By Ann E. Zuccardy   The cinderblock walls were painted what was probably supposed to be soothing blue and the windows, heavy and industrial, were swathed in cheerful, frayed calico.  The autumnal chill from the age-worn linoleum floor penetrated my socks as I paced the length of the room, stretching my legs.  It was my night to wait and watch.  I’d read a little, ate so many pudding cups I’d lost count, and watched sitcoms in a feeble attempt to lighten my mood.  I was exhausted, but I couldn’t sleep.  It felt wrong.  It felt like betrayal to sleep.  

I’d been here before.  Not here in this room, but here, with death.  I knew what to expect.  And yet, I didn’t really know.  Every death, like every birth, is different.  I’d seen both birth and death and I prided myself on maintaining a certain detachment, but also a sense of wonder and awe at the responsibility of being present.  I was never one for flowery euphemisms about death.  No passing away or rainbow bridges for me.  We are born.  We die.  And if we’re lucky, there are many decades between the two.  I knew the nail polish remover odor that bodies produce as they begin to shut down.  I’d heard gurgling death rattles as patients’ breathing became irregular.  I understood the mottled patches of skin and cool extremities meant that the heart was no longer circulating blood effectively.  I knew that patients supposedly don’t sense thirst as death draws near, even if they haven’t had a sip of water in a week. 

I was cool and calm.  “I’ve got this,” I told my mother and sister, when I sent them home many hours earlier.  My left eye had begun to twitch, belying my words.  I peeled my socks off and threw them in the general direction of the small cot which had been brought in for me.  I climbed onto the narrow hospital bed squeezing my body as close as I could, balanced on my left hip, and rested my head on his shoulder.  From this vantage point, I saw his splotchy chest rising and falling, verrrrrrrrry slowly.  And I heard the gurgling in the back of his throat.  That gurgling had become constant background noise in the last couple of days.  I found the Frank Sinatra station on Pandora and turned up the volume.  He’d always loved music.  He’d always had a beautiful voice.  Sinatra crooned “Fly Me to the Moon” and I sang along softly for a few minutes.  “Fly me to the moon / Let me play among the stars / Let me see what spring is like / On Jupiter and Mars.” I couldn’t go on.  Music makes me emotional.  My singing wasn’t very good anyway.

From where I lay I could see the tall oak trees outside swaying slightly in the breeze of the wee hours of that fall morning.  They’d shed most of their leaves.  At the edge of the property, I made out the shapes of two deer, rummaging around in the fallen leaves and I described them out loud, mostly because I didn’t know what else to do.  I didn’t think I’d be able to stay awake much longer, with half of my body hanging off the bed and my eye twitching at warp speed now.  Did I really see the deer or was I hallucinating from lack of sleep?   “I’m right here, Dad, I’m not going anywhere.  I am going to rest on the cot for a few minutes.  I’m not going anywhere.  I love you,” I whispered as I clambered onto the cot and fell asleep immediately. 

I hadn’t been sleeping 20 minutes when I awakened with a start at 4:30 a.m.  I woke up because it was silent in the room. The gurgling had ceased.  Total silence.  I had spent a lot of time wondering how I’d feel at this moment; if it would be different from other deaths I’d attended when I worked in hospice care.  This was my father.  I rose from the cot and began to curse because I couldn’t find my socks.  Damn it, I couldn’t go to my father’s bedside and walk on this cold, germy floor without my socks.  I had to find my socks!  Where the hell were my socks?  Why was I such a slob?  Where had I thrown them?  Damn it, I had a dead father to tend to and where the hell were my socks?  Why was I freaking out about socks anyway?  What is the protocol when someone you love dies and you fell asleep?  I couldn’t process anything until I’d found my socks.  I couldn’t look at him.  Not yet.   

I found the socks on the floor where I’d thrown them and pulled them on.  I padded over to the window and gazed out.  Still dark, but not the black dark of midnight; it was a lighter, grayer dark.  Some say that the veil between heaven and earth is thinnest just before dawn.  And some believe that this veil between the living and the dead is thinnest on October 31, Halloween.  So in the pre-dawn hours of November 1st, I chuckled to myself as the woman who hated death euphemisms, folklore, and mushy Sinatra songs lifted the heavy window to let my dad’s soul fly out into that space between heaven and earth.  I’d read somewhere that there might still be some brain activity right after a person dies so I turned around and talked to my dead father.  I have no idea what I said.  I felt as if I should cry, but I couldn’t.  So I sat next to him and babbled.   I did not call any of the nursing staff or my mother immediately.  I marveled at how I had just laid my head on his shoulder and watched his chest moving less than 30 minutes earlier.  And now it was still.  Never to move again.  84 years of life, over, just like that. 

His mouth was wide open, but thankfully his eyes were closed.  I tried to close his mouth, but it seemed stuck. I stroked his head and kissed his cool, waxy forehead. Then I called my mother and whispered, “He’s gone.” It was beginning to become light outside and the nursing home staff began the hustle and bustle of their daily routine.  Life did indeed go on, but for me, time stood still.  Stuck, like my father’s open mouth, time had stopped, a big gaping hole.  I didn’t want to leave him alone so I stayed, glued to the chair until I could no longer ignore the activity around me.  How odd, I thought, that it was all over.  Just like that.  All those years of work, family, friends, travel, stories, adventures…just over in literally one heartbeat. How odd that we all could just be one heartbeat from all that we believe to be important, just over and done.  And what if no one remains after that last heartbeat to tell our stories?  Do they matter?  I’d gone from clinical and somewhat detached to philosophical.  I still couldn’t cry, but there was a little twinge of the seed of guilt beginning to sprout in my exhausted brain.  I fell asleep.  I betrayed him.    

The funeral home director came about an hour later to pick up my father.  My mother and sister could not bear to watch them remove my father’s body.  I felt a sense of duty to stay, to help.  I didn’t want to leave him alone.  I didn’t want them to put him in a bag. I couldn’t bear the thought of them putting his body in an oven and reducing it to ash and bones.  I wasn’t ready.  When I told the funeral home guy I wanted to stay and help, he looked surprised, “Are you sure?”  Yep, I was sure as could be.  I took my position at the foot of the bed and as he removed the covers from my father’s body, I took hold of his cold feet in my warm hands. I’d never touched dead feet before.  I’d read once that the nails and hair continue to grow for a short time after we die.  His toenails had lost their pinkish hue.  The skin was smooth, almost plastic.
Those feet had walked in war-torn Korea with the Air Force before I was born.  I’d heard the stories a million times as a child, about Korean children begging from the American soldiers and stories about the Korean houseboy whose breath always smelled of kimchee.  Even when the posterior cortical atrophy took away most of my dad’s ability to communicate in words, all we had to do is mention kimchee and my father would grimace and we’d all laugh. 

Those feet, at 16, had snuck out of the house and caught a bus from Hartford, Connecticut to New York City to hear Charlie Parker play at Birdland.  How passionate he must have been to have saved his paper route money to spend on bus tickets and jazz.  How giddy he must have been tapping his teenage feet in rhythm to live music from the legends of jazz we idolized. 

Later in life those feet had danced with me to the live sounds of Dizzy Gillespie improvising bebop on his trumpet in New Haven, Connecticut.  It was the early 1980s and I was an undergrad, when I saw a poster announcing Dizzy’s upcoming appearance at Toad’s Place.  I knew that just as he’d snuck out of the house at 16, he’d be happy to sneak out of the house in his forties, and that my mother, who did not share the fiery Zuccardy music gene, would not be happy.  But sneak out, he did.  And we drank beer and listened to music until the wee hours.  My father brought his copy of the book, To Be or Not to Bop, and waited patiently in line for Dizzy to sign it.   I shook Dizzy Gillespie’s hand and thanked him for making my father so happy.

Those feet had walked on the hot sand at the beach where I grew up, without flip flops or sandals.  I was always fascinated by how my dad could bear to walk on the scalding sand that made me scream and run for shade. He used to say, “It builds character.”  My siblings and I would have contests to see who could walk on pavement so hot it had turned to mush the longest without flinching.  I couldn’t do it for very long.  I used to think it was because I didn’t have a strong character.

Those feet had carried the weight of three children wanting countless piggy back rides.  And when we were very small, we had a game called flying eagle.  My father would lay on the floor on his back with his legs up at a 90 degree angle.  Whichever child was the flying eagle would place their torso on my father’s feet and my father would grab our outstretched arms with his hands and then sway the lucky child from side to side, chanting, “Flyyyyyyyyyying Eeeeeeeeagle,”  Years later, when my daughter was born, flying eagle was one of her favorite games too. 

I remembered those feet disco dancing in the mid-1970s when I was a teenager.  After the movie “Saturday Night Fever” became popular, my parents signed up for disco dancing lessons, much to my horror, as their extremely image-conscious teenage daughter.  They’d push all the furniture in our living room to the perimeter of the room. And then loading the vinyl soundtrack to the movie on the portable stereo, they’d practice their moves in front of a very large bay window that looked out onto street traffic.  I was mortified with embarrassment that only teenagers understand as I watched them swirling and twirling, my dad dipping my mother so low I thought she might fall.  She wore a shiny bright aqua polyester dress with a full skirt that flared out each time she twirled and revealed quite a bit of leg.  I was sure that pretty much everyone I cared about at school was driving by and peeking in that bay window to mock my family. 

For the last three years of life, those feet had not walked on the ground.  They would never touch hot pavement or grass again.  They would never tap to beat of a favorite song again.  After the last stroke, his caregivers had discontinued the walking physical therapy, a decision I was very much against, but you choose your battles when you’re a fiery Zuccardy with strong opinions. And in those years, it was the feet of me and my siblings that did the moving.  One of us was always there.  Every. Single. Day. On warm days, I would take him outside and do laps around the nursing home grounds, my father in his wheelchair and me pushing him around and around, talking about whatever flowers were in bloom and the weather.  We’d sing songs.  Anything.  Christmas carols, oldies from the Readers Digest book of sheet music, childhood songs, you name it.  And then we’d go inside and sit down to a dinner of pureed fish and vegetables, which my father always treated as a gourmet experience, despite the gruel-like consistency of his meal.  Occasionally I would bring thick, creamy milkshakes made with real ice cream, which for some ridiculous reason, were forbidden.  It became my mission to sneak in his favorite foods.  I promised myself there would be no fatal milkshake accidents and then I become bolder.  I snuck in a pizza and chopped it up into tiny pieces and spoon fed it to him.  I wanted to bring beer and some live jazz, but cranberry juice with me plunking out tunes on an out-of-tune upright had to suffice.

Isn’t it funny, how in the space of seconds, our minds can retrieve memories evoked by just one sight, one sound, one smell?  It’s almost as if my father’s feet were a pointer to the section of my brain where I stored certain memories; an anchor of sorts.  Touching his feet was like hitting the play button on a ten-second video that flashed each scene in front of me for a millisecond. I took a mental picture of those feet and stored it in the DO NOT DELETE area of my brain’s database.

I held tightly to those feet and those stories as we lifted my father’s frail body onto a gurney and positioned him in a waiting zippered bag.  My father had nice feet.  Though his body had deteriorated over recent years, and his mouth was stuck open as stiffness set in, his feet still looked like dad.  No gnarly, oddly shaped toes or toenails.  No hairy ape feet.  I admired them one last time.  I looked down at my own feet covered in heavy socks as the funeral director zipped up the bag and began to maneuver the gurney toward the door.  I forced my own feet to move forward and followed. And then I began to cry.   About the Author:Ann Zuccardy – When a fall in a German bathtub in 2011 and the resulting brain injury (TBI) left me unable to continue in my corporate communications career, speak a coherent sentence, or read a book, I didn’t know or care why neuroplasticity mattered.  I didn’t even know what neuroplasticity was!  Over the last eight years I have devoted my life to studying current research about how the human brain works and how it can heal by creating new neural pathways throughout a lifetime.  I am specifically interested in how humor impacts brain/body health and learning.  I’ve traveled extensively and earned a master’s degree in English at the age of 57 since my TBI.  I am a professional speaker, with two TEDx talks about my brain injury recovery, and many keynotes under my belt.  I enjoy large followings on the major social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter).  I am an adjunct instructor and writing center tutor at Cecil College in North East, Maryland.  I split my time between homes in Vermont and Maryland.  I’m a dog mom, avid hiker, laughter yoga instructor, and I have a penchant for cupcakes.