By Karen Feather Zielinski
Here I sit, through the watches of the night, by the side of my father, as his life force ebbs slowly out into eternity. How do you say goodbye to a forever friend, your greatest champion, who gifted you with unconditional love when you were riding high and making him proud, but still loved you just as much at your worst, when you disappointed him?
The room is dark. I have a recliner chair that faces him, and I hold his still warm but unresponsive hand as I listen to his labored breathing and cling to the final fragile threads of his life.
Thanks to modern technology, my iPad and YouTube, I’m playing all his favorite songs: “Send in the Clowns,” “The Twelfth of Never,” “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” “How Great Thou Art,” “Amazing Grace,” “Fountains in the Rain,” a medley of gentle spiritual songs.
I am transported back to my childhood, lying in bed at night as the “hi-fi” played those albums of Johnny Mathis, Harry Belafonte and Tony Bennett. For a moment I yearn to be that child again, tucked safely in bed as my young, vibrant parents sit in the living room together enjoying the music and each other’s company at the end of a busy day.
I contemplate the old hand in mine, mottled with age spots, the silver wedding band placed on his finger by my mother 68 years ago.
These are the hands that held me after I took my first breath in the world; the hands that fed me, rocked me, changed my diapers. These hands taught me how to tie my shoes, walked me into the first day of kindergarten, pushed me on the swing, held me on the seat of a bike as he ran behind. These hands walked me down the aisle on my wedding day, then relinquished my hand to let me fly. Soon, I must relinquish his hand and let him fly to his new home.
I gaze at his noble profile, still, in the darkened room. I think of all the things I will miss: bringing him his beloved newspaper each morning, filling the bird feeder outside his window, the click of his cane on the wooden floor, our endless games of Words with Friends.
Where have the years gone? And how can I even begin to say goodbye? The hospice nurses tell me that the hearing is the last thing to go, so I pour out my heart to him.
I thank him for being such a loving son, brother, husband, father, grandfather and man of integrity. I thank him for supporting me during the hardest moments of my life, and celebrating with me during the best moments.
I recount my favorite childhood memories and laugh again over those old family jokes we’ve told a thousand times.
I tell him how easy it has been for me to believe in a loving and good heavenly Father because I have had such a loving and good earthly father.
I thank God for the blessing of 89 years of his life, the last eight living in our home. I pray for his strong and gentle spirit to be released from his weakened, aged body.
I read the 23rd Psalm to him. I lay my hand upon his forehead and say the Lord’s Prayer. I promise him we will take care of Mom, that it is OK for him to go. And I wait, torn between wanting to keep him with me, and yearning for him to be free.
How do you say goodbye? Go gently into the night, sweet Father. Know that you are greatly loved, and will be sorely missed. Know that love is the only thing that lasts, and we shall meet again. And so I wait, my heart breaking from love and sorrow. How do you say goodbye?
At 8:05 a.m. on May 26, with family at his side and his left hand on my Bible, he slipped into eternity. And life will never be quite the same again.