"We are running out of time," Albert said in a soft, quivering voice as he sat in his favorite chair right in front of me. I didn't want to hear that or accept it. My eyes tried their best not to look directly at him and instead fell upon the table where the warm morning breeze made the white lace curtains billow and the sunlight dance.
Albert let his arm slowly extend towards me, quietly falling on the table; his hand lay motionless, facing up in surrender. Merely a foot away, it was pointing towards my heart, waiting.
I was afraid to touch him. It would start something I might not be able to stop. Up to this moment, I was in control of at least one thing, me.
But now, the pressure was quickly building inside my chest with every tick, tick, tick, his grandfather's clock made. Still, I did not look at him, and his hand did not curl away, unlike the smoke from the cigarette he was holding with his other hand.
The six words had somehow slowed down time, and I, once his partner in crime, wanted to seize the moment and hold onto it as if my life depended on it. The air was filled with glimpses of our past, dangling in the forefront of our minds. I wanted to capture every detail around us as if we were the subjects of a Norman Rockwell painting. The crumbs on our breakfast plates, the steam rising from my hot cup of coffee, and the lace tablecloth that prettied everything up. So picture perfect, you could imagine the smell of freshly baked bread and a simmering pot of strawberries turning to jam on the back burner of the stove.
My eyes ignored my silent commands and zeroed in on his big blue eyes, exactly like mine. He had been waiting for this; he was patient that way.
I was wrong; it wasn't the touch of his hand that would release my heart from my control. It was those six words that had started this whole silent conversation.
My throat was begging me to let it go as I struggled to strangle the passageway shut and not let anything pass. I couldn't let the words my heart wanted to cry out have a voice. I held my breath, my tears, my inner child's cries. I would not let the unspeakable, unacceptable to be said. Not if I could help it. I kept holding my breath as if I was underwater. I wanted to drown my emotions by swallowing them. But the tide kept trying to push through the barrage of words and feelings that I couldn't hold back much longer. In seconds, they would gush out with the breath I was obliged to take. I gasped as the air finally rolled in and gave way to a strange, wounded sound escaping from within. In one last attempt, I closed my eyes and concentrated on my throat, squeezing it shut again.
But my unyielding focus foolishly distracted me from the tears that had suddenly appeared, in defiance of my control, by tinkering on the brink of that which would inevitably break me.
"Don't you dare cry!" I silently ordered myself, knowing I had lost the battle the day his doctors told me, he had but a few months to live.
Here we were on this beautiful, sunny Saturday morning. Father and daughter. He had asked me to come by for breakfast.
Until now, I had all the excuses, running around, taking care of my kids, going to work, making supper, and dropping in at my parents' house morning and night. Busy with all these things so I wouldn't feel overwhelmed, but rather in control. Of course, I knew it was temporary and that if I stopped, which he asked me to do this Saturday morning, I might break down. It would force me to have a face-to-face with reality, none of which I was ready for or wanted.
But I had no choice, and every fibre of my body screamed. I knew if I pressed pause, even for a second, it would hit me that this, was one of the most profound moments my heart and soul would experience. Much like the birth of my children, his death would be inscribed on the timeline of my life.
Although I wanted to pass every extra moment with my dad, I was fighting it, afraid of the talk we needed to have.
My tears were now betraying me, washing my foundation away, leaving warm traces that left me vulnerable and exposed.
"I know," was all I could respond to his six words.
I reached across the table and gently put my hand in his, releasing the sobbing I had controlled so well up to this precise second.
"Oh, Daddy!" I cried, my body trembling, my heart thanking me for its release. His hand was so warm, so soft, not one callous on it. These were an artist's hands, which had always been softer than anyone else's, including my own. I closed my eyes, took his hand, brought it to my face, and inhaled his palm and scent. I wanted to remember this exact smell, his smell. Trying to embed it in the recesses of my mind so I could recall it when I wished or needed to. I pressed his hand against my cheek, and his fingers began to caress my face affectionately, giving my tears a new place to run.
I desperately wanted to stop this moment. My father looked as vulnerable as I felt. His long strands of tousled brown hair brushing against his forehead made him look like a young man. But his yellowing eyes betrayed him. He fought to keep it all in. I learned it from the best. But I saw his upcoming battle drawing near. He gently wiped my tears with his fingers, causing his own breakdown. He had never been one for words, especially in emotional times caused by a painful past, which he preferred to leave buried. There was no need to utter a sound. Our eyes were doing the speaking, laying bare the pain, every tear sharing an unspoken word. Each tear bore a memory; my birth, childhood, time together, and the conversations we loved to have.
Our hands finally rested on the table, holding tight, not daring to let go, just in case this moment would disappear forever.
"You know Anne; I am dying. But this dreadful disease has ironically given me a lot of time to deal with what is going on, what will happen, and I have finally come to terms with it."
I bit my lip, and he raised his hand, telling me to stop. I wanted to cry out, "You're giving up! Fight! Fight this damn cancer! You are too young to die!" But with every ounce of restraint I could muster, I swallowed, fought back my rebellious rage, and respectfully stayed quiet.
"It's okay, I am at the end of my journey. No use denying it; there is only one way out, and I am almost ready for my next destination."
My mom came to the table with a fresh pot of coffee; her eyes also filled with tears. She, too, was holding on to the few precious, no longer ordinary days left. She poured dad a refill which unintentionally broke our connection; our hands separated.
My eyes closed tightly, trying to hide my feelings of nostalgic despair. There weren't going to be that many, if any, more of these moments. Would I have the chance of reliving this "blessed temporal illusion of having time stop long enough for us to witness, embrace and treasure" again? I didn't have enough weeks, days, hours, or minutes to cherish. The only thing I had in my near future was a defined timeline filled with unsaid limitations and distractions. Furthermore, it was clear that I had to share what I would give anything for, with others who also loved him.
He slurped his coffee, and as he inhaled a puff of smoke that never came out, I inhaled the serenity of the moment. The pressure in my chest and my throat had subsided. I had unknowingly surrendered.
I looked across the room and noticed his last work of art hanging on the wall. He followed my gaze.
"I'm calling it Hibernation," he stated.
"I remember you started it a while back. It's spectacular but so unlike your other work. A spacecraft with people in suspended animation? When did you start this exactly?" I asked.
"Three years ago. It was almost as if I knew. I've even added myself in one of the pods, ready for my final destination," my father admitted nonchalantly.
Our discussion over his artistic endeavours, spirituality, and love of science quickly returned as if there was no illness, no impending deadline.
That was his last good day. He slept more than half the rest away. Our conversations became shorter, with hallucinations dominating half of them. Mademoiselle Morphine had replaced me, unabashedly stealing the tiny tranches of time I thought I had left. She had lulled him quickly away to a place between here and there.
I spent most of my time alone in their presence, he and his Angel of mercy. I played calming music in the oppressively sterile white room. My mother and I hung his painting nearby and played Jonathan Livingston Seagull, his favorite story. We passed our days in quiet serenity as we knew nothing could change, gathering the courage to make the most of the hours we had left. I was here, and he was already halfway to the other side, or how he preferred to call it, his next destination. I sat beside him holding his motionless, almost lifeless hand. Silently crying, finding it almost impossible to catch my breath.
"It was time," his doctor suggested. "You have to let him go."
I remember whispering to him, the hardest thing I ever thought I could say; "Oh, Daddy! It's okay. It's time to go. Follow the light, go to the stars; they are all waiting for you to climb aboard to fly to your next destination," I whimpered as I pressed the morphine button again and finally fell asleep in the cot next to him.
But he didn't leave right away. He waited, purposefully, I think.
It was peculiar how it all happened. Tex, one of his friends, had come by the hospital for a visit and asked, "When was the last time you two had supper together?"
My mother and I stared blankly at each other, searching through the recent chaos. We couldn't remember. It took a little coaxing from Tex to convince my mother. As for me, my insides trembled, and I felt a terrible uncertainty. "We'll have plenty of time later to go out to dinner!" I replied, trying to dissuade her.
Tex sat next to my father. It took me by surprise to see him pull out a sketch pad and pencils from his satchel, and start drawing my father's hands. "These are a master's instruments," he said, trying to immortalize a part of my father's artistic genius on paper. I reluctantly decided that this might be a good time to have a bite to eat.
It hardly took any time at all. My phone rang, and Tex told us to return at once.
It was too late. My father had chosen to leave without saying goodbye. He didn't want us to live his last breath. The room was eerily quiet; I kept expecting his lungs to gasp for air. But the prolonged distressed breathing and heaving of his chest had stopped. He lay peacefully facing the last masterpiece he had created. I talked to him without saying a word; my tears said more. It was not that strange, the silence between us; we never needed to speak to know what the other was thinking.
The lights started flickering, forcing me to look away from his face. A way of telling me my time with him was over. Within seconds my mother walked in. It was now her turn.
I thought back at our Saturday morning breakfast a few weeks back and how our symbiotic moment of deep sharing, of profound awareness, was maybe a blessing—a way for both of us to mourn and heal.
In a way, his six words had not only made time stop but had given me so much more. I have often taken the time to intentionally stop moments like the one I had that day with my dad. To this day, I try to stay focused, aware of everything around me, and cherish these glimpses of time. It's talking with a loved one, giving an extra few seconds when hugging someone, or making an effort to get a stranger to smile.
The best thing, I must admit, is when I am quietly sitting in my favorite chair, I can find my way back to that breakfast table, where those moments with him made a fundamental change in my life. And now, like my father, I am waiting for my children to come for morning brunch. This beautiful Saturday morning is perfect for a conversation about six little words.