On December 31st 2019, the sun low in the sky, my dead father sat in the bass section of the choir of the Adamsville United Methodist Church. He had died just two months before, thousands of miles away, but there he was at the 4pm Christmas Eve service, in a small town in Tennessee, about a hundred feet in front of me, chewing gum in church.
On Monday October 1st, at a little before 5pm, I was sitting right next to him, holding his hand in a hospital bed in my parents’ living room. I had been beside him for 36 hours, in the wide leather recliner he’d only recently traded for the bed. The setting sun spilled through the crack in the drawn curtains. Day, night it all blended into one endless era. The monotony of waiting.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the stranger. My mouth went dry. I blinked, to be sure. I squinted, caught him in a periscope of clarity. Then shook it off. Nah. I’m seeing things. I had left my glasses in my purse. I leaned over to get them.
It occurred to me that this was not so different from my hours of labor, almost two years before, waiting for my son to be born. Me, strapped to a hospital bed, my father on the recliner near me, my husband and our mothers on the pleather couch near the window as doctors and nurses and orderlies came and went, checking the beeping monitors. Over and over again. From midnight to 5pm the next day. The night became day became night again.
I mean, I knew it wasn’t really him.
(Could it be?)
Just someone who bore a strong resemblance made stronger by my blurred vision.
(I mean, it couldn’t, could it?)
Maybe not even that strong. Maybe I was looking for things like this, little miracles. I did want to come to church to connect with my father, so maybe…
The hospice nurse had come for the last time early that morning. She said “He’s in active dying now.” I ran to the kitchen, my hand over my mouth, holding the spilling wail like vomit. She followed me and let me collapse into her. She said, “Don’t be afraid. Death isn’t the enemy. Cancer is. Death is the wallflower at the dance, just waiting to be asked.” Back with my mother and sister again, she explained the final gasping and thrashing that would come – the “death throes,” she called it and I turned that phrase over and over in my mind, rhyming “throes” with woes and toes and rows and bows until the melody of “The Circle Game” was stuck in my head like tinnitus. What poetry this end was becoming.
One hand inside my purse, fishing, I looked up again at him to double check. Right then, my husband leaned over to me, our toddler son wriggling in his lap. “Are you seeing what I’m seeing? I mean, that’s your Dad up there, right?,” he whispered, and then my mother in law on the other side of me squeezed my hand and said in her thick Alabama accent, “Spitting image. Right down to the hairline. It’s a sign.”
My son stood up on my husband’s lap, pointed and said “Pop.”
I decided to not put my glasses on. To put my glasses on would be to lose him. Again.
Early that same morning at about 3am, he had woken up suddenly and thrashed about in a panic, grabbing the metal rails, trying to sit up. I was next to him in the recliner and rushed to his side. He said, “I have to go…I have to go…” I said, “Where you do have to go Dad?” He said, “I have to go down the trail.” He laid back down and said, “I’m done.”
I was the only one there to hear his last words.
The man’s jaw worked the gum hard and the way the skin of his cheek sucked in a bit as he moved the muscles around, well, it was just uncanny. His hairline, the color, the shape of his sloped nose, the softness of his blue eyes.
The service continued. Someone got up to the pulpit and read Matthew. The church sang. “Angels We Have Heard On High” and I stared ahead watching my father sing. Imagining his voice, a deep baritone, harmonizing on the “Joy oy oy oy oy” part, bobbing and leaning into me to match his phrasing with mine.
The late afternoon sun glowed orange through the shades and sent a shaft of amber over his sheeted feet. We’d turned off the oxygena while ago, but now his breathing was slowing to a quiet whisper. There was a change, a different energy had crept into the room and I knew Death was in the corner, gathering courage. I was alone with my father and, hungrily, I wondered if I could steal this moment from everyone, glad my mother was out for a short walk, glad my sister was in another room. Could I just let my father die alone with me? Could I have this to myself? But, I called to my sister in the kitchen. “It’s happening.”
The church was small. Two rows of amber pews, white walls and lofted ceiling with red cedar beams. The side walls were lined with mosaic stained glass windows. Architecturally, Methodists keep it fairly simple. They lack the gaudiness of the Catholics, all gold and white marble, overwrought statues of men and women in pain or prayer, devotional candles flickering at their feet. I liked this church with its country unpretentiousness. Nothing to distract from spirit.
The preacher was a younger woman, probably in her 30’s, which surprised me, so used to old men in long robes mumbling. The choir sat as she took the pulpit for her sermon. She started talking about the manger and Herod and a young couple on a mule travelling to a city for the census (I always forget that this was why Joseph and Mary ended up in Bethlehem), but I was barely listening. I was focused, watching my father in a stranger’s body.
He sat up suddenly with a creaking gasp and a wide-eyed stare, not seeing us, seeing something else ahead. Then, his eyes softened and I swear I saw the corners of his mouth lift to smile. He gasped again, closed his eyes, and laid his head back down.
“Away In A Manger” played as we all lined up for communion. My family, the entire pew, followed the line to the front kneelers. Not one of us knew the drill – they being Church of Christ, me being the once-Catholic. We watched the row before us kneel, and when it was our turn, we all hesitated and chose to stand, foreigners, visitors. My father was right there in front of me in the choir loft but I willed my gaze down. Bread was placed in my palm. Then, the chalice was passed and I put it to my lips. Sickly sweet grape juice, not wine. Just a symbol, not a sacrament.
We watched the adagio. His breathing stopped. His chest was still. The carteroid artery pulsed wildly out of his neck, then slowed. It was only a few seconds but it was a month, a year. He was still. We were still. Then, the artery was still and the air moved around our bodies for a moment as we held our breath.
As I sipped, I dared to look up at the man in the choir loft and saw. He was not my father. Just an old man with blue eyes and white hair and a similar face structure. He looked at me, almost as if he recognized me, and winked. The body and blood of Jesus lingering in my mouth, an aftertaste of grief, of longing, of remembering, of wishing for more time and letting go of needing any more than I got. I walked slowly back to the pew, sat in between my husband and his mother, put my hands on my son’s knee next to me and hung my head. I felt all of their hands on my back and the ache deepened into my shoulders, my gut, my legs, down to my feet and I sobbed.
I stared at his face. His closed eyes sank almost immediately into the socket bones. I wanted to witness the exact moment the spirit leaves the body. I wanted to see it, if there was anything to see. An outline, a shadow, a spectre, a flash of light. But there was nothing, really. Just a relinquishing breath as he changed from father to stranger. Skin and bones. Dust to dust. Just like that. We said no words, just let the late afternoon light creep backwards out of the room until it was dark. And then it was over.
Everyone stood. I wiped my face and joined them and took a long, deep breath. I didn’t look again at the man in the choir. I didn’t need to. I knew he wasn’t my father. It was 5pm and the service was finished. The organ began to play the familiar processional. Everyone sang. Through a cracked voice, I joined, leaning into the memory of my father’s voice, underneath mine, praying the descant, beckoning the magic of Christmas in the candlelight.
“Repeat the sounding joy
Repeat the sounding joy
Repeat repeat the sounding joy”