It would be interesting to have each of my siblings describe their experience of the week that my father died. It was the first time since my sister’s wedding ten years earlier, that all four of us were together for any length of time. And yet, there we were, keeping a five-day vigil at my father’s hospital bedside.
It was fascinating and frightening to watch my father move through the stages of dying. He was quite lucid as he called each one of us to his bedside and asked permission to die. He didn’t ask for forgiveness, or apologize for hurting us; he just wanted permission to die. As the doses of morphine increased he began to go in and out of consciousness. He was seeing and talking to his deceased family and his beloved cat. These were all ghosts to us, but they were real and comforting to him. For two days before he died he held conversations with his mother, who had been killed in the war when he was seventeen years old. Eventually, he spoke only in Hungarian, his first language.
He struggled to die. Part of that may have been the morphine, but he seemed to have a need for closure with certain people before he could let go. The day before his death, a steady stream of people came and went, said their goodbyes, and he fell into a deep sleep.
Once he drifted into that sleep state, we were told that he would probably die within a few hours. We opted to stay in the hospital that night and wait. Each of us was dealing with our father’s death in our own way, and nobody was talking to or comforting one another.
Once a year while we were growing up, my father had made us sit in a line on the couch and recite, “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” while he took pictures. Waiting for word of his death we seemed to be recreating those moments, sitting in a row staring blankly into space.
My sister Lucy loved my father with all her heart. He was always her daddy, and she was grief-stricken that he was dying. She spent a lot of time in his room feeling an otherworldly connection to him and reporting many sightings of his mother. My brother, Thomas was filled with guilt for never living up to the rigid standards that my father had so often reinforced with his fist. Thomas’ mix of guilt and grief was making him angry and contentious. Adam hated my father too. He could never live up to the impossible standards that had been expected of him either. He was distant and off in his own world; silent and withdrawn.
I felt a lot of ambivalence about my father dying. I had watched him struggle with three rounds of chemotherapy and had seen the disease ravage this once very powerful man. I didn’t want him to suffer any longer, but at the same time his suffering was the only restitution I would ever extract from this man who had abused me since I was a baby.
When I moved to Minnesota, he and I had spent countless hours together. He taught and then quizzed me for hours about national and international politics. He spent a lot of time telling me his life story. He seemed anxious for me to learn his past so that he wouldn’t be forgotten by his future grandchildren. My father’s entire family was killed in the Holocaust and he carried immense survivor’s guilt. It was confusing for me. He was unbelievably abusive to me and yet I felt compassion and respect for his life story. I would have preferred to feel a neat and clean hatred and disgust towards him.
Early the next morning, the rabbi on the hospice team came into the room to talk to the four of us. Rabbi Lyon had spent many hours talking with and comforting my father during his extended hospital stays. The four of us siblings were exhausted from lack of sleep and the endless waiting. The air was heavy with grief, confusion, and boredom. The rabbi told us he wanted to relay a few words from my father to each of us. I had an instant distrust of this man when I met him, and that day, chills ran down my spine when he began to speak.
He stopped first in front of my brothers and told them that my father loved them very much. He knelt down to my grieving sister, took her hands into his and began telling her how much my father loved her, how much my father spoke of her and that he himself would be there for her in her grief.
Then he walked over to me and without a moment’s hesitation said, “You are our tough little shit, and you will be fine.” He walked away. I felt three things simultaneously: hurt, rejected, and a profound sense of dread.
excerpt from my memoir Untangled, A story of resilience, courage and tripumph