep, hooked to machines and monitors, sensor pads pasted all over. His glasses, dentures, and hearing aids lay on the bedside table. He was beyond fixing.
He woke up annoyed, tossing his head from side to side, No.
It was not supposed to be like this. He had not intended to get stuck in an artificial extension of his life. He had planned and prepaid for his trip out of the world. The bills had been paid and a large loose-leaf binder was filled with his living will, advance directives, insurance information, and paperwork on everything he owned including a prepaid cremation. For months, maybe years, he had designed and documented his smooth exit like he was leaving on a long vacation.
“It’s time,” he said from his hollow mouth, not blinking. He wanted out.
How did he come to welcome his death with outstretched arms, I wondered? Could I ever design my own dying as if it were a shining adventure? If I watched a hundred people die might I lose my fear and see death for what it really is – the last part of life – and wrap it up royally?
I need to understand this thing that separates me from my father and my daughter. To gain a closer connection to death I attend Death Cafes, grief film series, and trainings at my local Hospice center. I photograph things that have died, determined to appreciate death’s beauty.
In September 2009, the nurses at the Florida hospital’s Hospice Unit wheeled my father into the family room unconscious and finally freed from all the life-supporting paraphernalia. He lasted long enough for me to say, “Thank you, Dad.” I wanted the last words he heard to be “thank you” although I didn’t know where he’d be taking those words. As I watched him take his last breath, I made a promise to be my father’s daughter for the rest of my time.
Five years later, in his honor, I have started to fill my own loose-leaf binder.