by Sheryl McGourty
“How ‘bout some steamed carrots, they’re good for me, right?” This simple question had weight. My dad relinquished his trust to me in most health-related matters. Swinging his legs over the side of a stiff and unwelcomed American HomePatient bed, he was prepared to eat. His daily routine was holding an attachment to the world. My father would die five days later.
I spent weeks in his kitchen vacillating between reality and desire. Preparing ginger tea with ghee to relieve his constipation from whopping opiate doses, administering CBD oil for added pain relief and making easy to digest foods for a system that was shutting down. I wanted to believe there had been a misdiagnosis and that my actions would somehow sustain his life.
Finishing the carrots, he asked, “Could you get me a little pistachio ice cream?” This question was dropped with a smirk, the little boy sitting in the body of a dying man. He is the reason I feel an affinity for foods like pistachio ice cream, mashed potatoes, and clam dip.
As someone is dying expectations can ensue. Like movie scenes played out where the dying are making reconciliations, giving and receiving apologies, exposing regrets and sharing memories. What I came to witness is that someone’s death can often closely reflect the essence of how they lived.
In the weeks before he died, we took short outings to nearby beautiful places in Massachusetts, familiar places rich with memory: Indian Lake, Mt. Wachusett, and Rutland State Park. My sister and I would set up a chair for him from where he could look out over the water. The sensory experience of childhood hung thick in the east coast humidity, the ground blanketed with pine needles baking in the summer sun and overhead sounds of insects descended from deciduous trees. On one of our last car rides home together, I noticed the depth of our silence. I had a sudden pressure to initiate a conversation, but quickly surrendered to the Bruce Springsteen station on satellite radio. This has always been the familiar with my father, spaces of quietude, words in that moment could not improve upon the silence.
The days leading up to his death were a miscellany of morphine, disorientation, pain, sleep, labored breathing, cracked lips, dry mouth, repose and quiet. Moments of tearfully listening to Bob Seger, my dad’s favorite, while praying and expressing my love and acceptance for him to make the transition.
On July 18, 2016, my dad died. I stayed in his townhouse for a week before returning to Colorado. I puttered around his place as he would, cleaning, opening drawers, cabinets, closets, and rediscovering his cellar. There I found every card I made and the words I had written to him over the years. My dad in his left-handed, neat, and all-caps writing marked the year on the back of each one. I found my first typewriter attempt that read “Dear Dad, I Love You Very Much. Love, Sheryl.” I was seven. That note is now framed in my house, a complete sentiment.
My dad and I shared a few things in common, appreciating days alone and at home cleaning, straightening, sorting, and making sense of our world through quiet organization.
One evening, while looking into the mirror of his downstairs bathroom, I recognized him in my entire being, but what spoke to my soul was our hands. Some months later, I had a dream in which I was watching my dad fold kitchen tea towels with precision. What on the surface seemed oddly unrelated opened into a tender realization of our likeness. There is a lesson in understanding his role in my life, gleaning complex realities in DNA ancestry and a necessary disorientation that death carries which unexpectedly propels us further into the heart.
I packed my dad’s blue suitcase with some of his belongings and flew back to Colorado. Over a year later, the suitcase remains in my dining room. It is a slow unpacking. Many items have taken residence in my home. His bedspread has become my son’s, the Pompeian Bronze Company lamp from the 1920s gifts warm light, the camel colored v-neck cashmere sweater hangs in the closet, and when scrunched together around my nose, I can smell him. My hands reach reverently for his potato masher, stainless copper clad pots, and vintage nesting pyrex bowls in primary colors, while my house projects invite his measuring tape, screwdriver, and level to extend their purpose.
At times, I’ve wondered what my last meal, moments, and circumstances might be like. I imagine the feeling of quiet, basking in the splendor of nature and discovering a new intimacy with presence. My last meal is harder to imagine. I pray it’s not a strange hospital puree with a cup of freezer-burned sorbet.
Steamed carrots followed by good pistachio ice cream was his perfect choice, simple and familiar, much like my dad. 6
A lover of life, language, and embodiment, Sheryl McGourty feels blessed to share a home with her son and dog, both more wise than she. Sheryl owns Yogadurango yoga studio.