Adelaide Literary Magazine


ADELAIDE Independent Monthly Literary Magazine / Revista Literária Independente Mensal, New York / Lisboa, Online Edition  








by Virginia Hoeck




My dad was a reluctant expert in death.

            Though he was a psychologist by training, it was the losses of two children that qualified him to help others cope with grief. Ten years into my parents’ 53 year marriage, my older sister – 9-year-old Elizabeth – was killed in a boating accident. A decade later, my 17-year-old brother Pat, died in a car crash.

            People from all over would seek out for his unconventional brand of counsel that stemmed from his education, personal experiences and an unshakeable faith in God. I couldn’t go anywhere - grocery stores, business meetings, Little League games – without bumping into someone who would share with me the story of how my father helped them heal from a tragedy. Isn’t it so hard, I asked him, always talking about such devastating losses? He shrugged. “It can be so, so sad,” he said. “But it’s what I can do.”

            When at the age of 85 his generous heart began to weaken, my dad had no trouble talking about his own demise. He spoke about it somewhat frequently, and was completely at ease with the idea of his death. “I’ll get to see Elizabeth and Patrick again, and my parents,” he once said. Another time, “I hate the idea of your mother being alone. She’ll miss me I know but she’ll be fine.” Her children, grandchildren and friends would stave off loneliness.  He was light-hearted when he said, “I’m ready to go when God wants me. But I don’t think he’s ready for me. Not just yet.” he said smiling, as if he were playing a game of Duck, Duck, Goose, and was wondering when it’d be his turn to be tapped on the head.

            His good humor was tested on the morning of my mother’s 82nd birthday. For the third time in just a couple months he was rushed to the hospital, this time in an ambulance. Breathing had become impossible; he couldn’t get out of bed. At the ER, he was agitated. I asked him what was wrong. Was he afraid? “No, it’s not that,” he said. “I didn’t want this to happen today. Not on her birthday.”

            After a while the tube pumping oxygen into his nose and the one draining liquid from his lungs began to help. He could breathe a little easier and speak a little more clearly and yet he kept his eyes closed, though he didn’t seem to be sleeping.  I wondered, despite what he had said, if he had been thinking that even if today wasn’t the day, it might be coming soon. But when my mom stepped out of the room, he spoke up.

            “Get a pen and paper,” he told me. “I need to write a letter.”

            Of course: A birthday note.  There was never a holiday that my mother didn’t wake up to find a note from my dad, propped against a vase of flowers, on the dining room table. Though his love letters were publicly presented, they were never shared.

             “To my darling wife…..” he began. It made me feel both sad and privileged to witness this intimacy.

            “I’m so happy that in spite of the difficulties of these last few days that we have been able to spend so many wonderful hours together….” He paused for a moment, caught his breath, then continued. “I am so happy that we are on one page and that we both have total confidence that whatever is to come is ok.”

            His voice was soft, barely a whisper, but his message was clear and strong. He spoke of falling in love with my mom in an instant; of her beauty, still after all these years; and how proud he was that they had made such a good team, in spite of tremendous heartache. His words were more eloquent than that, but, won’t be repeated here.

            When he was done dictating, he squeaked out instructions to get money out of his sock drawer to buy flowers and go out to do it now, please, so they’d be there when she got home that night.

            When it appeared that my dad was, in fact, likely to make it through my mother’s birthday, I ran to the florists and he was moved up to the cardiac ICU. Over the next few days, he was mostly his old self: Caring, compassionate, curious. Sometimes my siblings and I were stuck out in the waiting room because his visit with a nurse or doctor or orderly had turned social. My dad always wanted to hear their stories; for some reason, they were always willing to oblige. But he was often tired and uncomfortable, if not in pain. The medley of medications being used to control his blood pressure, heart rate and diabetes were in conflict. Blood draws from his parched veins were tortuous. And some inexplicable pain in his back could not be managed.

            A memory from a few years ago flashed before me during those early days in the hospital. I had been out to dinner with my parents. We were following the hostess to our table but moving slowly because an elderly woman, confused and barely mobile, was ahead of us, nearly being dragged forward by her son.

            “If you ever have to lead me around like that lead me right to a cliff and give me a little push,” Dad had said. “Don’t ever let me be like that!” I shook my head and chuckled; the idea of my father as a frail, old man was unimaginable.  

            One afternoon my dad’s close priest friend came by for a visit. The two men were personal confidants who had deep respect for each other, even if they didn’t always agree.  There is no doubt that this kind and wise man loved my father and wanted only the best for him and our family. On his way out of the hospital, he stopped by the waiting room to offer his love and support to my mom, my sister and me. He also had some advice. “He’s ready, you know. Don’t get in God’s way.”

            The bluntness of his statement shocked us. But it corresponded with what I, and I think some of my siblings, had already been thinking: Enough was enough. My dad could no longer do many of the things he loved to do: Drive, go to Mass, visit his grandchildren or friends, eat a good meal. Plus, this back and forth to the hospital was exhausting and distressing to both my parents. Given my dad’s attitude about life, and death, I wondered whether he thought it was all worth it.

            He didn’t. Within a day or so, he and my mom talked and decided together (they always decide everything together, he reminded us), that he was going to stop treatment and let nature take its course.

            Dad’s cardiologist didn’t take the news well. Tears streamed down her face as she tried to convince him that if she only let him she was sure he could get more time. My dad smiled as he told her: “It’s not up to you, it’s up to God.”

            They unhooked my dad from his various machines and moved him into a comfortable room, a room more suitable for receiving visitors.  Family and friends, former patients, even some of the hospital staff came to say their goodbyes.  Off medications and mechanical contraptions, he was able to sit up and talk with the people who’d adored him over the years.

             For a couple days, it seemed that maybe the doctors had been wrong. Maybe he could go on for a long time like this. But then he started sleeping more, his breathing got slightly more labored.

            We played music for him and talked about every important thing we could talk about. He continued to dispatch pieces of advice to all of us and offer observations about dying. He encouraged me to write about his death.  “Are you getting this down?” he sometimes asked.

             “People need to know,” he once said, “there is nothing to be afraid of. It is as beautiful as birth.”  Seven days since leaving the ICU, he’d been wondering why it was taking so long for him to die.  “I thought I’d be annoyed with God, but I’m not. This is just fine. It’s very peaceful.”

             Nine days into it, with mom sitting by his side and my siblings standing nearby, he opened his eyes and began talking to us about choosing love, a topic he’d shared with each one of us children before we married.

            He motioned to my mother. “We chose to love each other,” he said. Then looking at us, he said, “I chose to love her,” and then he looked at my mom and said, “I chose to love you. And you know what? It was easy.” He looked around at us again and continued. “Choose to love and embrace that decision. There will be hardships and ups and downs but when you choose to love, it’s easy. Choose to love.”

            And the next day, with my mom holding his hand, he looked up at her one last time, then, with the peace and resolve of the greatest of experts, he closed his eyes and was gone.




About the Author:


Virginia Ryan holds a degree in journalism from George Washington University and an MFA from Lesley University. She served with the Peace Corps in Thailand and worked first as a journalist and then as a nonprofit marketing director before settling down to a life of writing from her home by the sea in Massachusetts. She is currently working on a novel.











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