Thomas Fiffer remembers his father’s final departure—and how he lingered before leaving.
My father floated above himself, hovering over the driveway on a cold Sunday afternoon in February, looking down at his body on the stretcher as the paramedics swarmed around him trying to save his life. He was already dead. But I didn’t know that yet, as I sat inside my aunt and uncle’s living room on their crested green couch reading The Count of Monte Cristo. Only I wasn’t reading. I was staring, alternately out the window at the men working on my father, whom I could not see on the stretcher beneath them, and at the words on the page which I also could not see. Outside, the sun was bright on the white snow, and the breath of the men could be seen in the air as they forced air into my father, who was not breathing. Inside the well-lit living room everything was dim, reduced, shrinking, narrowed to a single focal point of light. A single question held in the breath, unspoken, as if speaking it would cause the wrong answer to be heard.
Suddenly my father was moving, being moved, into the ambulance scrambling out of the driveway leaving a jet trail of exhaust in the winter air. We followed, in my father’s car, my uncle driving, running red lights, cornering sharply, cutting through a gas station to save time, the same car which, less than half an hour earlier, my father had been driving. I had no idea what time it was, but I knew there was no time, no time to waste, only time to save, to save my father, and it seemed to all of us in my father’s car—my uncle, my mother, and me—that getting to the hospital faster, that being there instead of here or not there yet, might somehow save him. But there was no time. Time had run out for my father, on the driveway, in the cold, and now he was hovering, warm and weightless, there, over the driveway, as we followed his body, cold, heavy, and dead, to the hospital. He was there, and we were here. We had arrived, but he had not followed us. We were alone, my mother and I, alone and bereft, even before the bad news was broken to us.
We returned to the house, and he watched, through the window, as family and friends arrived, sat, spoke, didn’t speak, and waited. Waited for what? There was no outcome. The outcome had already come—and gone. His mother sat alone, in an armchair, rocking, repeating over and over, “I hoped and prayed I would never outlive my children. I hoped and prayed I would never outlive my children.” Her tragedy. Her worst nightmare. A woman who had known her son for only 48 years. And a son who had known his father for only nine. In my short life, I was already learning that life was short, that life could start on a driveway, with my father, my mother, and me, getting into a car, and end 20 minutes later, on another driveway, in the same car, as my father slumped over the wheel, then let out a final snort as I pushed up my mother’s seat and ran to my aunt and uncle’s door and jabbed at the doorbell and screamed when they opened the door, “Aunt Ruthie, Uncle Buddy! Come quick, something’s happened!”
Something had happened. An event. A life-changer. A life-ender for my father, whose heart seized, went into an irreversible arrhythmia, and stopped beating. He suffered no pain, a blessing, beyond the blessing of his being able, before his last breath, to pull the car off the road and into the driveway and park it, saving us, my mother and me, before he himself could not be saved. No pain of death for him, only the sharp, indignant, incredulous pain of the living, followed by the desperate unforgiving pain of grieving, then the dull somnambular pain of mourning, then the tingling sensation of waking from a dream.
What did he think, I wonder, watching us, his loved ones and those who loved him, from outside the window, looking in, as we sat, purposeless and empty, looking down, shaking our heads in disbelief, wanting to alter the truth, to rewind the clock, to escape that room and everything it meant, to deny death, to steal my father back, as he had been stolen from us? Could he see the impact of his departure, feel the twist of his being wrenched away from us, reduced to ash by the fire of death, like the victim of a plane crash being able to watch the plane hit? I wonder who was more devastated—he to have left us, or we to have been left? Left without his love, while loving him still.
Love transcends death and cannot be altered by it. Instead love alters death by clinging to it ferociously, like a tiger digging its claws into living flesh and bone. Love defeats death in its intransigence, in its defiant refusal, in its inalienable right to hold on, to unceasingly remember. What did he think, as his loved ones, the ones who would be mentioned in his death notice three days later, gathered and sat, stone cold in the warm living room, already remembering, and yet forgetting more with each passing minute, as he grew farther and farther away from us, fainter and fainter, like a distant star, fading, then flickering, with the approaching light of dawn? I knew he was out there, because I knew he could not be gone, not yet. Not so easily. Not so suddenly or so soon. His face still had color when I left him in the car to run to my aunt and uncle’s door. The hair on the back of his head was still glossy and black. He still filled his coat, filled the driver’s seat of his car. His hands gripped the wheel, and I imagine the paramedics had to pry them off when they took him out to lay him down on the stretcher and pump his chest with their hands and fill his lungs with the air of their lungs, trying to breathe life back into him, life which had already been taken, breathing their living breath through his dead mouth into his dead chest where his heart sat, still. They were living, and he was dead. I would have had it the other way round. I was living, and he was dead. I was living with a part of me now dead. And he was dead with a part of him living in me.
Outside the house, he was there but not there, impermanently present, ephemerally alive, eternally dead, hovering. Was he thinking of me, and what—or who—I would become? Was he grieving his own loss, having to take his hands off my clay, no longer being able to shape and mold me? Death had taken me from him as well as him from me. Death cuts both ways, severing a cord with two ends, the distance felt on both sides as the middle grows increasingly impoverished with each passing year. The years have mounted, piled up, 38 of them, now sunk into one another and become indistinguishable, compressed into one long, solid memory of absence. This year, I will be 48, his age when he died. It doesn’t frighten me or cause me to feel old. It only reminds me of how young he was.
He hovered, and then he left the driveway, floating back home to the place he knew. Our home. The one he and my mother and my brothers and I had all lived in together. He stayed long enough to knock down an ashtray one evening that he and my mother had brought back from Europe, the only one on the shelf above the door that had been theirs and not my grandmother’s. A few nights later, around the time he usually got home, he turned on the light in the garage, as if to signal his arrival, before his final departure. And after that, he was gone.
Today, February 9th, 2014, marks the 39th anniversary of Robert S. Fiffer’s death, and I am posting this in his honor and memory.
Note: This content appeared previously on the Tom Aplomb blog.
Photo courtesy of author