Zoom. Within milliseconds, I was transported to two years ago.
My dad’s toothbrush was still wet. He was in hospice, failing. He was no longer in his own home. No longer surrounded by the flowers he’d planted over the years in our yard. He had no control any more over his surroundings, his routine—shit, his very breathing.
Nothing was as it should be.
At a time when I worried, each visit, that he would be gone before my next, that toothbrush was a reminder of his aliveness. It was wet. We’d helped him brush his teeth that morning. People close to death don’t have wet toothbrushes, I told myself. There’s nothing more mundane and signaling health than that simple morning ritual.
And yet, I was so very wrong. Many people die with wet toothbrushes. Some people brush their teeth and walk into the World Trade Center on the wrong day. Some brush their teeth before bed and wake up with a fatal aneurism, having only minutes to live, the way my father’s brother did.
Wet toothbrushes don’t mean a damn thing.
But, we cling to them. We also cling to the smell of a t-shirt or sweater. The hair on a brush. The worn sole of a shoe.
If you’re uninitiated in the survivors club, you won’t know these things. If you’ve loved and lost, you’re nodding your head right now.
These very real things keep our loved ones from becoming a concept rather than the living, breathing human being we knew.
After my father died, most of our family gathered down the hall from his room. In the common area, we ate some kind of sandwich. We were fed by someone. The details escape me. But I remember thinking it was not right to be so hungry. That I should be unable to eat. My body, so very alive and needing food after skipping breakfast, betrayed me. My father was dead and I wanted to eat. A sign I was still very much here in the flesh even though he was very much not.
We gathered, our tribe, and took over the place for a bit. People paid their private respects. We sat together, all a bit unsure. We’d now lost the matriarch and patriarch of this large brood. And the rules were unwritten. So we did what they had taught us to do—we gathered.
It was almost a defiant act. We, the very much alive offspring of my father, were proof of his—what? Ability to create? Presence in the world? We were proof he was not gone, but living on through us.
As my nephew scolded my son for being disrespectful to me, I saw my father in that action. As my sister nervously paced and talked about immediately cleaning out his room, my father was making himself known. As another could not stop the tears, again my dad came through.
I passed the nurse’s station and heard them saying something about having an opening later that evening in a room on the floor. With shock, I realized they were talking about my father’s room. I hated that. I felt he’d already become a concept. Two hours ago, they were tracking his med schedule. Now they were already focused on the next patient. I got it. But I didn’t like it.
I remember after my mother died thinking the strangest things. Treasuring the lip balm in her drawer because it was proof that not so very long ago she was a living, breathing person who didn’t want chapped lips. Wanting to lie down on her bed so I could be on the sheets she had laid on last.
I know I am not alone in these thoughts. This desperate clinging to the last bits of life. This is why people leave their loved ones’ bedrooms and closets untouched for months—sometimes even years. Because if you can just keep things the way they left them, it’s the closest thing to being able to have them here with you.
I don’t know why these bits of memory still come back to me. Perhaps they always will. And, as I was driving, feeling sad about my losses, Dad again made his presence known.
A song he used to sing to me to when I was a little girl came on the radio. “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight” came full throttle through my car stereo. It was on a station I never listen to—and I certainly was amazed any station played this song. I’ve never in my life heard it sung by anyone other than my dad.
You can say that this is just another balm for my soul—another defense mechanism, like believing that wet toothbrushes somehow stave off death. But, being my father’s daughter, I have learned to respect signs when they come along, if not to look for them. And this is not the first time he has sent me one.
Dad took the sting out of the wet toothbrush memory. And showed me that even now, two years after his death, he is very much alive. Just not necessarily in a form I can communicate with the way I’d like to do.
So ok, Dad. I’ll see your cheesy song and raise the ante. Tonight I wear your “Grateful Dad” shirt to bed. It no longer smells like you but still reminds me of you.
Sending those smoke signals right back at you. I hope you feel it.