During the last days of my father’s life, as he lay on a hospice bed in my parents’ Florida apartment, I became obsessed with the idea of taking a picture of his hand holding mine.
It was January 2008. My mother, brother and I spent these days eating, joking, nervously ministering to his needs in concert with the hospice nurses, and holding anxious vigil. My dad’s lucidity was now coming only in ebbing waves. The infection in his brain — which had started in his leg, the result of too much time spent motionless in hospital or rehab or dialysis beds for the past year — was doing soft battle with the drugs we were giving him. I was focused on his sinking face, his wide-eyed declarations, his tortured demented yells and his hands.
This feeling about his hands had begun the preceding May, on a day that started with me running around a place called Funplex, trying to enjoy the mindless distraction of my daughter Nellie’s birthday party. In the midst of the chaos, my older brother, Dave, called to tell me our dad was on his way to the emergency room, having just suffered what might have been his second heart attack in as many weeks. I left an hour before the pizza and Carvel cake arrived, as an all-too-familiar trepidation worked its way through my body.
My life had already become a balancing act of being an attentive husband and father while understanding the need — for my family and myself — to be a son. Each of my father’s emergencies felt like it could be the last, and every maddeningly slow trek from my home in New Jersey to a hospital near my parents’ apartment felt like that nightmare where you’re battling gale-force winds trying to get to an important appointment on time.
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My Father’s Hand in Mine
My family’s way of braving life’s elements has always been with dark yet warm humor. I finally made it to the hospital on that grim May day, and after spotting me in the ER, my brother announced, “Well, look who finally decided to come visit his father,” before leaning close to my dad and saying, sotto voce, “He’s late, but that’s no reason to change your will here in the hospital.”
“I would have been here earlier,” I said, “but for some reason, Dave told me the wrong hospital to go to.”
These exchanges gave my dad the highest level of fatherly pride, he being a man who frequently quoted Henny Youngman as if his words were sage. I can’t count the number of anniversaries at which my mother endured such lines as, “Forty years in love with the same woman — if my wife ever finds out, she’ll kill me.”
Dad laughed, but he was clearly, understandably not himself. As we waited for the test results, we grew antsy. By this point, my role had shifted into a caretaker’s: It was now my responsibility — my privilege — to focus on my dad, to do nothing to further frustrate him; to distract him with talk of my kids or by folding ever-smaller origami cranes, something I’ve been amusing family and friends with for 20 years.
As I stretched my arms over the metal bars of his hospital bed, I felt a light tug on my pinky and looked up to see my dad’s fingers reaching toward mine. It took a few seconds to realize he wasn’t trying to get my attention. He wanted to hold my hand, or to have me hold his.
I grabbed on softly, and we shared a look that wasn’t wistful so much as matter-of-fact. I swallowed hard, and held on tight to my father’s hand for the first time since I was a child, when doing so made me feel safe.
A Slow Decline
Hospital rooms, sadly, had become increasingly familiar settings. Each time my father was released offered hope. Mother’s Day brought the most promising gift: his return home from the hospital. But the joy was short-lived: Later that night, another heart episode recalled the EMTs and led to yet one more ambulance ride to the ER.
Dad’s ailments and treatments grew to a tally almost too high to bear: a stroke, two heart attacks, seven surgeries (three of them major) and eventually three-times-weekly dialysis. Over the months, it became impossible to reconcile this patient with the man: the rabid Yankees fan; the comedic center of every party; the accountant who could add five-figure numbers in his head; the husband, the father, the friend.
Family discussions of medical options were exhausting exercises, with lots of sighing and head shaking about the unfairness of it all. Nobody cried because none of us could quite “go there” yet. Despite it all — including an aortic valve replacement and emergency gall bladder surgery — I found myself unable to accept the idea of him dying. My sense of filial duty kicked into overdrive: I had to keep him steady and confident and live up to the trust that came with a hand placed in mine.
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With each hospital or rehab visit, there were more origami cranes to improvise out of straw wrappers or hospital menus. With pride, I’d watched him gingerly transport them from room to room, always setting them in a safe place. As I’d push him in his wheelchair, I’d promise that he’d be walking again if he tried hard enough. And walk again he did.
But despite the recoveries, the pattern continued: one step forward, two steps back. And I couldn’t silence the voice in the back of my head saying this could not go on forever. For weeks, I struggled with the need for one final connection: to tell my dad I loved him.
My father was old school. We didn’t hear those words growing up, but there was never any doubt he felt them. So when I finally spoke them, his response — “I love you too, Robs” — brought on a flutter not unlike when he took my hand. It was, at this late date, another wall quietly removed.
When Even Hope Isn’t Enough
Inevitably, the tide turned. We couldn’t even attempt humor. It was winter, and my parents were now in Florida. Somehow I managed to have a "rational" phone conversation with my father about whether or not he should have both his legs amputated (thanks to diabetes and the raging infection). When the latter spread to his brain, my brother and I rushed down to Florida. Then my father came home and hospice arrived, and we began the vigil that wouldn’t end until his passing.
(MORE: How to Stay Healthy in Spite of Diabetes)
I brought plenty of origami paper with me, hoping my colorful creations might somehow ease his pain. But the infection quickly carried him beyond our grasp. At one point, I folded a crane and placed it between his hands, and it stayed there for hours. Alone with him at one point, I took a photo of his hands while he slept uneasily, the paper bird gripped tightly between them. Later, as one day flowed into the next, I held his hand in mine and felt his soft, sure grip in a shake of gentle fraternity.
We were all in the living room late on the third day, watching the news, when I went in to check on Dad. I caught the start of a long, nearly silent exhale, followed by … nothing. All I recall now is panic; I called to my brother and mother, who walked in slowly, as if they sensed there was no longer any need to rush. The man was gone, and we sat there in silence, consumed by the shock of watching the life of a man we loved come to an end.
It would be another 40 minutes until I’d have time to be there alone with him. I had watched the color of life drain from his face, chest and hands. I took one of those hands in my own. It felt nothing like the hand of my father, bereft of the vitality it had possessed just hours before. My grip was awkward … yet I took a photo. I readjusted my position, with our hands laid out together, and took another.
The Significance of My Father's Hands
Months later, I tried to make sense of what the holding and photographing of my father's hand meant to me. I thought of all the things my father’s hands had given me over the years. On the day my wife and I were married, it was his wedding band I put on. My mom had bought him a new one for their 25th anniversary, and I had asked for his first one, explaining that that ring had always signified the word “married” to me.
There were other significant things. I realized that every once in a while, I mimic his style of gripping a steering wheel and feeding it from one hand to the other on turns. I’ve long had a habit of ripping up junk mail and placing it in a pile; I was surprised to notice, during one visit to my folks as an adult, that my dad did the same thing. And the first time an ocean wave swept me underwater, it was his sure hand that lifted me up out of harm’s way.
Still — why did I need to have these pictures of our hands together, like one last father-son umbilical connection? It wasn’t until the grief had settled, with its mysterious ability to seize one’s mind without warning, that I was able to come to some kind of understanding.
When you lose a parent, you join that exclusive club nobody wants to be a member of. And each of our reactions is completely different. I took those pictures to mark these last moments alone with my father, just as he’d marked his last time with me by quietly reaching out to hold my hand that day in the hospital. In my case, however, the photos would be my reminder that after holding on one last time, it would someday be OK to let go.