It's been ten years since my father died, and I have been thinking about him a fair bit in the last week. Matthew Michael Hickey died on Thanksgiving, 2013. That year, Thanksgiving was on the 28th. Even at the time, I had a sad laugh at knowing that I would recall the loss on both Thanksgiving and the 28th.
I want to say that my father died around 9:30 AM, but who really knows when someone dies? Science will tell you that it's when brain wave activity stops, but some parts of the brain continue to work, and in some places actually increase in activity, for up to four days after death. You may have heard that the soul weighs 21 grams. That bit of nonsense came from a very badly flawed study, that nobody has wanted to repeat, by a physician in 1907.
Religion will tell you that death is when the soul leaves the body. When is that? I asked the family priest to come to give my father the Last Rites, but I was told that it was too late. It had been more than 20 minutes since some unspecified event that morning.
These are my first thoughts when I plan the story that I want to tell in this post. They are a mix of science and religion, two ways that I understand the world, and I realize that I am completely in my head in this moment. My thoughts are probably not true and definitely not universal, but I left them here because I suspect that the experience of going into your head at a moment like this could be universal. We want to control the uncontrollable by understanding what cannot be understood. If you're doing that, it's OK, but it's important to recognize that you're doing it and not to get caught up in the distraction of some stupid and empty argument about science or religion or something else, or get lost in the weeds. Moments like this are about living, being, feeling the pain and listening to what it has to say, learning what it has to teach.
My father's death was a bad thing, but there were many good things on that day. There was a miraculous chain of improbable events that put me in his house on the night before he died, one last conversation with him, and then into breakfast the next day, one more time with our breakfast routine, and then still in the house when he had his last heart attack. My mother wasn't alone in that awful moment. I stood in the kitchen while the paramedics worked on my father, tried so hard to save him. I still don't understand what I mean by this thought, though it still sounds true today: I needed to protect my father in that final, most vulnerable time of his life. I also watched my father die so that my mother would not, so that she could be in the other room with my sister, who had come over when my mother called. I don't understand the meaning of any of this but it seemed real and important ten years ago and nothing about that has faded with time.
Our breakfast routine? Yeah, that was funny. Any time that I was in the house on a Saturday or Sunday morning, my father and I would sit on opposite sides of the kitchen table, reading different parts of the same Philadelphia Inquirer, and at some point, my father would ask me if I wanted breakfast. I never asked him to cook for me. The routine was that he would offer. I would say yes and then he would let me know what he could make, among the possibilities of waffles, French toast, pancakes, or eggs. I would pick one and he would make two and we would share breakfast, while reading the newspaper, not talking of course - we never talked much - but that was how we shared breakfast. We had waffles on his last day. That makes me happy. That was a blessing.
The really incredible blessings happened about an hour later. My father had several heart attacks. I don't know how many. I know that one happened after he passed a stress test in a cardiologist's office, dented his head on the way off the table and died right there on the floor. A cardiologist's office is a good place to die of a heart attack. A later heart attack happened in the morning at home and he drove himself to the hospital rather than upset my mother. Yup. There were probably more heart attacks, I don't know, and he seemed very likely to eventually die of one. The miracle was in the timing.
My father died, as I said, sometime around 9:30 AM. At 1:00 PM, he and my mother were going to Cape May for the holiday. My father had a lead foot. Actually, he had a replacement knee. I always thought that would have been a great excuse for his speeding tickets.
If my father's heart attack had come at 2:00 PM rather than 9:00 AM, he would have been driving about 80 MPH through holiday traffic with my mother beside him. The couple of seconds that I just spent imagining this was awful enough. It would have been horrible. No, his heart attack coming at 9:00 was a blessing for him and my mother and everyone else sharing that road with them. There are probably people who are still alive today who would not be but for the timing of events at my parents' house ten years ago. I saw that blessing immediately.
Other things took longer to understand. For example, my apartment was in a town about 20 minutes away from my parents' house, and I knew that I would spend the next few days with my mother, so I drove to my apartment to get some things. There are three good routes between the two towns but I have a favorite, one that I have driven at all hours in all weather, one where I learned to drive, so I didn't go that way when my father died. It took me a year to realize that I did this so that I wouldn't associate the route with my father's death.
There were other things, that I can't discuss. These were good moments or glimpses of something larger, and if I say them to another person, and they laugh or dismiss or explain these things away, if anything takes the good and the redemption away, then I lose the rose that grew in the manure. I can't risk that.
Many things happened that I cannot explain with the science and religion that I have studied, things that I did not expect based on what I have learned. That’s also part of why I trust those events. I am more sure of what happens when I’m not sure of what will happen.
I have only heard my father a few times in the ten years since he died. One time was on the day when I learned that I had finished my PhD. Lots of good but strange things happened on that day, the same kind of things that I can't risk telling another person. Beyond that, I haven't heard much from him. I know that his soul is eternal but we still don't talk much.
It hurt to lose my father but I have been and am OK. Kids are supposed to outlive their parents. Unfortunately for my father, he outlived my brother, Tim, though that's another tale for another time.
I have friends who know that they are celebrating Thanksgiving for the last time with a loved one, and others who are celebrating Thanksgiving for the first time without a loved one. I'm not going to give you any of that, "At least..." or "Be glad that..." crap. It hurts and it sucks. I hope that you can stay with the pain long enough to learn what it has to teach, and then to rest a bit.
Happy Thanksgiving, all.