Seven Days To Sunday
© Copyright 2023 by Denise Boivin-Iassogna
Photo by Diego Lozano on Unsplash
Seven days remain.
How would you spend it?
The world was created in seven
And now your hourglass is tipped upside down
And the sand is falling around your soul.
Do you dive into the ocean?
Let the salty spray caress your ankles as you close your eyes
And smile, surrendering to the sun-kissed dew on the horizon?
Or do you wring your hands in agony and curse your existence,
As the foreboding judgment closes in?
The light beckons
And your freedom expires,
And you relinquish your fate.
Which do you choose—
Light or Darkness?
The final march toward the grave should force us to slow down. Take notice. A soul’s passing is as meaningful as its entrance into this world. The Egyptians understood this. They erected massive pyramids to commemorate the dead. The Variana Buddhists believe in the transmigration of the soul and leave the exposed body high on a Mongolian mountain for nature to take its course. The Hindus have elaborate rituals involving the adorning of a corpse with garlands of flowers, scattering the ashes over a sacred river. If you ever want to witness death as a celebration, just attend an Irish wake.
The week death found my father, the experience mimicked wading through lava. Days were bent in upon themselves like infinity loops. A strange time-space continuum paused to usher in that momentous occasion. The hours became sacred, shrouded in mystery. I began to experience his passing the way the Mexicans commemorate Dia de los Muertos, believing that for one solitary day, the ticking clock is suspended and those who cross that ethereal plane may reunite with those left behind.
I still sense my father’s spirit around me. When I reflect on his passing, I take care not to require any pity. I am extremely fortunate to have traveled through fifty years of my life before experiencing a close personal loss. The only by-product was having a lot of apprehension and fear around the concept of death at a young age.
In America, we don’t often hear about the beautiful deaths—the ones meant to shuttle life from this one to the next, whatever we believe that to be. Typically, we avoid death at all costs. We dress in black, mumble a few words, and return to work the next day, expected to swallow our grief. We should hire a jazz band and stroll through the streets like they do down in New Orleans.
It burns me up when I hear a cancer death described as someone who “lost their battle.” Who are we to say that any person who endured horrendous suffering lost anything? These courageous souls have already waged a battle of fortitude. We should shout it from the rooftops.
My dad's departure was not that way, although cancer is what eventually took his body. His final days on this earth were beautiful, sad, funny, and tragic. We laughed often during that time. Yes, he made us laugh while on his deathbed, and, yes, our family also fought with each other, shed tears, and saw dragonflies. We all saw the dragonflies.
I remember walking into Ingles Grocery store on day two of his hospice. Settling in for the long haul, we needed to escape the house full of sickness to perform life’s necessities. Like buying groceries. As we approached the checkout, my eyes focused in on the cashier’s name tag: “Heaven.” I had never encountered anyone with this name. It was the first of many signals from the universe.
Later, I was reversing out of a parking spot and something on the windshield kept blocking my view. An iridescent dragonfly. At first, I barely registered it, but this dragonfly was insistent. It fluttered just above the wiper blades and implored me to take notice. So, I slowed down and did. Later we discovered that my brother-in-law driving down from New Jersey experienced an even more persistent dragonfly hanging around the car. The Native Americans believe that dragonflies signify the freeing of the soul. There are no coincidences.
Out on a walk the following day, we witnessed a woman holding back a barking dog on a leash, unrelenting in its pursuit of a hedgehog. I should have recognized these signs. They laid themselves out in front of me, not like a foreboding M. Night Shyamalan movie, but as a gentle tap on the shoulder. This was the same hedgehog that I saw in my mind’s eye right before Dad left us, except that one was smiling and winking at me. My sister, Nicole, saw one in a dream weeks ago. The hedgehog is a poignant spirit animal that represents the cycles of life. The signs were everywhere that week.
Dad didn’t die on a Sunday, that would have taken away the magic of his favorite day. He left us early on a Tuesday morning. Mardi if you are French, which he was. Five days prior, Mom walked out of the emergency room with a stunned look on her face. She had called the ambulance after he had fallen, simply thinking she would bring him home as she had done multiple times in the last few months.
Instead, I see her walking fast as I pull up the car. She meets me with a blank stare.
“Mom, are you okay?”
The blank stare faces me. “They gave him seven days.”
The number seven stuns me for a moment. I place her in the car and drive to meet the ambulance at home. My frontal cortex is a blaring neon sign: My father has seven days to live. Seven days left on this planet as the patriarch of this family, although you wouldn’t know it from the shrunken skeleton that awaits us at home with fear in his eyes. Seven days to come to terms with a deadline we all knew was coming but still came as a shock. Once your sentence is read, you are essentially free. No need to wonder when your time will come. He is given the gift of a deadline.
That time came on a July morning. The birds were the first to announce his departure. It was fitting. Dad never needed an alarm clock. He bounded out of bed at five every morning since his military days, although he never was the typical Army man. He was the only recruit who gained twenty-five pounds during basic training because he “loved the food.” (His mother – bless her heart – was not known for her cooking).
Those youthful days are a flicker in his eyes. The hospital workers have placed him into a metal-framed bed rolled into the den of my parent’s house. My mother doesn’t like the bed— this eyesore is in stark contrast to her expertly designed décor. But she sighs in relief because she can no longer lift him into their higher platform bed in their bedroom, nor the couch where he has slept for the last few months, until occasionally slipping off because he had lost the strength to stand.
We tried to help them. Living an hour away made it difficult to arrive at a moment’s notice when things went awry. Instead, we all struggled to deal with these diagnoses that overlapped each other and began to steal the man who used to race us down the ski slopes. He somehow overcame each ensuing disease like a cat with nine lives—bypass surgery, cancer, and diabetes. Facing them all with the audacity of his lone kidney that kept the waste of life pumping when the rest of us have a pair to do the job.
That one kidney (he was born with two, but one had to be removed in his thirties because it no longer functioned) was as stubborn as the man who carried it around, whether he was climbing temples in Mexico or walking the Freedom Trail in Boston. It was there with him jumping off the diving board at our backyard pool where he would towel off and take up his place at the helm of the barbeque. An indelible image shows him flipping sausage patties on the grill and dancing along to 80's tunes that blared from our stereo. That sole kidney kept behaving through a lifetime of martinis and steaks. Doctors gave every kind of warning, but he was the “life-is-for-enjoyment” type of guy.
That kidney enjoyed life along with him, until it didn’t. It was then that our family learned a new vocabulary. “Stage Five.” “Dialysis.” “Renal failure”—medical terminology that soberly crept into our daily lives. As I sit looking at my father, I don’t see the last five years of machines filtering blood as a means of life support. I see him dancing between the veil of the two worlds.
We are exhausted as these seven days have turned into one long string of hours. The four of us: myself, my husband, Dan, my sister Nicole, and Mom, his wife of fifty-two years become "The Team." We are the precious few honored with this final task of shuttling him from this world to the next. None of us have any idea of what we are doing.
This experience plunges us into a brief stint into the medical community that none of us want. Hospice isn’t like they show in the movies — a family sitting around, holding the hands of a loved one while an attentive nurse carefully checks vital signs.
Instead, hospice looks like this. “The Box” is dropped off on a Friday afternoon, the contents explained hastily to Mom, who of course was as shell-shocked as the rest of us. The small, white, cardboard box contains five tiny vials that are supposed to be administered “when necessary.” As Mom goes to bed, the remaining three of us sit around the table well into the wee hours of Friday night staring at The Box. Confused, we call the good people at Bridgeway who inform us that the hospice nurse doesn’t come on the weekends. For two whole days, we are on our own.
Clearly out of our depth, the kind Bridgeway folks tell us that they will send someone by just to check in. At this point an angel, Sherri the hospice nurse, joins The Team. We elect her captain. Nicole – the most rational of all of us, wisely picks up a notepad, taking copious dictation. I numbly hear Sherri’s instruction. “This one is for pain, this one is for agitation, and this one is for when he has trouble breathing.”
The only thing I remember is the Morphine, slowly realizing that our only job is to guess the amount to make him comfortable. This has gotten real. Fast. What if we administer too little? Too much?
Sherri leaves us with reassuring words: “It shouldn’t be long now, maybe a few more days. Just keep him comfortable. But if it gets bad, call me and I will come over." More nods from our sleep-deprived heads, as we wonder what "it gets bad” will look like.
The rude awakening comes the next morning as Dad starts coughing. We rush into the den, witnessing his desperation. We understand the seven days will take us on a journey from alpha to omega but haven’t stopped to consider all the letters in between. A frantic phone call to Sherri does not provide much solace at three am when he can’t catch his breath.
An oxygen technician arrives early Sunday morning and The Team takes a collective sigh of relief. It’s as if we are all being hooked up to that loud machine in the den. Someone else can take the reins for a moment. Once again, Dad can breathe deeply and no one minds the deafening clang of the machine that permeates the silence of an atmosphere filled with fear and uncertainty.
Now that oxygen is flowing, Dad amazingly rebounds, and we briefly forget he is sick. Not sick. Dying. I play him at gin rummy, knowing he could beat me with one hand tied behind his back. When his eyelids get heavy, I put the cards away. He nods off for a while and I unsuccessfully try to nap on the couch.
Around this time, Mom stops in to ask if Dad is hungry. This is significant. Mom embodies the Italian mindset that a good chicken soup or a dose of olive oil could remedy anything from an ingrown toenail to appendicitis. Her stomach can predict twelve noon, "the Italian Lunch Hour," like clockwork. She didn’t enter the den many times that week unless it was to ask Dad if he wanted lunch.
Dad responded with the same four words every day for the last fifty years,
“What have you got?”
That question got a laugh out of all of us. A moment of normalcy. During their entire marriage, he never voluntarily ate a meal without her. He would put off lunch until she would walk in the door and we knew what was coming.
“Dick, did you eat lunch?”
His response was always the same. “I waited for you.”
She would pretend exasperation, but I knew secretly she enjoyed their shared meals as much as he did.
Now she brings him soup and he barely touches it. He wants tea. He never drinks tea. I know he is making the effort just to please her. This simple act is the last of many loving kindnesses he can show her.
The sun is streaming in the window on this last Sunday afternoon that I will spend with my dad. I do Sudoku to pass the time. He wakes up about every hour. Gradually it becomes clear that he has been visiting a place foreign to both of us. He starts mumbling questions that I know are not directed toward me and answering others that I have not asked him. I sit back and marvel at a process that I can’t quite comprehend. Occasionally, he glances over and I see his glossy blue eyes focus in on me and I assure him,
And he replies, “I know.”
I don’t know this until much later, but these are the last treasured words he ever spoke to me. He falls back asleep, waking a few hours later focused on a beam of sunlight somewhere in the corner of the room. Just as I am about to ask him what he’s staring at, he begins to slowly raise his arm (a seemingly innocent gesture except this is his bad arm – his dialysis arm— and he hasn’t been able to raise it for over a year). Now it is up past his shoulders. He is reaching toward some invisible realm, and I watch him, fixed in a trance.
It’s at that precise moment that Mom walks in and says,
“Dick, what are you doing? Put your arm down.”
He obeys, and the beam is broken. I laugh at her practicality. Her matter-of-fact approach to this unreal experience. She is strictly there to confirm that Dad is cleaned and fed and then promptly exits the den. But not before she takes a moment to stare into his eyes. At this point, he is no longer speaking. All he can do is stare back. That simple exchange encompasses what fifty years of communication cannot say. A silent understanding that I cannot attempt to understand. It is so intimate; I have to look away.
I get it. We all do. Mom is not the sit-at-your-bedside type of person. She cannot stand by and watch this man wither away.
My parents couldn’t do much traveling recently, a fact that discouraged both of them. Dialysis forced him into his own sort of prison, the kind I wouldn’t wish on any human. Being hooked up to a machine four hours every other day… for the rest of your life. The forced confinement turned him angry, then despondent, then depressed. It frustrated Mom as she continued to thrive in health and wanderlust but was tethered to a spouse who was anchored to a machine. His illness put an end to their once frequent, spontaneous day trips and excursions. It put a stop to all things that made them…THEM. Knowing he would never be a candidate for a kidney transplant, we tried to make the best of the situation. We began taking Mom on solo trips to attempt a sort of distraction.
A lifetime has gone by since their first meeting half a century ago, appropriately, at a ski club. After a six-month whirlwind courtship and only another six-month engagement, they married on a February morning. They honeymooned, not on a tropical beach as she would have preferred, but in Quebec in the middle of winter to do, what else, but ski. They eventually got to that beach and many others: Cancun, Barbados, and of course, the Jersey Shore.
When I look at Dad now, perhaps he’s thinking of one of those vacations as he falls into the ethereal plane, or maybe he’s just dreaming of one of their yearly favorites, a drive with fellow leaf-peepers to autumnal Vermont. He’s behind the wheel and all is well in his world.
Night four. One am. Danny is trying to sleep in the back bedroom. Nicole has taken Mom to bed to keep up her strength. At eighty, she can still dance circles around all of us but, even though she is acting like this isn't happening, it IS happening, and we need her to get some rest. I go back into the den to lie on the couch next to his bed. He seems peaceful, but I don’t want him to be alone.
I can no longer distinguish night from day. I can’t count how many hours I’ve gone without sleep, and I am not sure which one of us is drifting in and out of consciousness. The constant brrrr-hisp of the oxygen tank overtakes the den. He’s snoring up a storm and my mind is dancing, seeing flashes of colors like a hallucinatory trip. I have entered the world between dream and waking.
Suddenly, two visions flash out of the green light beneath my eyelids. First, a hedgehog that is smiling and winking. Then, my grandparents. Dad’s father and mother. Grandpa died when I was eleven and Grandma stayed with us well into her nineties, so it is strange to see them together again. Something in my psyche knows this moment is paramount. The parents of this young French-speaking boy who was sent to school with the nuns, who loved his dog, Penny, who adored playing with his first cousin (also named Richard like everyone else in the family) are here and they smile at me. I force myself awake. Suddenly some new medical terminology enters my consciousness— labored breathing. I had heard the phrase before but never understood what it meant. Until now.
I battle with myself about going to wake anyone else up. They have had precious little sleep as well. I'm not sure how to handle this. We just gave him a sedative about an hour ago, or was it two? I'm afraid to brave the contents of The Box alone, so I quickly head to the back bedroom to wake up Dan. His eyes dart open and he jumps up immediately.
I report, “Something’s changed.”
I just need Dan to assure me that everything is fine. Maybe we just need to adjust the oxygen or give another dose of morphine to ease his sleep. As Dan enters the den with me, suddenly the situation becomes all too clear. Dad’s breathing has slowed even further.
It is time.
Before we can even wake Nicole and Mom, everything happens so fast. We are just here in this moment which lasts maybe a total of three minutes but feels like a lifetime and I am holding Dad’s hand and my heart is pumping wildly and all I can hear is Dan’s voice telling him,
And, “You can go.”
And, “I’ll take care of the girls.”
My head is down, and I am praying and the machine is humming and the sound is deafening and calmly still at the same time and the room feels crowded even though there are just three of us. Suddenly there are just two, and we witness a miracle.
Holding the bed rail, I take a final breath, because he cannot. The machine can finally be unplugged. Without a word spoken, we both approach the bedroom where Mom and Nicole are sleeping. As the first flicker of dawn breaks the blackness of the previous moment, the atmosphere begins to soften. Nicole wakes immediately. She jumps out of bed as soon as she looks at Danny’s face and says,
She and Danny are out of the room before I even get to Mom.
My feet are frozen in place. I suddenly realize I don’t want to wake her, but she opens her eyes, and they lock onto mine. All I can think to say is,
She repeats my sentiment with a trembling breath. I can only quietly verbalize.
“It’s time to say goodbye.”
She doesn't cry but I feel the heaviness of her heart as I help her up.
As I attempt to walk her into the room, it feels wrong. I stop and say,
“You don’t have to go in there.”
She wants to. We all do. He never left us alone and we don't want to leave him. I think she will crumble but I should know better. Her strength has seen her through this before. Forty years ago, when that same lone kidney gave out after a routine MRI, Dad spent an incalculable three days in an ICU coma, teetering between life and death. The doctor had given him little chance of recovery, yet Mom handled that ordeal with the strength of Winston Churchill. This time would be no different.
The next half hour is one of the most precious. The Team surrounds his bed. The five of us experiencing a moment of sheer tranquility and peace. Mom was the first to break the silence.
“We need to open the window.”
We glance at each other thinking she has taken leave of her senses, but she explains this old tradition is customary to let the soul escape. (I looked it up later and found it is actually a death tradition in Denmark, and also in the Highlands of Scotland). Maybe we have adopted one of these worldly customs after all.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard Mom utter the word soul, so I know this is a prominent moment. Outside the window, a breeze flutters, and the birds announce the morning. The sounds of the rest of the world waking up creep in as Dad departs, probably to check and see if the newspaper has arrived.
The next days and months are precarious. They have made no previous death plan. No burial plans either. My parents deliberated buying a cemetery plot in their home state of Connecticut years ago but never followed through. Dad avoided all talk about death – even years ago after his own near-death experience. I only heard him verbalize once about how he had floated above the bed, looked down at the doctors, and saw “the light.” He never spoke of it again.
The fact that Mom had opted for cremation surprised us all, as we remembered Dad carefully picking out his own mother's casket. Blue was her favorite color, so he chose a shiny indigo coffin and a dress of the same hue. There was no suit set aside to clothe Dad when the funeral director and a soldier arrived to pick him up. Instead, they brought a beautiful quilt (why hadn’t I thought to sew one for him?) to wrap him and then draped him with an American flag. That was the moment when we all broke down. Seeing that flag. This final tribute with a uniformed man standing at attention, saluting, brought the exit of dignity that Dad would have cherished.
The room was thick with grief, but Dad found a final way to break the tension. He had the last laugh. The funeral director was calmly explaining what would happen next when the kitchen phone rang. Danny quietly slipped out of the room to answer it. We heard him speaking softly to someone on the other end and assumed it was the first of many condolence calls. When Danny came back in in the room, he had a sly look on his face. Mom asked who it was, he answered,
“The coin people.”
We all turned to look at each other for a split second, and then burst out laughing.
The joke was on us. Dad had always been an avid coin collector, painstakingly spending many Sundays sorting his pocket change deposited in the large glass jar in the back of his closet. He would meticulously wrap wheat pennies, quarters, and half dollars in paper sleeves, sorted by year of mint. Not many people even know what "wheat pennies" are, but I do. As I little kid, I would sit there for hours helping him sort them into piles. I can still see his slanted handwriting on the brown paper wrappers that would get tucked away back in the closet. In the last few years, as his mind seemed to wander a bit, Dad watched hours of television geared for older people with a lot of time on their hands. None of us realized he had ordered the "keepsake gold coins" that are advertised on many of these channels. For their fiftieth wedding anniversary, he presented us all with these commemorative "gold coins" as if they were eighteenth-century Brasher Doubloons. We graciously accepted them on his behalf, knowing they would end up on a dusty shelf or at the bottom of our own closets.
Against Mom's wishes, the coins kept coming in the mail and the phone calls followed, since Dad had naively given out their home phone number. It was apropos that the "coin man" would call to provide us a bit of comic relief just at the moment we are all caught up amidst our stifling grief.
The funeral director gives us a strange, slightly disapproving glance at this jovial outburst. He must not encounter much laughter at visits like these, perhaps judging us as disrespectful. Yet, when he asks if we would like to say goodbye, he witnesses just the opposite.
I am the first to kiss Dad on the cheek for the final time, but as my lips connect with his chilled skin, I know this is not him. I know that he is off somewhere with Grandma and Grandpa, or he has the wind on his face on the Canton golf course, or he is playing poker with his buddies and drinking a martini (stirred never shaken with a whiff of vermouth and the peel of a lemon rubbed along the glass rim).
He is also here with us as he has been for every important family occasion and the everyday ones too. He is in the dragonflies and the cardinal that stays too long on the bird feeder outside our window. He is in the black-and-blue-winged Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly perched on the front steps, appearing frozen but slowly fluttering its wings. It slips on the wind to the next flower, passing onto another realm. Dad is in the laughter of the group that gathers at his house for sandwiches the day after his passing, because he loved a good sandwich (ham and swiss on rye with spicy mustard, Hellman’s mayonnaise, and roasted red peppers).
He treasured the merriment of any audience gathered for his exaggerated stories, told with a gleam in his eye. He always delivered them a little off the punchline (remember that time he made the awkward joke about the round champagne glasses and Marie Antoinette’s breasts?). He is in the shiny copper pennies that seem to catch the ray of sunshine at my feet every time I step out of the house. He is in the crinkle of the autumn leaves, reminding me of him raking large piles for us to jump in. Even now, as my feet crunch through the amber leaves on my own back porch, I am left thinking about his love for all things family.
So, for the man who never wanted a funeral, we end up having TWO – one in the south for friends and one in the north for family. After bidding him farewell at a party on a Georgia golf course, we pack up his urn and put it in the car along with our suitcases. We drive him all the way up the east coast, giving him one last fantastic road trip. We bring him to Arlington Cemetery, visit his old high school and college, and even pay tribute to his beloved Giants at their football stadium along the Jersey Turnpike.
We place him to rest in a nondescript cemetery right alongside his parents. The second funeral leaves us exhausted but with a calming sense of closure. We document the entire trip with pictures and videos, which his granddaughters compile, setting them to music. The girls choose Rusted Root’s upbeat tune, “Send Me on My Way” to commemorate the journey. Dad would have loved it.
I wouldn't trade those last seven days (which turned into five) with Dad, except for maybe for a drive in his 1967 red convertible Mustang, or to race him down the ski slopes, or dance to the electric slide with him at a wedding. Or simply sit and listen to one of his stories while we rolled some pennies into a sleeve and afterward fell asleep by an autumn fire watching the Giants. Sundays will never be the same.
This story is an account of my father's final days. It is my attempt to honor his life and to show how death, while heartbreaking, can also be a beautiful passing.
I am a recent graduate from Kennesaw State University (KSU)’s master’s in professional writing program. Prior to this, I received a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a minor in Communication Arts from Villanova University. Since that time, I have accumulated twenty years of industry, travel, and life experience and which I am currently pouring into my writing. I was featured on the KSU website for an essay about the Pandemic ("Writing in the Time of Corona-Little Gems") and was a contributing speaker for their Food Writing Symposium with my essay, “Don’t Burn the Garlic.” I am working on the completion of my first novel, entitled Blue Amber.