My dad visits me in the form of a ladybug.
I’m not sure I actually believe that, but I’m also not sure that I don’t. You see, my family moved to a new apartment in August, seven months after my dad died, and a sweet ladybug, pretty much the only insect I can tolerate in my home and would never try to squish with a shoe, appeared in my shower.
I set a piece of toilet paper down on the tile floor next to it and waited. The ladybug skittered in the opposite direction, and the toilet paper promptly became soaked with leftover droplets of water and sagged, the water fanning out from the center of the square. I got a dry piece and tried again, but the bug kept stopping as soon as it touched the edge of the paper. Eventually it must have tired of my efforts, because it crawled onto the white square. I opened the window and set the bug free, happy that it was back in nature. I forgot all about it.
A few days later, the ladybug was back. I saw the tiny red dot just inside the window in my two-year-old son’s bedroom. This time when I saw it, I immediately thought: Dad. My dad loved being in nature. He loved to explore the woods behind our home in Massachusetts, searching the ground for arrowheads, animal bones, and other such things. He loved camping, all things horse-related, and going on long runs on dirt roads. I figured my dad had come back to see our new home and to check up on the baby, his seventh grandchild and the one he knew the least, and that he had chosen the form of a ladybug because ladybugs are sweet, outdoor creatures that reminded him of his beloved home in Massachusetts. And also because he knew I wouldn’t try to flatten him. Why else would this ladybug have chosen to come to myapartment, in the middle of New York City, when there were so many others it could have chosen? So many apartments on lower floors. And why else would it have returned so soon after its first visit, when I set it free?
Maybe I’ve lost my mind.
The third time I saw the ladybug, this time in my bathroom again, I said to it, voice trembling, “Dad, is all of this stuff going to work out?” Not eloquent, to be sure, but there really is so much stuff to worry about, and I’ve lost the man on whose advice I depended the most. The person who had the most perspective because he had lived through it all already. The person who always answered the phone when I called.
It’s easier if I don’t think about my dad. But I promised I wouldn’t do that. It’s also an impossible task.
In the beginning, I was reminded of him every time I looked at the memorial candle, which we had lit on the day he died. After a few days, when most of the wax had burned away, the candle began to flicker in the glass jar, fighting to stay lit, just as my dad had struggled to stay with us just a bit longer those last few days. Several weeks after the candle had burned out, and I had rejoined the world of the living, I would be going about my day and suddenly think, I wonder what Dad is doing right now? When I’m slicing a bagel I picture him wincing, anticipating that I will cut my hand. When we had our Passover Seder this past spring, the first one without him as our Seder leader, my breath caught when I saw his distinct handwriting in my Haggadah. I see flashes of his expressions in my nine-year-old son’s face, and in the way in which my son rests one hand on the side of his face when he sleeps. All winter I wondered if my dad was cold in the cemetery; I wanted to bring him a heavy coat and a blanket. Always, when I’m texting a friend or a family member and I try to type “dad,” my phone changes it to “sad,” and I think, Yes, this is the only time the autocorrect fucker understands me.
A few weeks ago, on my youngest child’s first-ever day of school, I sent my mom a picture of the little guy standing on the corner, wearing a devilish grin, a collared shirt, and fancy pants. Right after my mom wrote back, “Kvelling!” my instinct was to send the picture to my dad. When my older son made the soccer team that he had been aching to be on for two years, I wanted to call my dad, a former soccer player, because I knew he would be excited and proud. Instead I called my mom, not a sports enthusiast, and said, “You have to be the excited grandparent because Dad isn’t here to do it.” When my daughter chose pottery as her first-ever elective at camp, it was my dad who would have been thrilled, as pottery was his greatest passion in life.
Once, when I really needed a good cry, I listened to old voicemails that my dad had left on my phone in his weak, gravelly, late-in-life voice. It was the eeriest sensation. Sometimes I think about his fluffy white hair and the twinkle in his eyes, and how his mere existence meant everything would be ok.
But sometimes I think about the way in which my dad died. That’s when I want to shut my eyes and put my hands over my ears. The doctors assured us that liver failure was a relatively painless, relatively comfortable way to die. I think they’re probably right, given all the terrible ways there are to die.
But still. There is no good way to die.
Although my dad had been beating back cancer for eleven and a half years, there was not one minute of that time that I believed he was dying. But in the fall of 2017, that changed. It became difficult for him to walk; he couldn’t make it from his bedroom to the kitchen without sitting down to take a break. He was out of breath all the time and he had an unquenchable thirst. He was too weak to speak, although he forced himself as best he could. He was admitted to the hospital on a Friday, and by Sunday he wouldn’t eat, drink, or get out of bed. That night he vomited so many times that he started to whimper, “Help.”
There is no good way to die.
In the hospital my dad became a tiny shriveled thing, rolling around restlessly in the hospital bed, moaning and coughing the most horrible sounds, trying to get comfortable. But you can’t get comfortable when you’re dying. It was astounding to see a man who once could jog three miles effortlessly suddenly unable to breathe while lying down. By his third full day in the hospital, he could still open his eyes but they couldn’t focus. I didn’t know if he could see us, although I like to think he knew we were there. One of his hands and both of his legs, now yellow, were swollen. His abdomen was distended with fluid, his mouth was dry from being open all the time, taking gulps of breath, and his lips were cracked. His breath smelled stale. One of his eyes was sticky, and he kept pawing at the air, reaching for things that weren’t there. The doctors said he was hallucinating as a result of liver failure. He was trying to tell us something, his words slurred and unrecognizable. How frustrating it must have been for him. We held up a cell phone so he could “talk” with his brother one last time. It sounded like gibberish to the rest of us, but, judging by the pacing of their voices, they seemed to understand each other. It was baffling. We all cried.
In a matter of days in the hospital, my siblings and I became the parents, and my dad became the child. When he reached for us, we ran to grab his hand. We said soothing words. We tried to feed him with a spoon, tiny bites. We dipped sponge lollipops into water or juice so he could suck on them. He tried, but he couldn’t swallow. We put ointment on his finger for him to rub on his lips, but he couldn’t find his lips so we guided his finger. We called the nurse if something bad was happening, which it almost always was.
He had the death rattle; that’s a real thing. The nurse said, “His shallow breathing from the throat is part of the process.” The process of dying, I guess. Process. I said the word over and over to myself until it didn’t sound like a word anymore. Someone once pointed out that the minute you’re born you begin to die. I guess that makes living part of the process of dying.
After six days in the hospital, the nurse called my mother very early one morning to say that my dad’s breathing had slowed considerably, and that she should come right away. She then called me, and I threw on some clothes and ran. The sunrise was beautiful that morning, with the orange rays peeking up over the tops of the apartment buildings on Third Avenue, casting a golden glow in every direction. I couldn’t believe that my dad could die on such a beautiful day.
I had never seen anyone die. In the minutes leading up to his death, he was breathing with his throat instead of his chest, his lower jaw jutting forward each time he inhaled. I remember counting the seconds between each breath to see if the time was getting longer. It reminded me of when I counted the minutes between each contraction when I was in labor with my daughter, except now time was moving in the opposite direction, getting longer instead of shorter. I held my dad’s hand and tried to think of something meaningful to say. But all I could muster was, “Oh, Dad.” After everything we experience in life, after everything a person goes through and has been and has done, it all comes down to this moment. As tears slipped from my eyes, I repeated “Oh, Dad” over and over as his breaths became shallower and eventually stopped.
And so it goes. We live, and then we die. It’s cruel, really. So many wonderful things exist in this world, and you have so many beautiful experiences, the whole time knowing that it will all be taken away. There’s so much pressure to enjoy every minute, to be grateful. And I am. It’s a gift, life, it really is. But it’s a gift that comes with strings. It was surreal and terrifying to see my dad die; life just slips right out of you. One second you’re alive and the next, gone. And that is it. Period. The end. Goodbye.
Unless you come back as a ladybug.
I never really believed in life after death. I’m not sure I do now. But with my dad gone and with each day of my life and my children’s lives passing so swiftly, with thoughts of the “end” taking up more space in my mind, I now believe, at least, in the magic of this ladybug. I have to. I look for that little red dot every day. And when it’s there, I feel safe. And I smile.