Every family dies a different way

Michael Chabon’s father died slowly, over the course of days and weeks, and he sat by his bedside writing Star Trek scripts. Now he’s written about how he felt during that long lingering time.

I’d tried talking aloud to my father a few times in the hours since he’d lost consciousness, telling him all the things that, I’d read, you were supposed to tell a dying parent. There was never any trace of a response. No twitch of an eye or a cheek, no ghost of a tender or rueful smile. I wanted to believe that he’d heard me, heard that I loved him, that I forgave him, that I was thankful to him for having taught me to love so many of the things I loved most, “Star Trek” among them, but it felt like throwing a wish and a penny into a dry fountain. My father and I had already done all the talking we were ever going to do.

He made me think of my father’s death, which was different in every way possible. No slow decline, no confinement to bed, no slipping into unconsciousness for my family. The last time I heard his voice was in a phone call on Christmas day — I talked to my mother for a while, she asked if I wanted to talk to my father, and “Sure,” I said. She called out to him, where he was working on Christmas dinner, a very Dad thing for him to do, and all I heard in the distance was a strangled yell and “GOD. DAMNED. CAT!” and Mom laughed and said he can’t come to the phone right now.

So those were my father’s last words to me. I have tried to live by them ever since.

The next morning my mother called to say he had died in his sleep. I missed my chance to talk back and tell him all the things Chabon said to his father. Oh well. We were never estranged, there was never any conflict between us, so I guess we just lived those things instead.

I’d still like to have that conversation, though. God damned cat.


  1. mikehuben says

    My own father died a slow and painful death, from Alzheimers and pancreatic cancer over a period of 2 years. We could give him instants of pleasure, but knew that they would fade in a few seconds.

    I had a much better experience with my Aikido sensei. I had gotten a print of a great Japanese-style painting of him throwing an enormous demon off a bridge. As I was heading to the framing shop, I saw him in a restaurant with other instructors. I went in to show him the picture. He took one look at it, and said “That’s me throwing you!” Much hilarity ensued. He died in his sleep two days later.

  2. redwood says

    I was 14 when my dad died so I never really got to talk to him about stuff. I’m happy that I’ve been able to have some good talks with my two adult children. They both grew up in Japan, so a lot of it was explaining the American side of things to them, usually along the lines of God. Damned. US!

  3. Bruce Fuentes says

    My father passed away a couple years ago. He died slowly of lymphoma. I spent a couple days with him at the nursing home the week before he died. At Christmas time before he died he said if he made it to the first of the year he would make it to his birthday on March 21.
    My younger brother and his wife lived with my father since my mother passed away a few years earlier. On my father’s birthday my brother stopped on his way to work about 5:30 in the morning. At that time my father was not consciousness, he told my father it was his birthday and he could let go. 30 minutes later my sister-in-law stopped on her way to work and my father was gone. The stubborn old goat did it.

  4. davidc1 says

    My dad died in hospital after a short illness ,he was so out of it on painkillers at the end we could not talk to him .
    But the day he arrived in the hospital he was wanting to write a letter to the local paper about his being kept in hospital against his will ,and when it was still possible to talk to him ,i said something to him and he gave a chuckle and shot me such a strange look .
    Can’t remember what i said ,dog knows what he thought i said .

    Wish i could have told him i would look after my twin brother when my mum was no longer here .

  5. VolcanoMan says

    Yikes. This is an eerily coincidental thread. Last night, an ambulance came to a neighbour’s house, a guy with whom I wasn’t exactly friends (though my father was), but I did know him pretty well, chatted with him a lot whenever I saw him, nice guy in his late 60s I think. Anyway, I got a call from another neighbour this morning who told me he’d had a massive heart attack, and that they couldn’t revive him in hospital (an all-too-common story for middle-aged and elderly men, I’m afraid). And I was just thinking about HIS kids…and grandkids…who all live pretty far away and don’t see him that often. I wonder what words were spoken there that turned out to be his last to them.

    I’m not sure which is better…to go quickly and unexpectedly, or to linger for years of ever-declining health. For the dead person, I expect it’s the former, no contest. No time for regrets, no time for pain. But for the family…it’s a bit of a mixed thing. Sure, you’d like time to say goodbye, but seeing a loved one eaten alive by cancer or gradually lose their mind from Alzheimer’s can be the worst thing in the world, save for being the one who is actually suffering these indignitities of course. I’ve only had personal experience with the lingering deaths, though sometimes, not THAT lingering…my grandfather took about 2 months from the “he’s turned yellow” stage where we knew something was wrong and took him to the hospital, to death…cancer of the gallbladder is often caught late, and death comes fairly quickly. But that was still a much better experience for everyone than his wife’s (my grandmother’s) death 9 years later, where she was basically dying for 5+ of those years from any number of afflictions, including probably Alzheimer’s.

  6. Jazzlet says

    For me fast is better, my mother died of a stroke at 64, my dad after having lost his entire very large intellectual capacity to Parkinson’s at 91. My mother’s death was easy for her and hard for the family – I was only 20, but my dad’s was far harder for him and so for us too, watching his intellect disappear while he, who prized the intellect so highly, knew exactly what was happening to him. No doubt in my my which is easier for everyone involved, unless you really hate the person dying.

  7. says

    I am grappling with this sort of thing right now, from the other side. My father is alive and in reasonable health for his age, but definitely a senior citizen, and I haven’t properly spoken to him in years for… very good reasons I will not go into here. I don’t want him to die while this is still the case, so I am working on some sort of reconciliation, but… that will take a kind of self-awareness and vulnerability on his part that I am not convinced he is capable of showing to anyone but my mother…