A Good Death

by Darci Schummer

“I’m protesting Dad’s death,” my mom says. The day before he dies, she emerges from their bedroom wearing one of his shirts. We are all wearing them now: me, my sisters, my brother. I started it but don’t know why. I just know it feels good inside the hollow lengths of denim. When I reach my arms out, the material hangs like faded blue wings. 

Every two hours, we drop liquid morphine into the open door of my father’s mouth. His eyes sink, his temples hollow. His breath becomes the metronome of the house. We know it will stop. We know it will be soon. We just don’t believe it. This is a good death, we are told.

The wait is an opera during which we eat tiny bits of sweets, busy ourselves with unnecessary tasks. We have been laid off from important jobs: We no longer soothe my father during dementia-fueled insomnia. We no longer rub his back and say “Just let it go,” while holding a plastic urinal. We no longer monitor his movement against falls. 

There is nothing left to do but wait.

My sisters and I mill around the yard. Late summer in Wisconsin, everything is green. Everything buzzes, frenetic with the temporality of the Midwest. A swarm of dragonflies materializes. The insects chase each other, their black bodies rising among the grasses, the weeds. “Look at that,” we say. We pretend it is coincidence. Then we rush back inside to listen for our father’s hard breaths, holding ours when there is a break between his.

The day before my father dies, everyone talks to him. His hands begin to smell like decaying lavender. It doesn’t matter to us. We hold them in our hands, to our cheeks. “I love you,” we say. “I’m sorry for that time I _______,” we say. My father’s love could bristle; it was hard, sometimes dangerous. But as we talk to him, he lies there like a priest, silently absolving us of our transgressions. 

“He can hear you,” the tattooed hospice nurse tells us. She has a smoker’s voice; it makes her believable. “He’s close now. He’s very close,” she says.

In the middle of the night, my mother gathers us from the corners of the house. “His breathing is changing,” she says. We listen around the bed. We wait. I feel my father’s heart beat through his feet. We wait. The color of November displaces the ruddiness of my father’s face. We wait. The time between his breaths lengthens. We wait. 

Then the sudden finale; the waiting ends. He was and now he is not.

I run outside and heave beneath the bright constellations of the northern hemisphere. No one explains the terror of a good death. 

Back inside, I take the watch from my father’s wrist and put it on my wrist. I do not take it off. In this way, time never stops. 

The hospice nurse arrives to dispose of medications. The man from the funeral home arrives to turn my father into ash. We wear my father’s shirts and stand with our backs to the gurney, our arms around each other as he is wheeled out. “Don’t look,” my mother says. “Just don’t look.” 

When everything is over, I lie alone on an air mattress in my childhood bedroom. As cars pass intermittently on the two-lane highway outside, I push the button labeled INDIGLO on my father’s wristwatch over and over just to see its face come alive in the darkness.

Originally published in Matchbook. Click here to read Darci Schummer’s reflection on writing about caregiving.

Darci Schummer is the author of the story collection Six Months in the Midwest (Unsolicited Press) and the forthcoming novel The Ballad of Two Sisters (Unsolicited Press). Her work has appeared in Ninth Letter, Folio, Jet Fuel Review, Pithead Chapel, Atticus Review, MAYDAY, and Heavy Feather Review, among other places. Her work has been nominated both for Pushcart Prizes and Best of the Net. She teaches writing at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College where she also serves as faculty editor of The Thunderbird Review.

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