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No moment between life and death

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We are in Charlottesville this week. We traveled down on a Thursday, making the nine-hour drive with our hearts in our throats. Would we get here in time? My father was dying. In truth, it’s been a long goodbye. Lewy Body Dementia has been overtaking his body for a decade or so. But this was the final goodbye for sure. And I wanted to be there, to be sure that I said all the things I had to say. Our trip was delayed by a couple of days already because I had a kidney infection and was too sick to travel. On the third day, despite no improvement, we traveled anyway. And I walked into that room feeling faint and wobbly and so glad to have made it.

I told my father all the things I ever wanted to say. They spilled out in a torrent, probably because I had rehearsed them over and over in my feverish head all the way from central Connecticut to central Virginia. He was unable to speak. I knew that would be the case, but I also knew he could hear me. He kept moving his head in my direction. He furrowed his brow and squeezed his eyes. A tear rolled down his cheek. He opened one eye. And once, he managed a sound. He knew.

The entire time I was there, I was acutely aware of the possibility of being in a particular moment. There is no moment between life and death. There is no space of time that is the bridge. One is either in the moment before death, or in the moment after death. We lived from Thursday to Sunday evening in the moment before death, knowing that the status would change with a single breath.

My sister arrived Saturday. We had time with him together in that room, just the three of us. It is time I will treasure for the rest of my life. And then we went to dinner. The staff had encouraged us to come and to leave, to offer him space without people in addition to companionship.

By Sunday morning, my life had fallen into a bit of a pattern: go see him, leave him, go back and see him again. My husband and I had our two youngest girls with us, and they both were able to tell him how much they love him and to say goodbye several times over the days we spent there. My sister was leaving to head home on Sunday morning, so she took a few extra minutes by herself before we all left together. My daughter, Sarah, asked to go back in to say one more thing, but I held her so that my sister had some moments alone. Sarah was agreeable and said she’d tell him when we returned before Mass Sunday evening. I wish I thought that through a little better.

In the times we visited after the first time, I never offered the same flood of words I offered when we were alone on Thursday, but I was there and I think he knew I was there. My dad was philosophical and he loved deep conversations. We had many such conversations. He didn’t leave things unsaid. Sometimes, it made me squirm; I didn’t really care to hear everything inside his head. But I see now how he modeled for me the importance of being aware that there is no moment between life and death. There is just the moment to say the things you need someone to hear and the moment when it is too late this side of heaven.

When we returned Sunday evening, he had just died. I am grateful beyond words to have nearly no regrets where my relationship with my father is concerned. It is one of forgiveness and reconciliation and unconditional love. But I will forever regret not taking a moment to let Sarah go back and tell her grandfather that she is learning to play the piano. There is no moment between life and death for any of us. If there is breath, this is the only moment you have. Take the moment.

Foss, whose website is takeupandread.org, writes from Connecticut.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021

@elizabethfoss