From the hardbound book and e-book, Flame Spirals: Journey Through Nocturnal Photography
The last thing I wanted to do was get into a fight with my Mom, words like 'Stop being such a god damned martyr!' and 'Quit trying to control how Dad is dying, will you?' flying out of my mouth.
Bottom Line: Mom is scared. She's not the asshole. I'm the asshole.
While I was yelling at Mom, Pamela was in with Dad, quietly singing to him.
Now, the fight is over. Pamela’s on the front porch swing. Mom’s at the kitchen sink, crying. I feel like shit.
I go into see Dad, who hasn't been awake since yesterday.
"Dad, I'm sorry," I say to the unconscious man, "I'm trying to get along with your wife, but it is hard. I'm trying. Really, I am. Again, I'm so sorry, Dad."
I go out to the kitchen.
"Mom, I'm sorry."
"Just leave me alone, OK?" she says through tears.
I touch her shoulder. She cowers away. I remove my hand and take a step back.
"I'm really sorry, Mom."
She doesn't say anything, just turns and walks away.
I couldn't feel any guiltier for yelling at Mom. I've been keeping my powder dry for the last month, ever since I arrived to be with Dad as he dies, to be part of this odd makeshift hospice group of my mother, my sister and me. But the keg finally blew tonight.
I go out on the porch and talk with Pamela for a while. She suggests I yell at her instead. I know she’s trying to help. It doesn’t. I don't yell at her.
A couple of hours pass.
It's quiet at the river house now. Mom has gone into the bedroom to lay beside her husband. I'm back out with my sister on the front porch. We're making small talk now, smoking cigarettes.
Then Mary comes out to the porch.
"He's gone" she says, "It was so beautiful. He just stopped breathing. So quiet. So peaceful."
"Are you sure?" I say.
My first thought is pure selfishness. Oh, Dad, not tonight. Don't die tonight. Not after I've had a big fight with your wife. Now who is trying to control how Dad dies?
We all go into the bedroom. Not much different than other times, but it appears Dad isn't breathing at all. I place my hand under his nose and feel some air coming out.
"Mom, I think he's still breathing."
"He's gone," she says.
I bend down closer to him and realize that his skin is beginning to change color. I ask for a mirror and put it under his nose. Nothing. He's getting paler. I know he’s dead.
“Remember, Stu, what you said? That we need to open the window to let the soul out?” Mom says.
“I’ll do it,” says Pamela.
I said this Window/Soul thing over a dozen years ago. It was just a bit of conversation. I think I was reading about Navajo Spirituality at the time. I don't really think Dad's soul will get trapped in this house, but I say nothing as Pamela opens one of the windows. Then I open a window just to go along. I'm in shock right now. Dad's dead. My father is dead.
Mom says it's time to dress Stuart. I've been dreading this moment since the day Mom told me that she wanted Pamela and I to help her dress Stuart in his favorite shirt and khaki pants after he dies. I thought it would be difficult to manhandle the old man, both physically and emotionally. But after being such a jerk tonight, I'm going along with whatever Mom says.
Pamela is at Dad's head. Mary and I are on either side. We take off his nightshirt and make him naked. We grab his pants and pull them on him. We have to pull hard to get them to his waist.
It all feels completely right. We are performing a ritual that has been done for centuries: The dressing of a dead loved one for his passage to the other side.
Pamela holds Stuart's head. We pull him up into a seated position and we put on his favorite plaid Dockers shirt, the one with the turquoise checks. We gently lay him back down. Mom buckles his belt. I'm standing next to Dad holding his hand. It’s cold and slack. A lifeless hand but still my Daddy's hand. Mom leaves the room to call the minister, the nurse and the undertakers. Pamela stays a bit longer then she leaves too.
Then it’s just Dad and I.
I whisper to his body.
"I'm so sorry Dad about getting into a fight with Mom. I'm so so sorry. If I could go back in time…” I can't talk through my tears.
Scott, the priest at St. Mary's Whitechapel is the first to arrive. The nurse and her husband are next. The undertakers have to come from Richmond, so it'll be an hour plus before they get here. It's after midnight now. Dad died a little after 11. Everyone is on the screened-in porch making small talk. I was there for a minute or two but it felt a little disrespectful somehow. I kept thinking my father is dead in the other room and we're talking about the weather? I seem to be going back into Dad's bedroom a lot, holding his hand, watching him change color from red to pink to white. I can't help but wonder if he's really dead. It's hard for me to wrap my head around the idea that Dad is truly gone. I hold his cold hand again. The undertakers will soon be here. I'll only have a few more opportunities to touch my father.
I want to hold his hand forever.
I'm in the kitchen getting a soda when the nurse comes up and says, “Stu, are you planning on being in the room when they take your Dad out on a stretcher?”
“I might,” I say.
“I would really suggest you not be there for that. All you'll remember is seeing him put into the bag. That memory will overshadow all the rest. You may want to go upstairs or go outside when they do that.”
Pamela walks in on the conversation and gets the gist.
“I’ll go up stairs,” she says.
“I'm going out to the pier,” I say.
The next hour is so weird. More small talk on the porch, but I can't hang there. I drift back to the bedroom to hold Dad's hand, outside to have a smoke, back to his bedside. At one point, the nurse's husband comes up and talks with me. I don't have a clue what he said.
Finally at around 1:30 a.m., a black hearse comes up the drive and two men enter our kitchen. One is a very skinny man, in a huge black suit that fits him about like a tent. Next to him is large fat man with a small black suit that fits him like a child's hand-me-down that’s two sizes too small. Wait a minute. They seem to have on the exact same size black jacket, the one-size-fits-all-undertaker's-jacket. When did I enter a David Lynch movie? When will the midget appear? Is Dali going to walk through that door?
The skinny man holds his hands together in that earnest creepy sort of way. The fat one just stands there. They talk with the nurse and Mom for a bit then they go outside to the hearse to get the stretcher. I take this as my time to exit stage right and head for the pier. I grab the cordless phone as I leave the house.
Out on the pier, I call Annie to tell her that Dad's dead. I already talked with her earlier about the big fight with Mom. Annie's trying to help me not feel so guilty about it all. God bless her, but her words give me little comfort.
“I feel so guilty about the fight,” I say. “I wish Dad had died tomorrow instead."
“I know, sweetie,” she says.
I talk with Annie a bit more, saying I'll call her tomorrow. I also ask her if she will call Len and Virginia, my mother's sister and brother-in-law in Tucson. “That would be great,” I add. “And check on plane tickets for you and Len to come to the funeral. You are coming, aren't you?"
"Of course," she says.
"I really need you, honey."
I'm back at the house now. The undertakers are gone. So are the nurse and her husband. Scott the priest is still here. Pamela is nowhere to be seen. I tell Mom I'm going back to the pier. So glad Scott is here. Mom loves Scott. She seems OK, considering she’s lost the love of her life.
I walk the couple of hundred feet to the pier again, this time wrapped in my Dad's old Marine Corps blanket along with the phone. I call Michael and tell him about Dad's dying. He's great as ever. We talk for half an hour then I hang up and put the phone down.
I've barely noticed the weather these past few hours but I sure do now. The wind has really picked up. Must be a storm in the Bay or a front moving in. The river is choppy. The wind howls.
I begin to talk to my Dad. The wind swallows my words. I'm sitting on a step at the far end of the pier, looking out into the dark Rappahannock River.
“Dad, I'm so sorry,” I say to the wind.
“I'm really sorry about yelling at Mom. Please forgive me. Please forgive me. Please.” I just keep crying. I don't speak for a while. I just cry.
Then I feel a presence. I don't trust it at first, but then I know it's him. It's Stuart.
Dad then sits down beside me on the steps of the pier and put his arm around me. I could feel the light pressure of his hand on my shoulder. And I swear to God I hear him speak.
“I forgive you, son.”
“I love you, Dad.”
“Me too, honey,” he says.
Dad always called me honey.