“Okay, you can go in now.”
Up until then, Frederick, my 2½-month-old-son, hadn’t been allowed into my dad’s hospital room in the ICU at Stanford Medical Center. But we had decided to take my father off life support, so all of us were going in to be with him while they turned off the machines.
The hospital had been an ordeal. One long-shot, complicated surgery had turned into a series of even longer-shot lifesaving efforts, each one seeming more torturous for my father.
A physician himself, he was infamous in our family for avoiding hospitals at all costs unless he was at work. To keep him hooked up to these tubes and ventilators a minute longer than necessary seemed cruel. We followed the nurse into a large corner room of the ICU where they had combed my dad’s hair and made him look as normal as possible for us to say goodbye. I had Frederick in a carrier, pressed against my chest, and he was sound asleep. Breathing softly and rhythmically, he felt warm next to me and I took comfort in knowing he was safe and close.
We filed into the room and crowded awkwardly around my dad’s hospital bed. A lump formed in my throat as I looked at him so helpless, strapped in and reliant on so many things. He hated to be constrained in any way.
He was strong and brilliant, such a powerful person in life, reduced to someone so dependent now. He looked like a stranger with his hair swept over to the side and his jaw clenched over the intubation tube. He looked strangely like Michael Douglas to me, his hair too neat and his jaw too square.
In life, he was the epitome of laid back. His signature hairstyle was floppy. As long as I knew him it had been grey and it kind of flopped down around his ears and on his forehead in a messy, shaggy, comfortable way. It went perfectly with his full gray mustache, which I’d never known him without. My friends always said he looked like Albert Einstein, and there was a definite resemblance. They shared a distinct nose, bushy eyebrows and kind eyes.
I stood there, holding Frederick, looking at my dad and thinking about this wonderful, caring man. This generous, intelligent man, who had been there across a table or down a phone line for every important moment in my life. He taught me how to ride a bike and skip rocks, how to fry an egg and choose a perfect cantaloupe. He had been there to comfort me through setbacks and breakups, to cheer me on in success and to encourage me in times of uncertainty. He taught me about being kind and humble, about hard work and putting others first, about listening and thinking, and about appreciating all of the limitless beauty in life. As I stood there looking at him, tears began pricking my eyes and rolling down my cheeks. I felt a huge, consuming, cavernous, sadness opening up around me, threatening to swallow me whole.
And just as the bleakness of my life without him was taking hold, I heard an unmistakable, urgent gurgle. I looked down to see Frederick smiling sheepishly.
He was pleased with himself after taking a giant, diaper-busting dump. I looked around at my mom and my siblings and saw cracks of smiles breaking through the sadness on their faces. And I felt my own smile inching out toward the corners of my lips. “What timing this kid has!” I thought. And as I walked away from my dad’s bed to get a clean diaper from my bag, I thought about how my tiny baby was teaching me an important lesson. He was telling me in no uncertain terms that I had real pressing things to do right now, that I didn’t have time to sit around feeling sorry for myself, wallowing.
Right now, I had the very immediate task of cleaning up the oozing poop that had found its way out of my son’s diaper and all the way up his back. I think that, in times of unbearable sorrow and loss, we are more open to the messages that might come to us. I think we feel so helpless and hopeless that it feels good to think that there might be something else out there. That part of my brain tells me that my dad might have been sending me a message.
“Look at your beautiful boy, Katie.” He was saying. “See all the joy and beauty right in front of you.”
My more logical brain knows that it was just a coincidence. Babies poop. A lot. Whether it’s in the car or the pool or the ICU, it makes no difference to them. But what I do know for certain is that I will teach my baby the things my dad taught me: To revel in the wonder of waves crashing on a beach, to be curious, to read books, to eat fruit every day, to be a good listener and, above all, to be kind to people. I miss my dad every day. The sadness doesn’t go away.
But I hope that I can embody some of the goodness in him. I hope that I can make my son feel as loved and safe and listened to as my dad made me feel. If I can accomplish that, then his legacy will live on.
Katie Beck is an American journalist currently based in Sydney. She often writes for BBC News and other publications.
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