I seem to be writing a lot about death lately. (Brings to mind the title of a book used in one of my Ph.D. courses, Sex and Death – it was a philosophy of biology text, and was aptly titled because, after all, evolutionary biology is all about sex and death; but sorry to disappoint – I’ll leave the writing about sex to someone else…) One of my more recent posts (included below, slightly edited) was on Facebook, and briefly recounted one event that happened the day before my dad passed away. There is more beyond that story. So added on to that, here are some further items of interest that happened over the ten days following.
* * *
For most of October I had been in Boise, Idaho helping my sister Clara and other members of our large family nurse our father through the last weeks and days of his life. For us this was a hard and emotional period but, paradoxically, it was also a happy and humorous time as well. My dad, Fred C “Cal” Smith, always had a quirky (and some would say corny) sense of humor that was just one step short of irrepressible. Even with the grim reaper staring him straight in the eye, Dad refused to blink, and he continued to find the humor in his circumstances, despite their looming finality.
This continued right up to Saturday, October 26th, the day before he died. My brother Kevin, a master craftsman in wood, delivered the oak coffin he had spent more than 60 hours lovingly building at Dad’s request. We unloaded the coffin onto the front lawn (“What will the neighbors think?” fretted my sister, totally ignored by the rest of us, who didn’t have to live there). Even as we wheeled Dad out through the garage to the front of the house he threatened to “get into the coffin and try it on for size.” We snuggled his wheelchair up close to the oaken box, and
he examined it appreciatively while we snapped pictures. Then someone opened the lid. Inside, resting on the coffin’s satin pillow was the zombie-head my niece Tiana had been hiding around the house in honor of Halloween in places most likely to startle people when suddenly come across. Dad got a real chuckle out of it, as did the rest of us.
Later, as I listened to his rough breathing just a few feet away on the other side of the Sponge Bob shower curtain jury-rigged to keep the kitchen light out of his room, my heart was warmed by the memory of my dad, just hours ago looking death in the face and saying “You can’t stop me from enjoying life until I have drunk it dry!”
* * *
There are two sequels to the story. The first happened as we were getting him ready to go see the coffin. I had helped him pull on new long-sleeved shirt and bright orange basketball shorts. Then, with two others of my brothers helping, we eased him into his wheelchair, then stood there talking back and forth over the top of Dad’s head about how best to get him outside. Feeling ignored, Dad demanded. “Well, what are you going to do with me now?”
“That’s easy, Dad,” I replied. “We’re going to wheel you out to the curb and put a sign on you, ‘Free to a Good Home.’” Everyone got a good laugh out of that too, as we wrestled Dad and his wheelchair out to the front yard to see the casket. After, as we were getting him and his wheelchair off the lawn and back onto the front walk, my youngest brother Sam hurried up with a piece of cardboard torn off the flap of a box. On it he had scrawled the words, “Free to a Good Home.” As he handed it to Dad, more laughter and photos ensued.
Dad passed away almost exactly 24 hours later. It was as if seeing the coffin was the last item on his bucket list, and now that was completed, it was time to leave. Nearly from the moment we wheeled him back into the house he began to decline. As the afternoon wore on, he got to be less and less responsive. It was my turn that night to sleep on the couch by his bedside, and it was long and rough night for both of us. His breath frequently came in ragged gasps, and he coughed often and deep. Once he vomited a nasty, vile liquid. Fortunately he was aware enough to alert me with grunts in time for me to catch most of it in the plastic tub we kept ready nearby. He moaned and muttered erratically in his sleep, and once, about 3:00 AM I think, shot his left hand up into the air and cried “I need a hand!” I was unsure what he meant, but I took his hand in mine and he drew both down to the bed and held mine there for most of the next hour. In the dark I half perched, half squatted on the edge of the couch and held his wrinkled, warm hand until he finally released his grip and shoved his arm back under the covers.
I prayed during that interminable night that his passing would be as pain free and peaceful as possible. I feel that my prayer was granted. While Dad experienced some respiratory distress, his pain seemed to be minimal – there was morphine available but he only called for it once, later the next morning on his final day. As the clock approached 1:40 PM on the afternoon of Sunday, October 27th, my father lived out the last few moments of his life. My brother Kevin, the master casket builder, held both of Dad’s hands. On the opposite side of the hospital bed, I cradled Dad’s arm. It was one of the hardest, yet easiest things I have ever done. There was sadness, but there was love; and, remarkably, there was also no regret, and no longer any anxiety or fear.
Eventually the hospice worker came and performed his various duties; then the mortuary arrived and took Dad’s body away. On the empty hospital bed, my brother Sam put the cardboard sign, now with appropriate letters blotted out. It read: “Free to Go Home.”
* * *
But there is one more story to tell. Dad was to be buried at the Veterans cemetery in Boulder City, Nevada, where my mom already rested, holding a spot for him. Just three weeks earlier, Dad had taken my brother Kevin and me aside and said, “Once I’m gone I don’t want some fancy hearse or expensive limousine to get me to Boulder City. I want you to put me in the back of a pickup truck or horse trailer and get me down there as cheaply as you can.” We weren’t sure that could legally be done, but we told him we’d do our best.
The week following his passing was a swirling tangle of travel and preparation. On Monday, the day after he died, I flew home from Boise to Austin for a little while, returning four days later on Friday, November 1st. We arranged the funeral, and conducted it the next morning, Saturday the 2nd of November. Dad’s Mormon church ward graciously put on a luncheon afterwards for the extended family and, after some further errands and arrangements, it was time to leave.
It turned out, you see, that it was legal to transport a properly-prepared body. Only you couldn’t do it in a pickup truck; it had to be an enclosed vehicle. So we ended up with a Dodge Grand Caravan rented from Avis instead – Kevin’s casket, with Dad in it, fit in just right with the van’s seats laid flat. The Dodge was glossy black – a perfect color for the trip. My film-maker son Christopher and my daughter Mary had come for the funeral. Mary had to return to Portland, but Christopher decided to tag along on the trip south to document this strange odyssey. We thought of it as three generations of Smiths on a road trip – one of them riding the whole way as a silent partner in the back. Christopher said it reminded him of William Faulkner’s novel, As I Lay Dying, “Only it’s got a Smith family reunion thrown in,” he remarked.
As we drove east from Boise on I-84 in the late afternoon light, the weather was cloudy, cold, and spitting tiny flakes of snow. Sixty miles east of Boise is the little railroad hamlet of Glenns Ferry, where Dad was born 87 years ago. I had been to Boise for his birthday on October 1st, just three days after his surprise diagnosis of stomach cancer. Along with Kevin, who was visiting then, too, and my youngest son Will, we took Dad to Glenns Ferry for the day to visit his old school (now turned town museum), the property where he was born, the ranch where he grew up, and the Snake River, which he rowed across every day to school. Surprisingly, he was able to rattle off for the museum docent (who until then had not had that information) the names of all the teachers, which grades they taught, and which classrooms they occupied. Kevin jotted down all this information and left it for the museum to use in future displays.
Now on this, Dad’s final journey, we decided to give him one last tour of his birthplace, even if he had been there just a month before. We pulled off the freeway into Glenns Ferry and pulled in for a commemorative milkshake at “The Stop,” the ancient drive-in burger joint just across the street from the cemetery where Dad’s parents lay buried. Then we
drove him past the old school, to the water tower on the bluff at the south edge of town that overlooks the river and the ranch, then across the bridge to the place of his nativity, and finally on into the dusk to Twin Falls, where we turned south. We spent the night at the Motel 6 in Wells, Nevada – a wide spot in the road where, 36 years before, I had totaled my pickup and nearly killed my family when I had fallen asleep and rear-ended a semi after driving all night during a transfer with the military. This time there was much less drama. Dad had to spend the night in the van, as it was impractical to get him into the cramped motel room. While we slept, a thin skim of snow fell, decorating the black van with white accents and crystalline beads of ice.
After breakfast, we headed south on US 93, through a crisp, beautiful day framed by freshly snow-draped mountains on either flank. My brother Kevin and his wife Barbara (who had also been by Dad’s bedside when he passed), drove escort behind us, bringing along with them our newlywed nephew Josh and his wife Brook. For the first half of the day I (a moderate conservative) and Christopher (a flaming liberal) argued politics, with Dad silent, but I’m sure amused, behind us.
In the United States there are few more barren spans of highway than the 500 miles of road stretching from Twin Falls to Las Vegas. I had been over it numerous times as a kid when my parents returned to their ancestral homes for summer visits. But I had never dreamed that I would drive it in this fashion, arguing politics with one of my offspring while my dead father kept us company in the back. I wouldn’t have wanted to do it any other way.
By late afternoon we got to Kevin’s house in Henderson, NV which lies between Las Vegas and Boulder City. I parked Dad and the van in Kevin’s garage until the following morning (Monday), when we would hold a memorial service at the chapel in Boulder City’s Veterans Memorial Cemetery with Dad as the guest of honor.
Next day, Sam was at the cemetery early to make sure everything was in order. But as I drove up, there was a look of concern on his face. He needed the paperwork the Boise mortuary had given us, or no burial was going to take place. I had it in the glove box, and handed it to him. We unloaded the casket and placed it in the front of the chapel. In seats before us were as many as 200 people who had come to pay their respects – more than had even attended the full funeral in Boise.
Just as we were finally set up and ready to start the memorial, Sam came up to me. “Paul, they say we need not just the Idaho permit, but also a Nevada burial permit. And we don’t have one!” And if we didn’t have one, it seemed, we would have to put Dad back in the van after the memorial service until such time as we did have one. Since the office where the permit could be procured was back in Las Vegas somewhere, everyone would be gone by the time Dad could be taken to the grave site. We continued with the memorial while Sam and I alternated between doing our parts of program and negotiating with the Veterans cemetery staff. We were trying to keep the folks attending from learning, then worrying about the crisis, but they could tell from minor confusions and pauses during the service that something wasn’t coming together quite right.
Finally, Tyson Smith, a local funeral director who, though no relation to us was friends with Kevin, stepped in and offered to secure the permit for us. We blessed him roundly and in the end, after fitting military honors for his World War II service with the Navy, Dad was escorted to his final resting place by his eight children and numerous friends, relatives, and well-wishers.
I know that Dad would have loved all the fuss and drama and attention that surrounded his final farewell. As for me, though I might have preferred to have some of it happen a little differently, I was still happy to oblige him with a going away celebration that I know left him laughing.