A little over six years ago, my father told me he wanted to die.
He proclaimed those four words, “I want to die,” in a room that felt crowded even though there were only four of us in it.
At the time, I assumed his answer was a misunderstanding of the question, “What do you want?” It must have been, because we were speaking of the burial, of his wishes for what happened after.
But now, looking back, I can see so much clearer than I was able to in that startling moment. He didn’t misunderstand our question, just simply didn’t care to speak about things as worldly as burial plots and headstones. He just wanted to express to us the answer to a question that none of us were asking, the one we had ignored since everything started three months prior to his heartbreaking declaration.
The question of, “Are you ready?”
His response, one that he may have been bursting to tell, was in that moment, a resounding yes. He was ready to die.
You want to believe the ones you love have a desire to stay. That the person who gave you life also values theirs to the highest degree. But really, life and the desire to live it, is not as simple as that.
Because, at the end of it all, my father was only tethered to life, not living it. At least not in those final months; not in any meaningful or fulfilling way.
How could he, when the acts of hoping and planning and looking forward had been taken away with the words uttered by a stranger? The words “cancer” and “stage four” and “inoperable”. Those words took all of the rest away, made anything beyond them nothing more than a cruel trick of optimism, the kind our minds hold onto because it’s how we’ve been taught to think.
Things were not only being taken away, but also being added like a cruel joke. There was the addition of pain that called heed to liquid drugs, ones so potent it was impossible to fight the sleep that came almost simultaneously from being administered.
The only reprieve from the physical agony, the overwhelming unconsciousness that immediately followed and acted as the worst sort of reprieve, was the conversation of the dying; the plans to be made for when he was no longer here to witness their carrying-out.
To the ones not facing death, these plans are necessary. But to the dying, they are unbearable. For who wants to willfully acknowledge a world they are not conceivably apart of? Who wants to admit that others are already picturing their lives in that inevitable future that can become a realistic present at any moment?
I used to think that maybe they were cruel, those four words he spoke aloud on that last day. “I want to die.” But they weren’t cruel, they were confession. They were a hand reached out, one waiting to be grasped with loving firmness.
I can see that now and damn it, I wish I had seen it sooner.
If I could go back in time I would say so many things.
I would say to him, “I cannot yet understand, but I give you permission to go without guilt.” Because I was his daughter and he was my father and he should not have had to feel unsure about leaving a world where there was nothing left for him.
I would have said, “I want you to be free.”
Because I did and I do and I know that he is now. Whether freedom is free-floating consciousness on some higher plain the living cannot yet understand, or just the absence of pain, he is free.
Maybe that’s what he was trying to tell us then, in that moment. That existing in a windowless room surrounded by machines and tears and doctors with their charts was the very opposite of freedom, of life.
It was the opposite of hope.
And without that, what is there, really? Only a desire to be let go from that which is quite literally killing you.
Sometimes the memory of my father saying those words comes to the forefront of my mind when I least expect it. I can see him lying there and the look on his face and the stark white wall behind him.
I can feel his hand in mine, the coldness of it, just the next day as I sat in the same chair in the same room next to the same bed that no longer held life atop it’s rusty springs.
In the end, my father was not old. His death was not fair or just. It did not make sense, even once the act of dying was done.
But it taught me about words, and it taught me to listen.
It taught me that there are power in the words we say. That when others talk, you must listen. That we cannot go through life constantly waiting for our turn to speak. That words are a code which sometimes need deciphering, they are things which are sacred and delicate and mysterious.
But at the same time words can be simple, and sometimes their meaning is plucked from between the originators lips and placed down right in front of us.
So it’s a precarious balance, the translation of language between two people; sometimes its cipher, and sometimes we mean exactly what we say. Sometimes it takes a very long time for others to hear what it is our words were trying to tell them.
The words my father spoke still haunt me, years later. They probably always will. But I’m grateful, in a way. Grateful to have been present to such honesty, that he shared that pain, however raw or difficult to hear. Held it out to me between two upturned palms and said, I am so tired, my body is so weary, but I will muster the strength to try to get you to the point of understanding.
He didn’t need words to say that, and I am only deciphering that now, at the age of twenty-five, and it’s been truly healing.
Healing because I have realized that there is still a love for my father that I can feel along with the revelation and the understanding of him, of his life and the consequences of his death.
After all of it, there is still love.