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When they took Dad to the hospital that last time, he called me from his room. "Lizzy, the paramedics asked me if I was on any medications. I told them everything but Viagra. Then they put the oxygen mask on me."
Those were the last actual words I heard him say.
It was my birthday and I was celebrating it at Coney Island with my sister Ann and her family. The cell phone service was crummy and the call went dead. I told the Viagra story to the group and we laughed. It was typical of Dad: dark, inappropriate, and funny.
"We'll call him later. Let's go see the sword swallower," I said.
Our sister Linda called me the following morning.
"You need to come home," she said in a voice that sounded like a little girl who had snuck away from the babysitter and called her parents because she was scared. "Dad is dying."
"How long does he have?" I said. I don't know where those words came from and couldn't believe I asked them as though I was talking about someone I didn't know. Ann, who was standing next to me, just stared.
"Maybe a day or two, so you need to come home now," Linda instructed.
"K, I'll tell Ann. I love you."
I didn't have to tell Ann. We both just started sobbing.
In his own way Dad, who had suffered from emphysema for years, had tried to prepare me for this day. A few months before his death he had sent me a card and had asked me not to open it "til after I'm gone."
Of course I opened it immediately.
The front was a photo of the Manhattan skyline. When I opened it, it simply said, "I love you. You are my favorite. Please don't tell the others."
The sentiment evoked a range of emotions in me at the time. It made me feel elated that I did something right. Then it made me feel bad for my brother and sisters. Finally, I felt horribly guilty for opening it.
I taped it open inside my jewelry box so I'd see it a lot and as I went to grab my pearls, my last item to pack for the trip to Minneapolis, where he lay dying, I glanced at it, and at that moment was selfishly grateful that Dad and I shared this secret.
Ann and I went straight to the hospital from the airport. As we approached Dad's room, the sound of laughter got louder. When we walked in, Mom was sitting in the chair next to Dad, and my brother and two sisters and sister-in-law were all sitting in a row on the extra bed in his room. Tears streamed down everyone's faces as they laughed.
Dad couldn't speak, but he could hear everything. His stomach was bouncing up and down, as he was laughing, too.
"What did we miss?" Ann asked the group desperately. "I hate when I miss any laughing."
"The meat! The gas station meat!" my brother said, choking through what I like to think of as dielarity.
Dielarity: /di-lair-it-ee/n: The dark humor created in the environment of or at the expense of someone dying.
Ahh, the gas station meat. The crown jewel in the pantheon of Dad's many "deal" stories. Dad loved driving around and looking for bargains. He usually found them in areas of the city where the only reason you would be there is if you were scoring crack. The merchandise was always stuff that no one wanted, never mind wanted to get a "deal" on. Which brings us to the gas station meat. We all took turns telling the tale of the bargain steaks he'd brought home once, after a trip across town in search of a cheaper tank of gas.
"I will never forget being halfway through my steak when you told us the story of how you bought them," I said, then continued in my best Dad baritone voice: "I was filling up the tank and notice this fella's got a station wagon there with the tailgate open. And the guy says, 'You want to check out my meat?' And at first I thought, 'Who is this weirdo who wants to show me his meat?'"
Dad was so proud of that dumb joke, his belly was in full force. Then the story reached its climax with each of us chiming in.
"That guy had half a cow in an old cardboard box in the back of that station wagon."
"That had come from God only knows where!"
"And Dad bought all of it!"
"For 40 bucks!"
"We were all sitting around eating black market roadkill."
Mom weighed in. "The ribs were really very good."
We swapped stories for a few more hours until the dielarity had exhausted us all.
Dielarious laughter is different than regular laughter, as it drains you of every emotion. It is an exhausting release of all the pain, fear, love, and loss that you had been holding in. If I didn't laugh, I would have spent that energy reminding myself that my life was about to change forever.
Dad's spirit was humor -- his and his family's. So ipso facto, if there was still laughter, he would continue to exist. That day, sitting in that hospital room with him and my mother and all my siblings, I wanted to laugh myself to sleep.
The next day was a long one. Dad's stomach-bouncing was minimal.
We didn't know what to do. We just sat, waiting to feel worse than we already did. That seemed almost impossible. A hospice worker suggested we each take some time alone with him to share our private thoughts. Finally, it was my turn.
At first I felt a bit afraid of being alone with Dad. His breathing pattern started sounding finite. Each inhale was a jarring gasp that seemed to come in 10-minute increments. When he exhaled, it sounded like a January wind whistling through a small crack in a window. I learned later that is what is fondly referred to in hospice circles as a "death rattle."
I climbed into bed with him and grabbed his hand. I put my lips right up to his ear, and spoke to him in my normal voice.
"Dad, squeeze my hand so I know you can hear me." He squeezed back. I wanted him to squeeze it off.
I didn't know where to start, so I started with apologizing for opening the card.
"Dad, I opened your card. I couldn't wait. I hope you're not mad. It made me feel so special."
He didn't squeeze my hand but his belly started to bounce. Right then, that felt better than a squeeze.
"You know I love you, and you are my inspiration to go out and make the world a funnier place."
"I know you let me win at Jeopardy!"
I wanted to say every single thing I ever felt, but I was in a verbal free fall, so I just wanted him to laugh.
"Dad, I have to tell you, I am who I am because of you, and that includes the bad parts, Mister!"
There was a knock on the door. It was the hospice worker. "The priest is here for the sacrament of the sick."
"Okay, just a minute," I said and then continued into Dad's ear, "You couldn't have done a better job of being a dad. I hope you are proud of me. I love you."
I kissed him on the forehead again and went to open the door for the priest and his last rites.
Afterward, everyone filed in and took their places. Then a nurse came in and checked on Dad again. "It is time," she informed us. "Your dad will pass within the hour."
By now, we were about 15 people gathered and sitting on Dad's bed. His breathing became so shallow, so slow, that as a family we all tried to breathe for him. As a group we inhaled with him and painfully watched as he choked out an exhale, like he had breathed in a box of tacks. It was the worst 30 minutes of our lives. Each of us wanted his pain to end, and we took turns assuring him that he could go, that we would all be okay.
Finally he took his last breath. We didn't know what to do. We just sat there, wept and stared at our dead dad. Before I could even form my first thoughts, I looked over at Mom.
She was still holding his hand.
"He loved you kids so much, you were his world. He always hoped he told you enough. It's why he sent you kids the cards to open after he died, so you would always have a reminder."
"I keep mine open in my jewelry case," I said, in an attempt to let her know that we all knew just how much Dad loved us.
Then I thought, They all got cards?
"Oh, you opened it?" Mom asked, knowingly. I guess he had told her he was sending us cards, but did he reveal our secret to her? I couldn't imagine he did.
"And did the rest of you open your cards too?" Mom asked.
Everyone nodded. They were all clearly ashamed, but you could read in each person's face how much Dad's special words gave them peace.
"Dad wanted you to open those cards after he died, and since you all went against his wishes and already have, I would love to hear what he wrote to each of you," Mom said. "Lizz, you start."
This cannot be happening. My father has been dead for five minutes and I am about to make people feel worse than they already do?
I didn't know what to do. Should I lie? Wait, I can't lie. The first thing I do after Dad is dead is to lie? I don't think so. I haven't even had a decent cry yet.
"Mom, maybe now is not the time," Linda said, to my relief.
"Let's just focus on Dad and you," Ann added.
Crisis averted. No one wanted to read their cards, either. I felt relieved and now I was not the bad guy who denied Mom.
"Lizz, you start," Mom repeated. She was not letting this go.
The only person who could make this stop was lying there not doing anything. Finally, I started crying.
"The card said, 'I love you. You were my favorite. Please don't -- '" And before I'd finished, all my siblings had joined me in unison, " -- tell the others."
Mom had a smile on her face that would've put the Cheshire Cat to shame. The room erupted with convulsions of dielarity. Dad had pulled off the greatest gotcha moment of his life. And at his death, no less.
He knew we all would open that card the second we got it. And he knew that we would all believe what he wrote. And relish it and find some smug superiority in it. But more than anything else, he knew how hard we would laugh when we found out, having to laugh at our own ridiculousness and remembering that he made us laugh, even after his death. He knew that this moment would be more precious than ever feeling like the favorite.
His greatest moment of hilarity and he couldn't even take a bow. Not physically, anyway. But in our minds, he graciously appreciated our standing ovation.
Bravo, Dad. Bravo.
Adapted from Lizz Free or Die, by Lizz Winstead. Copyright © 2012 by Shoot the Messenger Productions, Inc. Reprinted with permission of Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., New York, New York.