by Kass Morgan
“He looks almost peaceful, lying there,” my brother said.
He did. They must have combed his hair, put some powder on his face, a bit of colour on his cheeks. His skin even glistened. He was still wearing a hospital gown. I guess they didn’t want to cart his body away without it. But naked we come into this world and naked we go out, so what would it have mattered anyway? A vestige of dignity, I suppose.
What dignity was left for him at the end? My father had always been the epitome of formality. But the cancer had eaten away at his guts, spread to his lungs. So much for reserve when you are frantically grasping for breath. So much for dignity when your bowels let go unbidden and you are relegated to wearing diapers. He was probably beyond caring by then, between the pain and the drugs he was given to keep it at bay. But I cared. I did not want to see my father naked, his private parts exposed. I left the room whenever the nursing staff had to change his diapers, to clean up the messes.
Now it was over. My brother and I were at the funeral home, making the arrangements, as they say. A tidy phrase for wrapping up an untidy end. Someone needed to identify the body, to confirm that it was indeed the body of our father, before it was cremated. Together we had gone into a back room. It was chilly in there, chilly and dim. There was a light over the place where he lay, illuminating his face, suffusing it with a glow.
Almost peaceful. I stood there looking down on him, this man whose countenance reflected a tranquility that had not been evident in his lifetime. This man who had lived as a coiled spring, a rope stretched taut, a wire ready to snap–was he able at the end to let go of all that control? I guess he had no choice. Not much you can do when your body won’t cooperate. I wondered if they would take off the hospital gown before they put him in the oven. Sounds like a loaf of bread. Had he finished rising yet?
In those last days I spent with my father, we talked, probably more than we ever had, about things we had never before discussed. Like his love for the language, for the poetry of the King James Bible. And how much he appreciated the more modern Phillips translation of the New Testament when it came out, because he could make sense of the text. He recited the words of some hymns, ones he had often sung in church as a young choirboy. He didn’t get much beyond the first verse of Abide With Me before his voice faltered:
Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide;
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me.
He was close to tears. Close, but he stopped speaking before he actually cried. I had never seen my father cry. But he couldn’t have been more helpless, held hostage by the cancer, betrayed by his body, unable to take care of himself.
We talked about death, about dying. I asked him if he was afraid of dying. His gruff reply, “I don’t know. I haven’t tried it yet.”
I mused, “I don’t think I am afraid of death. The process of dying might be a different matter, though.”
My father’s voice was a little softer when he said, “That’s because you know where you are going.”
Then he told me about different ones who had tried to get him saved, his mother who clung so desperately to her faith after the deaths of her first two children, his brother who had studied to become a minister in the United Church, and others.
“But it didn’t work,” he said.
I don’t know what it means to be saved. Here was this man, a professing atheist all the years I had known him, remembering the beauty of the Bible, moved to tears by the words of an old hymn. I don’t know what it means to be saved, but I do know what it means to be touched by God.
Kass lives and loves near the Rocky Mountains in southeastern British Columbia. She is a word person, although she hasn’t yet found a way to translate her Scrabble prowess into an employable skill. So Kass has chosen to put pen to paper, which turns out to be another unemployable activity. Such is life. Reading others’ poetry and writing her own has often provided a place of refuge from the storms of life.
Image: Kass Morgan