On the January day after we buried my father, I drove back to my home in Wisconsin from my real home in Nebraska. I had been there for a week, and I needed to return to work. Thoughts of my father were as constant as the telephone poles along each mile of road, and all of the wires seemed to sag with an ice of grief. Along the highway in northeastern Iowa, I saw the fuel gauge needle hovering near the red zone, and I thought at once of a little town in Nebraska named Palmyra.
I remember only one instance of my father’s car running out of gas, although it must have happened more than once. We were on our way to Omaha to visit relatives. I have a memory of the five-year-old 1953 Chevrolet parked along a busy highway on the southern approaches to the city. The rest of the images are hazy but are not difficult to reconstruct. My mother sits on the passenger side. She has her arms folded and an “I-told-him-so” look on her face. She also has a country-bred edginess about being abandoned, however temporarily, to the mercies of suburbanites and other highway pirates. My brother sits in the left rear seat with all the wise cynicism of the first-born written across his face. My sister is in the right rear seat and I (the youngest, at 7) suffer the hump in the middle and my brother’s right elbow and knee. My sister and I watch as our father, on his way to find gasoline, dwindles to a speck moving almost imperceptibly up the hill. Then, as though the sky has swallowed him up, he is gone. This vision of him will return as we watch him fade from our lives when we are middle-aged, after he has suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. We are then not so certain why he must leave us as we were on that roadside south of Omaha.
I can also reconstruct the events leading up to this minor road crisis in 1958. We are taking a rare trip away from the duties of dairy farm life. It is a spring Sunday, most certainly an event of some familial importance such as a birthday or perhaps a baptism: nothing else could have caused us to miss our own Sunday morning church services. We visited my Omaha aunt, uncle, and cousins only a few times in my childhood. (We saw them more often at our grandparents’ house in the family hometown, near which we lived.) Dad, impatient to get on the road, would have herded us into the car. He might have glanced at the fuel gauge, made a quick calculation, and driven off without refueling from the gasoline tank on our farm. My mother would have eyed the gauge from Nebraska City northward. As Plattsmouth came into view 20 miles later, she might have expressed her fears about running out of gas. Dad would have turned to her and said, “Alice Marie, we could get to Palmyra and back.”
Palmyra and back. That was my father’s stock response to doubts expressed about adequate supplies of anything from fuel to faith. Why Palmyra? The answer is not certain. Palmyra was only another little farming village some 45 miles away, near Lincoln. It had nothing to recommend it for an instructive fable. Unlike its Biblical counterpart, the Nebraska Palmyra had no palm trees. Its only distinctions were being the next town on Highway 2 past Unadilla, as you drive toward Lincoln from the southeast, and of having an evergreen-studded cemetery named St. Leo’s along the highway. Why not “Unadilla and back” or “Tecumseh and back”—a more attainable motto, as Tecumseh was only nine miles from our farm? My father, in his youth, had enjoyed driving with a cousin to various town dances in the area: perhaps “Palmyra and back” had arisen from some Saturday night adventure in the early 1940s. Whatever the origin, the phrase stuck.
We might have been driving in a January blizzard to Auburn, the county seat ten miles distant, and my father would have said, “Oh, we could drive to Palmyra and back.” We might have been negotiating the muddy road past our farm, trying to reach the nearest rock-paved road a mile to the north. The school bus waited for us there on rainy days, and we had either to walk to the corner or ride in Dad’s mud car, a 1938 Chevrolet he had bought from his Aunt Frieda. He had taken out the back seat and used the sedan as a pickup, hauling calves, hay, milk cans, and children when the roads were bad. My sister and I would have worried about getting to the corner in time to catch the bus. I would not have cared about time but didn’t want to miss the afternoon nap for kindergartners, common in those all-day sessions of the 1950s. Dad would have reassured us with the mere mention of “Palmyra and back.” No matter what distance or time or weather was involved, he had a sturdy belief in some sort of divine providence centered on that name.
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At the beginning of 1996, my father lies in a hospital bed in southeastern Nebraska. He cannot speak. He will never walk again, much less drive a car, because he has not long to live. As he lies there with his head turned, he stares up and out—in the direction of Palmyra, as it happens. The nurses turn him every few hours, and in less than a day he will look in the direction of the day approaching through a light snow. He will not see anything; that is, he will focus on something we cannot begin to make out.
He has been in a hospital bed or a wheelchair since the morning of December 21, 1992, when he was found slumped over the steering wheel of his pickup truck. A blood vessel had burst deep within his brain. It was inoperable. Since that time, he has come close to dying on at least two occasions. Now, the doctor says, the end is finally near, and my mother has called each of us children to come home. On the first day when we are all at the hospital, we meet the pastor, an old friend of my parents. He asks how we are doing and what we would like to be said about my father at his funeral. We pray for my father’s soul: the hour is far too late to pray for his body. My mother has already picked out a coffin, but my brother and I go to the mortuary to look at grave-vaults, where we read warranty notices and price tags. The mortuary rep tells us that the vault has a “lifetime guarantee,” and we control our laughter only until we go out the door. The funereal details are an ironical reminder that life, after all, does go on. Both death and commonplaces seem inevitable. We prepare for the rituals and customs that must follow his death as though it is a trip both necessary and unavoidable.
My father is oblivious to our activities, inside the hospital and out. He has receded into a state that is not quite a coma, his head to one side and his mouth open. His living will calls for no extraordinary measures to extend his life. He wears an oxygen mask to make his breathing more comfortable. The mask has a clear plastic tube connected to a hydrator, which adds moisture to the oxygen mixture, and which is attached to the wall near his bed.
It is 1:20 a.m. on January 2, 1996. I have just come to the hospital to take my brother’s place at my father’s bedside. The bedside vigil is a tradition that continues in my family, as it does in others, even in this age where death has become almost clandestine in nature. My mother, sister, brother, and I have taken turns staying with my father for the past four days and nights. We pass the time tending and talking to our father, reading and sleeping in chairs; during the day, we visit with relatives and friends who stop by. We confer with nurses and the doctor, although ultimate decisions are no longer up to either them or us.
Aunt Esther, who visited our hospital room on the previous afternoon, recalled some memories of deathbed vigils from years ago. She was present at both of my maternal grandparents’ deaths, among others in that family. Her own husband’s grandmother, Aunt Esther says, refused to have a blocked bile duct operated on; and before the not-so-old woman died, she turned “copper-green” like a weathered lightning rod. My aunt relates it with an amused awe and with the distance of many years. Such a macabre phenomenon seems doubtful to happen in my father’s case. I can’t help but look at him, however, as my aunt talks in a low voice. We have noticed a dark spot appear on his left heel, but the other signs of a person in extremis are yet to come. These portents will appear like landmarks on a road that is unfamiliar to us, but it has been well-described by those who have accompanied other people on this journey. We are to encounter the skin’s deterioration, the cooling of the limbs, and the quickening-then-slowing breath—as though you are traveling at night, and the lightning of cliché and expectation illuminates the Signal Butte of impending death, the Lone Tree of mortality. Up until now, the only roadside attractions have been the neon signs of the commonplace: the hospital intercom, sandwiches and coffee under the fluorescent lights in the cafeteria, and talk with the nurses of weather and of vital signs.
I pass the nurses’ station and begin to walk down the hall toward Room 17, and I see my brother conferring with a nurse. Something has changed. We had become used to Dad’s patterns of the last few days: failing kidneys, shallow but constant breathing as his lungs fill with fluid, an elevated temperature, a fast pulse, and slowly decreasing blood pressure. It is as though we have been on a four-day trip, and Dad is driving steadily while we watch him from a rear seat. He alone knows his destination: this time, we are just along for part of the ride and know only that he has some distance to travel. From Room 17 in the hospital, I can look out and see the lights of farmsteads on the ridge of the Little Nemaha valley.
Now, at about 1:30 a.m., my father’s breathing becomes hurried. His chest heaves. His breastbone has risen like a prominence on a spur of hills. He coughs every once in a while: his lungs are filling up faster. His blood pressure is dropping. Sweat forms on his brow, which we cool every so often with a damp washcloth. We tell him what we are doing, even though we cannot know whether he hears us. His eyes are closed most of the time. When they open, their whites have changed to something resembling amber, in which my father’s sight is forever fixed.
My brother and I decide to call my mother and sister. I dial the number and my mother answers the phone after one ring. She has been expecting a call. They get to the hospital in 15 minutes. There we all are again, gathered within a small space on a journey, time hurtling by like miles on a highway: time not only in minutes in Room 17, but also time measured in years, seasons, events, and a life.
The first few minutes after my mother’s and sister’s arrival are tense. My father seems to sense that we are all present. He has discomfort and some pain, and he tries to clear his lungs. Two nurses come in and turn him. He moans in what could be his sleep, then settles into a position and a pace that he will hold nearly until dawn. We round up some extra chairs and sit down in relief: We haven’t had time to gather ourselves for this final leg of the trip. We have passed some crisis just before the destination is in sight. The hands on the wall clock, above the sink and mirror opposite my father’s bed, continue to measure the distance of the day: it is now 2:25 a.m. For a short time, the only sounds in the room are the bubbling of the hydrator and my father’s breath. The clock makes a ticking sound that can be heard only from close up.
The trips I remember from childhood were filled with amusements to pass the time as we traveled along familiar roads. We counted white horses and John Deere tractors. We looked for funny or odd billboard messages. Dad looked for crooked rows of corn (signs of a careless farmer in those days of agriculture on a more human scale) or for wild places that might have held pheasants and quail. We listened to the car radio and sang songs: old popular tunes such as “Blue Skies” and songs Dad remembered from his high school glee club days. He delighted in singing the bass part in “Asleep in the Deep.”
The only light left on in the hospital room is above my father’s head, and its intensity is about that of a dome light in a car. We talk about the good things that we remember of this man who lies near us. We weep as we recall what we have received from him, and we laugh about the funny things he has done in his life. We touch him, talk to him, adjust the oxygen mask, and wipe his brow. My brother gets up to walk down the hall and passes the nurses’ station. When he returns, he reports that the nurse had asked how we were doing. OK, Jim had said, but we were laughing more than we thought we would. That’s good, she said, that’s the way it should be. We don’t have a road map for this journey, so we do the best we can: it is dead reckoning in the fullest sense.
By 3:30 a.m., we have settled into a pattern of expectation. We know that his end is near, but we don’t know how long it will take to get there. My mother sits near the head of the bed on my father’s right, the direction in which his face is turned. My sister sits near her. My brother and I sit on the other side of the bed. We are all holding and touching my father’s hands and arms.
The nurses on the night shift have been busy. The Rescue Squad has brought in a “code,” a woman from my home village who had a heart attack and did not survive the trip to the hospital. In the ICU, a baby ill with pneumonia requires constant attention. Many older people are in the hospital, sick with a dangerous strain of the flu that has killed a middle-aged pharmacist over in Tecumseh. The nurses still find time to come to Room 17, to say something comforting to us and to say good-bye to my father. This hospital has been his home for a long time. The nurses have come to know him on the most intimate terms. They walk in quietly, one by one as their shifts allow, and stand at the foot of the bed. Karen, who lives in the village near where my parents farmed, has known him for many years. She is a large woman with a handsome face: You would know, by looking at her, that she has seen almost everything. She pats him on the leg and says, “Good-bye, my old friend. We had a lot of good times.” Before she goes out of the room, she touches each one of us: a long hug for my mother, a pat on the shoulder for us children. Her tears embarrass neither herself nor us.
It is just after 5:00 a.m. By this time, the signs of immediate death are approaching. I take my hand away from my father’s skin. Upon it is the sweet-sickly odor of cliché; it also has a metallic quality, like rust on iron. His limbs have turned cold. His hand is warm only because I have been holding it: no heat returns to me from him. His body’s only warmth recedes to his trunk, his neck, and his face.
On cold Sunday mornings as we returned from church, Dad parked the car closer than usual to the house. I would sometimes linger to hear the car’s engine ticking as it cooled from the drive. I had watched the needle on the oil gauge drop as Dad shut off the engine, and I knew that the oil was losing its heat, to be suspended within the engine until the next trip. The ticks of the engine would slow until they ceased altogether, and the car became mere mass without motion or sound or function.
The clock in Room 17 ticks away. The time is 5:27 a.m. Another nurse, Wendy, comes in to record my father’s signs for the last time that they will be vital. As she checks the low blood pressure reading, a black needle trembles against the white background of a gauge. She shakes her head, looks at us, and says, “Soon now,” and leaves us to be by ourselves and with him. We have risen out of our chairs and stand around the bed, holding close to his hands and to him.
My father seems to be busy concentrating on his death. His breath comes with more urgency. He has left us back at the last rest stop. As he drives ahead, up a small rise and nearly out of our sight, he sees something off in the distance from the road. He gets out of the car and leaves it with the motor running and without closing the door. He walks in a hurry, nearly runs: he wants to get there as soon as he can. He knows that, when he reaches the top of the hill, he will be able to see the entire world. Now his breath comes loud and fast, and even his paralyzed leg seems to stir.
As he reaches the top, his breath slows and then stops. After about 15 seconds, he takes a long breath, then stops again. After another 20 seconds, the last breath he will ever take goes into his body and out again. It is a death rattle, but it is also a sigh of immense accomplishment.
We stand still for a few minutes, holding on to him, weeping now, anticipating the possibility of another breath, scarcely breathing ourselves. His face is turned upward and his eyes, which have been shut for so much of the morning, are open. His brow is smooth, and the intense fatigue has left his face. I place my hand over his heart: I feel no motion.
The time of his death will be recorded as 5:40 a.m., January 2, 1996. Outside, snowflakes fall across the lights of street lamps and the headlights of a lone car. We stand in the room without moving, except to reach out to each other. We are alone and yet together in our thoughts.
After a few minutes, I leave the room and walk down the hall to the nurses’ station. Wendy is behind the desk, and I tell her, “He’s gone.” She comes back to the room with me and places a stethoscope over my father’s heart. The instrument seems, in this context, detached from its function of measuring a sign of life: now it merely confirms what we already know. Wendy listens for a few moments, takes off the stethoscope, and says, “I’m sorry.” She notes the time on a form on her clipboard. We each take an edge of the bed sheet and place it over my father’s face. She asks if we want to come back later in the morning to take my father’s things out of the room. No, my mother says, we might as well do it now.
We are practical people who avoid making two trips. My father would have approved of our cleaning up the room as his body lay there. We pack the things he no longer needs, now that he has arrived at the end of his journey: his bathrobe and clothes he wore in the hospital, the electric razor and aftershaves from the bathroom, stacks of greeting cards from the cabinet, and the poinsettia on the window sill. We leave his room with one last look back at him, the luggage of his life light in our hands.
We go out the hospital’s front entrance. The falling snow diminishes the intensity of this morning’s light, just as death changes the eyes into an opalescence that seems to imply both finality and infinity. As we walk to our cars, we notice that the world is still within us and around us. East of the hospital are the familiar pine trees; northeast across the valley are the long hills covered with a new whiteness. Cattle trucks pass through town on the highway, shifting into lower gear as they climb the slick pavement on the cemetery hill.
The world is unchanged; yet the world as we know it now is not the same. Far to the northwest—beyond Tecumseh, Syracuse, and Unadilla—is Palmyra. But somewhere beyond must be a Palmyra, City of Palms, where the traveler finds rest, sustenance, and water, and from which there can be no return.
It is not the best morning for a trip, but we cannot always choose the time of our departure.
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