My Father’s Last Words (a “true” story) by Cynthia Hopkins
The fourth time my brother and I were called to our father’s deathbed, we were naturally skeptical of the term “deathbed.” The previous time we’d been called to his deathbed, he’d keeled over to land face down in a pool of his own vomit, only to be resuscitated against his will by EMTs who failed to notice the DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) notice taped to the back of his door. Upon regaining consciousness, he asked “Was I resuscitated?” We said yes. He said, “I thought I said I didn’t want to be resuscitated.” We said, “That’s right, Dad, you did – but the EMTs didn’t notice the DNR sign.” He said “They blocked my exit!” The deathbed before that deathbed, he’d had a hole drilled through the top of his head and electrodes inserted down deep in his brain. And the deathbed before that deathbed, my father had dropped dead of a heart attack after a fireball had blown back in his face when he tried to light a bonfire using a can of gasoline while wearing cross country skis.
By this point, it was hard to believe that anything could manage to kill our father. And yet, when we arrived at the nursing home, things looked fairly grim. He lay motionless and unresponsive, his features frozen into an uneven, contorted, dramatic grimace of torment that seemed singed into his face, like a death mask, his eyes at half mast with no sign of recognition, as if he were already dead. The only evidence to the contrary was the steady, shallow rise and fall of his chest.
After all the violent blows he’d managed to survive, it seemed like proof that God must share my father’s rather dark sense of humor when the nurse explained that the source of his seemingly imminent demise was a simple urinary tract infection. “The infection” explained the nurse “has spread into his bloodstream, and so unless we attack the infection immediately, it will cause his organs to shut down, and he will ultimately die of sepsis. Do you want us to attack the infection?” “No,” I said. “He has clearly expressed that he does not want extraordinary measures taken to keep him alive.” “I understand.” The nurse nodded gravely and then rolled a rickety brown plastic trolley into the room, piled with trays of stale cookies and an urn of undrinkable coffee, as if to say “It is now time for the family to gather around and wait.”
Given my father’s penchant for melodramatic, tragicomic, spontaneous eruptions of poetry and cursing, I was extremely curious to find out what his final words might be. I mean, he seemed utterly paralyzed, but on the other hand, first of all he had managed to literally rise from the dead on numerous occasions previously, and second of all, this was a guy who LOVED language, who WORSHIPPED words, who taught literature and poetry his whole life, and thrived on thrusting the torch of his enthusiasm for words into the minds of his pre-teen students. If there was going to be a final monologue, or even phrase, I did not want to miss it. And so we sat, and waited.
And as we waited, I thought about all the years I’d hated my father, for his infantile tendencies and his shortcomings as a father. I thought about his occasional lame, awkward attempts at fatherhood, like the Christmas he’d thrust a hardcover copy of Angela’s Ashes, wrapped in a used scrap of wrapping paper less than half the size of the book, in the general direction of my brother and myself, saying “I thought you guys could share this, you know, one of you read it and then pass it along. I just finished it, it’s pretty good.”
And I thought of how I’d somehow come to accept him exactly as he was, which allowed me to love and even admire him, while my brother had continued to react to his character as if it were a personal affront, rather than an accidental inevitability. I thought in particular of a Christmas shortly after my brother had enthusiastically converted to Judaism, and was raising his toddler son Toby in the Jewish faith, and we were visiting our father at his nursing home, and my father had pointed to an object under the communal Christmas tree, saying “That’s for Toby.” It was a large plastic motorcycle straddled by a fat toy Santa Claus, with a button that triggered the Santa to bounce up and down singing “Jingle Bell Rock” over the revving of a motorcycle engine. My brother and I recognized this item: it had been given to our father by his sister Polly some years prior, and had been sitting on his dresser ever since. My brother glanced at the Santa on a motorcycle, sighed, rubbed his forehead, and said “He’s a Jew, Dad.”
In keeping with his refusal to acknowledge our father’s actual personality, my brother insisted upon calling a pastor to say last rites. After doing so, the Pastor asked “Have you let your Dad know it’s OK for him to go? Sometimes they need a little encouragement. Try telling him it’s OK for him to go.” The next day the Pastor stopped by again, perhaps to see if his advice had done the trick, and finding my father still alive, decided to read aloud some Psalms that he thought might be soothing.
I don’t recall exactly why we decided to go out for Chinese food after the Pastor had departed a second time. Before we left, my brother and I said “We love you, Dad. You were an amazing teacher, and you were an awesome father. And we’re totally OK. We’re happy. You don’t have to suffer anymore. You can let go, it’s OK, we’re fine.” And then for some reason my brother decided to add “And wasn’t that nice, when the Pastor read Psalms for you? That was nice, wasn’t it?” And as if that were the final straw, the straw that triggered some super-human power arising from the depths of his being, there erupted this sound out of my father:
It’s presumptuous of me to assume that these were my father’s last words – I wasn’t present at the time of his demise – in retrospect, I recognize it would have been out of character for him to do something as undignified and vulnerable as dying in the presence of his children, and so I should not have been surprised when we got the call, on our way back from enjoying the crappy Massachusetts MSG-infused greasy Chinese food my father had loved so much, letting us know that he had died while we were out. And even though I have my own ideas of what his final words might have meant, I have a feeling my father would prefer me to leave them – as he himself did – open to interpretation.
Cynthia Hopkins is an internationally acclaimed musical performance artist: she writes songs, records albums, and creates groundbreaking musical performance works that intertwine truth and fiction, blurring the lines between edification and entertainment. She has produced eight performance works, eight albums of original music, and one museum installation. Her work has been honored with many awards, including a 2015 Doris Duke Artist Award, a 2010 Guggenheim Fellowship, and the 2007 Alpert Award in Theater. She recently earned a Masters in Music Therapy. Her new musical endeavor Fellwalker is in the process of releasing their debut album Love is the Means.