Daddy had been hoping to come home from the hospital last Friday. The discharge staff at Shands thought he needed a blood transfusion. His body didn’t react well. His vitals dropped to frightening levels, he became disoriented and distraught. He spent the next two days in intensive care.
In retrospect, that was the day he gave up. There would be no further resistance of Sister Death’s looming embrace.
Starry Skies Above an Empty Home
When he finally was released from the hospital Tuesday, he just wanted to go home.
And he got awfully close.
Periodically on the transport from Gainesville to Bushnell, he would awaken and ask my Sister where they were. “SR 326, just north of Ocala, Daddy.” “Good,” he would respond. Later he whispered, “Are we to Belleview yet?” “Almost, Daddy.” “Good, we’re almost there.”
But when the transport arrived in Bushnell, it drove past his home to a facilty just a half mile down the road, wedged between a Winn Dixie plaza and a rental storage facility. Osprey Point had been willing to receive him in their rehabilitation sector and Shands had agree to discharge him there. We had hoped this would be the transition to get him home.
But it was not to be.
Daddy had made us promise we would not deposit him in an assisted living facility for his final days. He didn’t want all of the inheritance he had so carefully crafted to go to us to be eaten up by nursing home charges. More importantly, he did not want to die in “one of those places.” He wanted to die at home.
After finally getting Daddy into bed at the facility Tuesday night, I chose to spend the night at our family home just up the road so I could check on him in the morning before heading back to Orlando to teach my long day at Valencia.
As I got out of my car, I instinctively looked up. The number of stars one can see in the woods, particularly on a cool winter night, is amazing. The night sky always captivated me as a child. I’ve almost forgottten what it looks like. It is one of the things I miss most about living in a city.
I lived in our family home for seven years before leaving for college and have stayed there with my folks many times since. I readily slip back into my patterns of life there, going to sleep to the nearby freight train, awakening to the sun pouring through its eastern fronting windows. But this night the house I knew and loved seemed different.
It was so empty.
I kept thinking I’d hear my Dad come stumbling around the corner to ask if I wanted some cheese or an ice cream sandwich. “There are diet sodas in there if you want one, Son” he’d say over the ominpresent hum of Fox on the television. But all I heard that long night of broken sleep was the cracking and popping of 50 year old wooden floors and the periodic punctation of acorns falling on the tin roof.
The vibrant life energy that had surrounded my wonderful Daddy was just no longer there.
Time to Let Go
I brought him some azaleas I picked from his yard this morning. They are just starting to bloom. During my childhood we worked hard together at planting about 300 azaleas in our yard and each spring they are absolutely glorious. This year’s display promises to be no exception.
He squinted at the azaleas and a look of sadness crossed his face: “I want to go home,” he said. “Daddy, we’re working at getting you there as quickly as we can.” “No,” he said, “I want to go home. NOW!”
Ironically, I left the facility soon thereafter a bit more hopeful. His vehement insistence about going home immediately was a little spark of the Sam Coverston I had known, admired and loved for 63 years, hiding in a pallid shell of a body in that bed. Maybe he would perk up enough to come home after all.
Wednesday is my long day of classes at Valencia. I teach three classes starting at 1:30 and ending at 8:45. That requres me to leave home by about noon to get to Kissimmee and get into my classroom. Arriving home from Bushnell, I had just enough time for a shower and printing out of the dilemma for my ethics classes before heading south to Kissimmee.
The discussion of that dilemma, a question involving HMOs and voiceboxes for stroke patients, had my night class at fever pitch when I finally cut off the discussion at 8:45 to collect their papers. By 9:30 I had just arrived home from my classes and sat down to read my email. The gong on my cell phone alerted me to an incoming message.
“Come now!” my Sister’s IM said.
I had already made that 100 mile round-trip from Orlando in the last 24 hours and a 50 mile round-trip to Kissimmee this afternoon. But there was no question about the urgency of this message. I pulled on a sweater and jumped in the car. An hour later I was back in Bushnell.
The face of the nurse’s aide told me the answer to my question before I asked it. He had been gone about a half hour when I arrived, his hand still warm when I took it in mine. His face bore no sign of struggle or discomfort. My sister said he had gone very peacefully. She had been holding one of his hands, her son, Scott, Daddy’s beloved grandson, holding the other.
Just 47 days shy of his 90th birthday, Daddy had simply let go.
Now it is our turn.
The Memories Are Dying
On the long drive home, I eschewed the busy turnpike and expressway for the old route to Orlando across SR 50. I was afraid I was not alert enough to be in heavy traffic. And at midnight, it’s actually humanly possible to get home on 50 without taking your life into your hands.
In years past it was the only way to get to Orlando from the west coast. SR 50 passes through once small citrus towns now bedroom communities named Mascotte, Groveland, Clermont, Oakland, Winter Garden and Ocoee. The fragrant citrus groves through which my Dad once navigated a two lane highway to get his two boys to orthodontist and dentist appointments in Orlando are long gone. A continuous swath of apartment complexes, gated communities and strip shopping malls have long since sprouted to take their place. Lakes Sherwood and Lotta, which once swallowed up SR 50 requiring a detour through the orange groves after Hurricane Donna dumped a couple of feet of water on Central Florida in 1960, are now nearly dry gulches on either side of the highway.
The giant plaster statue of the mini-skirted woman holding a tire in the air a lá Statue of Liberty no longer graces the front of the Winter Garden auto repair shop. G-d only knows where that girl has gotten off to and She ain’t tellin’.
Closer to town, the Royal Castle in Pine Hills at whose counter my Dad used to brag to the wait staff about how many of those nasty little hamburgers with grilled onions his boys could eat is in its umpteenth incarnation, this time as an Asian noodle house. Nearing the downtown, the Western Way shopping center cowboy no longer twirls his sparkling neon lariat over his head. His figure on a dented metal sign with chipping paint still towering over the parking lot is all that’s left, a hollow specter of glory days.
The memories of those long drives to Orlando all through the 1960s with my Dad and my little brother, happy visits to the big city in a hot car with windows wide open in days before air conditioning, come pouring back to me this night. But I simultaneously realize that I have fewer and fewer physical reminders to trigger them. These treasures of my childhood are dying along with those who created them. As of tonight, I have become one of only two Keepers of The Remaining Sacred Memories I now carry in my heart.
Before I departed from the room where my Father had left behind his body this night, I leaned down kissed his gray forehead, made the sign of the cross there with my thumb and whispered a line adapted from the commendatory prayer of the Book of Common Prayer: O God, [+] into your arms we commend a child of your own creation, a sheep of your own fold, a sinner of your own redeeming. Amen.
Daddy wasn’t much for religion. And he has made us promise there will be no funeral. But he was always proud of his kid who had become an Episcopal priest. Tonight that priest said goodbye to his Father with a prayer through his tears.
Rest in peace, Daddy. We love you.
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)
© Harry Coverston 2017