Ignoring the Wisdom of the Universe...And Doing the Right Thing Anyway

Yesterday I was clearly delusional.

For some reason it made sense to me to drive 200 miles from New Bern to Greensboro, despite the fact that my father was rapidly worsening and most probably really dying this time.

He's hardly eating. His breathing is labored and his kidneys are shutting down. And I think I can leave town and go to work for 2 days and he'll still be there when I return?

The little voice inside my gut said, "Idiot!"

When I didn't listen to my instincts, the Universe decided to intervene. Torrential rains. Lightning. Flash flooding. Did I listen then?

Nope. That just made me stop at McDonald's for comfort food. I mean, if you're about to die in Noah's Ark, The Sequel, a Quarter Pounder with Cheese is just what you need to have in your right hand while you hydroplane.

The hospice nurse calls. She's away at a conference and won't be back until tomorrow. She's worried she won't make it back in time, but I think I've got all the time in the world.

"I don't know why I'm doing this," I tell her. "I just feel like I need to tag home base and then turn right back around...Only I should go to work. I've got patients who need me."

"Maybe you just need a break," Sharon says. "You've been on duty so much."

I feel like a coward. I remember my best friend's death. I was 23 and terrified, but I hung in there, sitting by her bedside, listening when her husband and sons couldn't allow her to say goodbye. And then, for no reason I could understand, I'd up and disappear for two days at a time. I would flee to my little house in the country, burrow down under my covers and "forget" that Hazel was dying.

At the very end, I was there. Her husband was in the waiting room crying "I can't go in there! I can't handle it!" One son was standing, stone-faced at the far end of her hospital room while the other whined over the phone, "Are you really sure she's dying this time? I mean, People keep saying she's dying and she doesn't and well, I'm at the Columbia tennis semi-finals and..."

I promised myself I would kill him as soon as his mother was gone.

And then I called Dad.

"I'm scared," I told him. "I've never seen anyone die. I don't know what to do. I don't know what's going to happen. What if I can't do it?"

I told him that one of my friends said helping someone die unafraid and at peace was the greatest gift one friend could give to another. I believed this, but knowing that didn't make my promise any easier to keep.

Dad listened. He didn't try and take the fear away. He didn't make my decision into a moral value of my self-worth as Hazel's friend. He just said, "I know you're scared but you can do this."

I walked back into the room where this woman who was a second mom to me lay in a coma. Her two oldest friends, both nurses, were on either side of her, holding her in their arms. They beckoned me close. "Tell her it's okay to go now," Louise said. "She needs to know it's all right."

But Hazel always was stubborn. She waited, skating on the brink of death, until her spoiled eldest son arrived. Her respirations were down to only a few breaths per minute. Her heart was slowly stopping. She had been in a coma for two days. And yet, less than a minute after Phillip arrived, she opened her eyes, raised up and looked around the room at the assembled group of friends and family.

"I love you," she said. And died.

Twenty-seven years later, I am on the road again, running away from my father's bedside. And even this memory of Hazel is not enough to stop me.

"You just need a good night's sleep," Sharon tells me.

She obviously doesn't know my snoring, up-at-all-hours dogs.

The Universe is very patient with me and decides to try again. This time in the form of Rose, one of my former nursing home patients who's made it out and now lives with her daughter.

Rose grew up in South Boston. She got married when she was 15 and had a very hard life. Her husband was her sole beacon of hope. When he died, he broke her heart...And pissed her off big time.

Four years later, Rose finally saved up enough money to rent four vans and cart her children and herself back to Boston to bury the man's ashes. "We're a big family, Nance," she explained. "There wasn't one of us under 350 pounds at the time. That's why it took so many vans."

Rose pulled out a photo album and had me turn to the last page. It was a photograph of a card table covered in a paper "Bon Voyage" tablecloth. The table was sitting on a lush, green square of grass. A sheet cake with a picture of an ocean-liner and the words "Have a Great Trip!" sat in the center of the table. A skinny rectangular object flanked the cake's right side while a small bottle stood on its left.

"I told that son of a bitch, if you die and leave me first, I'm gonna pay you back! I'm gonna bury you with the TV remote only I ain't gonna put no batteries in it. And I'm gonna put in a bingo dauber only I ain't gonna put no ink in it! That Russ loved his bingo!"

Rose knows the importance of love. She knows how to be fully present in the important moments of her life. She also loves the buddies she left behind at the nursing home.

She called when I was halfway to Greensboro.

"You're driving home? What the hell for? What's the matter with you! You don't gotta see them people in the nursing home! They know you'll be back and they sure as hell ain't goin' nowhere! Your father needs you, Nancy. Them others, they'll understand, and if they don't, the hell with 'em!"

But I am too tired now to turn around.

I come home, crawl into bed with my four dogs and lie awake most of the night, listening to what sounds like four tiny lawnmowers.

In the morning I am exhausted. I see my morning patients and call my sister every hour...Until she tells me to leave her alone. "He's stable. He's just sleeping."

I eat lunch with Marti who is having her own personal hellish breakdown.

"Why are you here, Nance? What are you waiting for?"

And suddenly it comes to me...The answer.

I just want to hold my boys, even if it's just for a moment. I need to feel them in my arms and feel their arms around me. I need to touch my home base, feel the reality of that love anchoring me to what will remain after my father is gone.

As I drive off I carry their love in my heart like a lucky coin in my pocket. Borrowing the strength I need from a well that has been filled to overflowing by each generation. My father lives in my boys and in me. Losing his physical presence can't take that away.

I needed to come home so I could remember this. I needed to feel this love wrapped around my shoulders.

Only then could I walk back into the room where I sit now...letting my father go.

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