By Sam Watermeier
Three years later, I feel like I’m still sweating under the fluorescent lights at the funeral home lectern, straining to look at my loss on a piece of paper.
Just a few days before my father’s service, I had been struggling with another paper.
I was hunched over a computer at the Ball State University library, writing a thesis about horror films, when I received a starker reminder of mortality.
“Sam, you need to come home. It’s … it’s Dad … he’s … you need to see him,” my older brother, Harry, stammered over the phone.
I had dreaded this call for years. Its inevitability hit my stomach as soon as my parents closed the dorm room door before my freshman year back in 2010. By that time, Dad had been battling cancer for two years. He was in remission for a while, but time still felt precious; we never knew how much we would have with him.
“Cancer is an insidious little disease,” my dad often said after he was diagnosed, and he was right — it snuck up on us that weekend, bringing a shock more devastating than when he was diagnosed five years prior.
“‘Cancer is an insidious little disease,’ my dad often said after he was diagnosed, and he was right — it snuck up on us that weekend, bringing a shock more devastating than when he was diagnosed five years prior.”
The November wind bit my face and froze my tears as I staggered back to my dorm to wait for Harry to pick me up.
Tears were welling in his baggy eyes when I got in the car. My 27-year-old brother looked like a haggard old man; his face was as wrinkled as the shirt through which his ribs were poking.
After a few minutes of silently riding through cold, gray mist, Harry stopped at a gas station. “I gotta get some coffee,” he uttered with an edge of guilt, looking at the seconds sprinting around the face of his watch. I turned down his offer for a cup. I didn’t want to be caffeinated and alert for what was about to follow.
When we got home, Dad was in what the nurses called the “active phase” of dying. I walked into the den, where a hospital bed faced his TV and cords from various medical monitors spread across the carpet like the weeds flooding our backyard. Dad slouched over the edge of the squeaky bed while his nurse, Debbie, held a thermometer in his ear. He turned around and his dry lips cracked into a wide smile.
“Look, it’s my son,” he slurred.
“Hey, Dad, how ya doin’?” I asked, fighting back tears.
I bent down and hugged him tightly. I didn’t want to let go. My once-burly father was now a frail stick swallowed up in my arms.
Harry shuffled in shivering and sniffling. Streams of hot tears fogged up his Clark Kent glasses. He nervously ran his fingers through his hair, which is dark and wavy like Dad’s used to be. Harry lingered over him, looking down at his bald, shivering scalp.
“Geez, you’re cold,” the nurse said after she read Dad’s thermometer, trying to sound surprised. She left the room, and Harry sat down in a stiff wingback chair across from the hospital bed.
We sat in silence, looking at our father, as if our stillness would stop time.
“I love my boys, my beautiful boys,” Dad said in a sedated yet sincere voice. Then he looked at both of us, seeming to break through the haze of medicine, staring with startling clarity.
For a fleeting moment, I felt nothing but love. Like a little boy held in his parent’s arms after falling off a bike, I forgot about all of my pain and fear. And then I wanted to apologize — for all the juice I spilled, all those years of silly teen angst, all the times I stayed out late without calling home, all the anxiety I caused.
“For a fleeting moment, I felt nothing but love. Like a little boy held in his parent’s arms after falling off a bike, I forgot about all of my pain and fear. ”
Dad sighed, lay back in bed and closed his eyes.
Debbie then whispered with both urgency and hesitation, reluctant but obligated to give us the bad news.
“Alright, you guys … it could be hours, it could be days,” she said. “He’s very cold, and his breathing has been irregular. I know this sounds strange, and I know he’s asleep, but … he can sense you in here. Parents don’t like to die in front of their children. When the time comes, you might want to step out of the room.”
After Mom finished making all the necessary family phone calls, she came in quietly, her face swollen with sorrow and streaked with stress like her mousy blonde hair was with gray. Without breaking eye contact with Dad, she sat on the edge of the bed, holding her breath as he did, waiting for him to exhale.
Part of this active dying phase involves long pauses in breathing, which we spent most of that night counting by Dad’s bedside as he slept. Each of us took a shift sitting by him, and no one could sleep when it was their turn.
By morning, there were no pauses left to count. The winter chill crept into the room as Dad lay lifeless.
“No, Steve. I’m not ready. Don’t go,” our mother cried into his stiff arms, tangled up in the breathing tube that drooped from his nose.
Harry and I sat paralyzed in the stiff chairs next to Dad’s bed. We didn’t look at each other, but I felt like I could sense what he was thinking: Comforting Mom — and ourselves — was impossible.
The deafening silence from Dad’s absence was soon broken by a knock on our front door. The men from the funeral home who came to pick up his body couldn’t look at us when they stepped inside. The younger one — a buff 20-something — stared at the floor. “Don’t worry, we’ll take good care of him,” he said. They carried Dad out the front door on a stretcher; a ragged blanket rested on top of him.
This was the last time I saw my father.
Not only did my dad bring me into the world, but he made me love it, taking me to movies and nudging me in my seat to signal that what we were witnessing on screen was pure magic.
Now, I could no longer show Dad my movie reviews. I couldn’t share the paper about horror films I was writing before that weekend. I wish he were here to read those, to make little comments in the margins with his pen, to share his thoughts on films, on anything.
I didn’t say any of that at the funeral, shaking under the harsh lights at the memorial center, nauseous yet also comforted by the aroma of Italian food from the restaurant Dad managed, Biaggi’s. I could sense him there, but I wanted more.
I ended my eulogy with all I could think to say at that time, sometimes all I can say about it now.
“All I know is that I love my dad, and I always will.”
Sam Watermeier has been a movie buff since practically before he was born, as his mother went into labor with him in a movie theater during “The Godfather Part III.” He lives in Carmel, Indiana, writing about film — and sometimes other subjects — for NUVO Newsweekly and The Film Yap.