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By: Loretta Henke

© 2002 by Loretta Henke.

I sat by my father’s hospital bed. The sun was setting, its reflection on the river poetic in its raw beauty. We sat quietly. He seemed so far away as he stared into space. I knew then he had lost the will to live. When I commented on the beauty of the sunset he said only, yes, in a childlike way. His eyes were vacant, spiritless.

A new walker was at the foot of his bed belying his denial that he might never walk again, never shop for my frail 81 year old mother again or take her for promised walks where they might meander and stop to stare into shop windows—she leaning on him for support. This spirited, independent soul—proud and so sure he would always be able to take care of her—now no longer able to put off the inevitable—dependence and helplessness. To him, death and dependence were synonymous. He didn’t seem to want to fight off death but rather greeted it as one would a grateful pardon.

He fell on numerous occasions. He also suffered from a bad back for years, and as a proud family man and an ironworker by profession, Dad wouldn’t take time off for a necessary back operation. After a heart attack in his late 50’s, he seemed so bent over and tired. I often saw him stop after coming out of the subway after work on his way home. He would sit on a bench in the park and rest before his weary walk home, then he would slowly walk up five flights of stairs to his apartment.

As my mother became increasingly frail, Dad decided, at the age of 77, to have that back operation. I talked to him, begging and reasoning with him, feeling that he was far too frail to have an operation. Our discussions often ended in heated arguments as I was told in no uncertain terms to leave him alone.

Dad was a crusty old codger—tough, proud—without a high school education. Emigrating from Germany at a young age, he quit school to take care of his mother after his father’s death. As an avid reader, he would peruse The New York Times Bestseller List and take long walks over to the neighborhood library to borrow books. In his later years, he would take a neighborhood van that stopped on his corner to pick up the elderly to take them to the library. When the van was discontinued and he was in pain and his legs became weak, he would take a cab to his beloved library. He read so many books—some more than once, and so that he would not forget which ones he read, he would pencil in the date on “page 50” of any library book he read. So if you ever get a library book in Manhattan with a date on page 50, my dad probably read it!

On my 50th birthday, two days after my father and I sat quietly observing the sunset, I left my teaching job in East Harlem and leisurely walked cross-town to the Upper West Side where I finally, tiredly, boarded a bus for the final mile and a half to the hospital.

I walked into Dad’s room and saw him “sleeping” peacefully. Laughing and turning to his roommate, I said, “He’s sleeping again!” This elderly gentleman blurted out, “Didn’t anyone tell you? Your dad died this afternoon.” I found out later that he had a heart attack.

Slipping slowly into the chair at the foot of my informant’s bed, I was immobilized by grief. “It’s my fiftieth birthday,” I said senselessly.

As doctors and nurses were called and cries of apologies and expressions of grief were graciously extended, I was numbly ushered into an elevator and then a taxi by a kindly aide.

Arriving at home to answering machine messages singing happy birthday and panicked messages pressing me to call family members, I realized that my life would never be the same.

I went to my mom’s apartment. She banged on walls and tables crying, “Why, Why?” She repeated their last conversation over and over. The intensity of her grief overshadowed my own and I put my feelings on hold, to be dealt with later, alone.

I called my daughter who was living in Pittsburgh to tell her that her Pop Pops had died. She drove down to New York immediately. I was worried that driving in a grief-stricken state would be dangerous. Again, my grief was put on hold. Family was gathering. Phone calls had to be made and answered. My brother stayed with Mom, and I went home to my apartment across the street.

With people coming over the next day, I stayed up and made lasagna—diversion for my grief-stricken soul. After my husband went to sleep, I was finally able to cry like I’ve never cried before. My chest heaved. My breathing was shallow and scenes from my life flashed before me in rapid succession. My father’s face before me, I was unable to stop crying and shaking until finally I couldn’t breathe. Gasping for breath, I realized I had to get hold of myself. By sheer will, I somehow slowly stopped crying and didn’t cry again for over a year.

On subsequent birthdays, I confused joy with sorrow as I grieved for my father and tried to celebrate my life! Never again could I totally enjoy a birthday as in times past.

I see myself sitting with him so often looking at that seemingly prophetic sunset--that one perfect moment in time that we had together as both the sunset and his life slipped away.

Loretta Henke

Loretta lives and teaches at an Elementary School in Manhattan. She is married and has one grown daughter.

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