Fathers, Feet, and Farts—Forever & Ever, Amen.
by LA Jamison
It felt strange and maybe even dangerous, but even though I was driving, I reached over to grab my father’s hand. Holding my mom’s hand was a no brainer and always easy to do. This was different. My father and I never had that kind of intimacy, and it was also not something two American guys typically do. However, things were different now. My father was on his way to his first session of radiation treatment and the cancer wasn’t the nicer, less aggressive kind. I knew he must be scared though he didn’t show it. I don’t think I ever saw my father scared and today was no exception. Still, I held his hand and imagined he might pull it away. Instead, he squeezed it, gently affirming that he appreciated it. His hands were big and puffy from years of screw machine work that was now screwing him back. The supervisors where he worked weren’t too good at protecting workers from dangerous chemicals, and it is my belief these loose and free chemicals are what eventually gave him cancer. I caressed his hand with one finger, feeling around his hand like a child might do for the first time exploring his father. Calloused, hard, unforgiving as the nails and skin were, our squeezes back and forth reminded each other that we were soothing each other souls. I couldn’t help but think of our past and what our future would be on this sobering car ride with mom who rode quietly in back keeping watching over the oxygen tank.
As with any father and son relationship, my father and I had our ups and downs. Truth be told, before the age of 30, our communication was pretty rocky when we had any. Our differences in physicality seemed to symbolize some of our internal differences. I was very tall and thin. My father was short and stocky. I had light brown, hair and blue eyes. My father had dark, thinning hair and brown eyes. I was the youngest with two older sisters. He had been the oldest with two younger brothers. My father had a big work ethic and when he wasn’t working, he was a big sports enthusiast. Actually, in the days when baseball wasn’t seen as a noble career option, he had been scouted for the Red Sox to play for them because of his fast pitching speed. However, he wasn’t allowed to and was forced to stick with the family trade—manufacturing. Meanwhile, I was someone whose mind worked hard rather than working out of sheer brawn. I was lacking in the work ethic department as most kids are. I was big time into my imagination and skirted physical labor in place of creating stories, playing make-believe, writing, and reading.
This isn’t to say we were 24/7 in opposition to each other. We had commonalities with a great degree of interest in movies, humor, sci-fi and even certain anxieties. My dad had an imagination but it was essentially beaten down as something unproductive in the industrial age. I also give a lot of thanks to Bud and Lou Costello: We had many laughs over them together. In addition, my father loved my music ability and came to all my concerts in which I performed with the clarinet. In turn, as I grew older and could get over myself by becoming more spiritually minded, I entered my dad’s world of golf which he loved. I hated it at first, but I knew he loved it. He excitingly engaged in giving so many tips and instructions that I felt like a human pretzel before I even hit a ball, but soon I learned to enjoy these field trips out in nature.
Here we were though--on this car ride to his first radiation treatment. It was 2004. Both my father and my oldest sister were diagnosed with cancer this same year. I had hoped their future would be a few radiation treatments and maybe both of them would be done with cancer for good. One can hope. This was not what happened, sadly. Instead, I had to watch both my father and sister transform into bodies of suffering I had never witnessed before. There was nothing quick or easy about the demise in their physical presence. Despite this, my father and I became even closer as I had just finished reading “Tuesdays with Morrie” by Mitch Album. I decided after Mitch’s calling for us to be open with our loved ones before they were “six feet under”, that I would talk to my dad about everything. We would talk and pray regularly. There was fast coming the day where I would not be able to talk to him anymore. I told him about being struggling with a gay identity and trying to accept myself, my fears with him, and all the things I appreciated about him. What I wasn’t expecting is that my father would do the same. This man who had once felt more machine than human to me got down to sharing his deepest secrets and fears.
When Hospice was called into the home, I had a hard time leaving my dad’s side by that point. The one thing I didn’t want for my dad was a sense of being left alone in a room to die. I was worried that his only view, twenty-four hours a day, were the pale, white walls of our apartment which could easily give anyone a sense of an all-consuming end into nothingness. There was nothing for him to look at but a TV and the white wash into an oblivion of those apartment walls. I knew what hopelessness felt like. Bullies and a gay identity that didn’t fit into accepted norms of society or my faith gave me a very early initiation into a sense of all-consuming hopelessness. But, my faith was stronger than that, even stronger than the organized religion that protested hope for the likes me. I didn’t believe in hopelessness in such a beautiful world as this, at least, not anymore. My father was quick to find blame for himself for any sense of hopelessness and I wasn't going to allow that.
Therefore, I devised a subtle physical gesture to let my dad know someone was in the room with him. It all had to do with his feet since the medical bed had a railing and his feet were the most accessible to physical touch. It struck me how often, even when my dad was well, that he would sit in his lounge chair with his eyes closed. He was rarely asleep and would often humorously say that he was just checking his eyelids for cracks. It seemed like he was trying to block something out or waiting for some grief to pass by. Had he, all this time, been waiting to die? The thought of that was too sad for me to bare. Therefore, if his eyes were closed, I would squeeze his big toe as I walked by his bed so at least he knew he wasn’t alone.
His life was slowly, painfully sucked out of him like some kind of sinister Steven Spielberg special effect over that year. I saw him afraid for the first time and cry for the last time. Of course, the closer to death he got, the less he was present. Even so, I would still gently squeeze his big toe as I walked by the bed to let him know I was there. As the time grew closer, it became like watching a child come up for air from a pool, but less and less, as my dad’s consciousness went in and out. At one point, he marvelously exclaimed, “They are making me into an angel! They are making me into an angel!” It was interesting because I had been thinking that if I was God, I would turn him into an angel.
My connection to the divine and supernatural experiences could make for a book. Throughout my life, I’ve been fortunate that way. When my own faith falters, all I have to do is recount even a small portion of my experiences, and I know I would be a fool to doubt there is more on the other side of death. I'm not the only one in my family who have had what I will just term as "experiences". I, therefore, wondered what I would experience around my dad’s death. Miracles, the supernatural, are very unpredictable. You can’t call it up on cue--at least, I can’t. However, I had heard of people sensing their loved one’s spirit when they passed. I was hoping for something like that. After all, it felt like dad had been gone for several months now and that only his outer shell remained… so maybe I would sense his spirit going to heaven?
The final night came uneventfully. As a matter of fact, my father had been so much more asleep by this time than awake, we really weren’t sure if he was alive as this particular evening rolled around. None of us was too sure what to do. We could hardly tell if he was breathing. Myself, mom and sister gathered around his bed after getting over the creepy feeling that dad had passed away on our watch without us knowing. We now noticed him swallow at one point as we stood there laser focused on his body. Was he breathing? Had that just been his final breath? Where was his spirit? And then it happened…
Building up within my intestines like a marble was a ball of gas traveling down my intestinal track. No, I said to myself. This was not going to happen, not now. This was a sacred moment. Despite shifting my stance, clenching of my cheeks, the gas bubble came out anyway. The raw brutality rippled the cheeks of my soul with disappointment and shame. Fortunately, no one heard it. I was the only one who knew. This was not the supernatural experience I was hoping for! He was to release the ghost, not me. There were no inspirational Hallmark movies I remembered watching of people surrounding their loved one's death bed and farting. How could this happen here and now? We could hardly tell if he was alive or dead and I had just farted for the send-off?
When we all were able to determine that my father indeed was no longer breathing, we called 911 and hid in another room. It was too much for us to see his body carried out. Too real. Time of death: Uncertain. I had hoped for maybe some last encounter with my father’s spirit, but I was okay that this did not happen. He had a peaceful passing and Hospice had done a great job in his transition to another dimension. This was all that really mattered.
Even so, dad wasn’t done with me yet. One evening, several weeks after my father’s funeral, I was jarred awake when someone grabbed my big toe--just like the signal I gave my dad when I entered a room. I was sure my mom had come into the room to tell me something. I sat up in bed expecting to see mom and said, “What do you want, mom? What’s the matter?”; nevertheless, no one was at the end of my bed. My father had turned the tables. He was the one letting me know I wasn’t alone this time. Or, maybe he was letting me know what it felt like to had been waken up by squeezing someone's toe mid sleep--a little startling. In either case, I was glad to have gotten to experience my dad once more.