"On the wings of powerful love and prayer, he burst into glory on his new birthday."
- Father Costello, St. Ignatius of Loyola
"Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings..."
- From "High Flight," by John Gillespie Magee
On Sunday, December 15, at 12:40am, I woke from an unsettled rest as my brother James flicked on the lights and said, "Dad is gone." The bed was barely warm; we had only left my parents' room an hour before, after a sacramental day spent praying, telling stories and laughing amidst our tears. Throughout that day Dad's breathing changed from rapid, shallow breaths to spurts of shallow breathing followed by long pauses that gradually extended in duration and caused us all to turn and watch him with our own held breath. During these pauses, Mom placed her hand on his chest and leaned forward to see if he was still with us.
Miraculously, he did stay with us as all five children arrived throughout the day Friday and Saturday on flights from Los Angeles, Boston, Denver and Chicago. As each person entered the room, my sister, Karen, would update Dad, who seemed to grasp her message and move a little closer to heaven with each arrival. Though afraid of the unknown - none of us, including Mom, had ever witnessed a death - our love for Dad and our family flowed around the room as we encircled the bed, each of us holding on to Dad wherever we could reach a hand, a foot, an arm. He was warm with the effort of his breathing, and not fully conscious, but his strong spirit held him to the room as we all waited together.
Dad had been ill for years, plagued by PSP (para supranuclear palsy), most likely caused by exposure to Agent Orange during his year in Vietnam with the US Army. Thanks to the careful, dedicated nursing of my mom, his quality of life and his life itself extended long past the deadline predicted by his physicians. Adjusted as we were to his gradual decline, no one knew when to expect the rallying cry, "Come." We may have even missed the moment - it came so quickly at the end - were it not for my brother, Michael, whose co-worker approached him a week ago to ask how Dad was doing.
"Not well," said Mike, and his friend urged him to go see Dad without delay. "You have to go now," she said, "You won't regret it."
Mike called my mother, determined that Dad was worse, the hospice nurse had started daily visits and had started Dad on morphine. My brother sent out the alert that time was short and the remaining four siblings made immediate plans to come from around the country, scheduling flights and cars and coordinating with my aunt and uncle in Montana to get to Dad as quickly as possible. Anxiety settled like angry hedgehogs in all stomachs as we waited for late flights, prayed for the snow to stop and the roads to clear.
The anxiety and fear diminished for me upon arrival as I joined the circle around Dad, reliving childhood adventures with an intrepid father who perpetually urged us to scale mountains both literal and figurative. We took turns reading the Prayer of St. Francis, praying the rosary, and weeping as we assured Dad that his work on Earth was done and that it was okay to go.
My mother channeled a spiritual strength that astonished us, leading both prayers and reassurances to Dad. After boxes of tissues were handed around we again resumed our story-telling and laughter, keeping one eye on the clock as we waited for our last sibling to arrive. Karen kept updating my father, letting him know that John was coming, he was almost there.
John arrived at 9pm with my aunt after navigating a snowstorm and icy roads, and in time to share the circle of laughter and love. My mom sent us off to rest after 11 and James stayed with her and my father, lying on the floor next to Dad and timing the pauses between his breaths in that dark and peaceful room. In a beautiful counterpoint to childbirth, where contractions speed up in frequency and duration, the spaces between Dad's breaths increased and gave way to long periods of pause as his body struggled to release his spirit and give birth to his new life. When he left us and James called everyone for the final goodbye, his spirit lingered in the room while we consoled each other and celebrated the beautiful manner in which he left.
Standing so near the veil between the known life and the great unknown has both blessed and shaken us. In a short time we have grown and changed immensely in a sacramental manner that has further bonded us to one another. We are grateful for Dad's beautiful passage and for this new bond, his final earthly gift to us all.