Wanting to do something significant for her father to make up for her neglect, Burrell reflects on the fascinating life her father, a Royal Yachtsman, ledand decides that the one thing she can do for him is to tell his exceptional life story and make sure he is not forgotten. Our Grand Finale is the culmination of that effortan exploration of both the author’s and her father’s unusual life experiences, and a reminder that “later” doesn’t always come.
|Publisher:||She Writes Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x (d)|
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It is late afternoon in April, and only hours after landing in England, I find myself standing in the ward corridor in the Queen Alexandra Hospital in Portsmouth. My mother points through the open door of a hospital room toward a man reclining in a bed. I look past my mother and through the doorway at the man I have traveled thousands of miles to visit, and the smile I carried with the anticipation and eagerness in seeing him again dissipates at the sight of him. My nervous excitement instantaneously vanishes, to be replaced by an invisible barrier of distress preventing me from taking the final steps forward in my journey toward him. My brow furrows, my head tilts to one side. My mouth opens and then shuts, unable to find the right words, while my mind tries its best to make sense of the scenario. This isn't him. I don't recognize this person. Mum has made a mistake and shown me the wrong room. I am aware of my mother walking away toward the waiting area, unaware of her mistake, leaving me alone to spend the remainder of the visiting hour with this stranger. I desperately want to call my mother back, to demand an explanation, but the words — shouting at me, creating an uproar in my head — find no voice.
As is expected of me, I walk slowly toward the bed, each foot feeling unnaturally heavy, hindering my progress as if in tune with my mind's refusal to accept the circumstances, joining in my hesitancy to approach the man. I grip the handles of my handbag tight, feeling comfort in something tangible and known versus this intangible surrealism I find myself surrounded by. My eyes remain fixed on my destination, relying on the overbroad smile fixed to my face to belie the disorder in my mind. Above all and regardless of the situation, I must not exhibit my distress.
With each step I take, I mentally interrogate myself. This cannot be him. Surely not! This is not what I had expected. I had planned for something other than this. I had rehearsed this meeting over and over. It was supposed to be exuberant, signs of happiness to see each other again. There were things I was supposed to say. This is all wrong.
Sensing my presence, he slowly turns to watch me approach. His blue eyes gaze intently into my own as if drawing me closer. Standing beside the bed, I stare into the blue eyes. I know those eyes. Their familiarity saddens me, and my spirit deflates. There is no mistake.
This is my father.
My gaze scans the bed, looking down at my father's frame, diminished and hidden under the bedding innocuously covering the disease that is winning its battle against him. My father's arms, once muscular and strong from years of labor, now lie above the bedding, bloated and useless from the illness. I reach down and gently take his hand in my own, wanting to feel something human in this sterile environment. I look at his hand and compare his yellowed, discolored, swollen skin to the paleness of my own. I am afraid to hurt him, yet need to touch him. I look at his face, his eyes, not daring to breathe, hoping if I can just hold my breath, I can also hold back my tears. His mouth is drawn tight, silently speaking his pain. His eyes explain his understanding of the inevitable.
I barely understand what he is saying to me. His false teeth have been removed, and he has difficulty speaking without them. Without his teeth, his jaw droops awkwardly, distorting his face and making him barely recognizable. His hair is brushed all wrong.
Carefully I sit down on the edge of the bed, clasping his hand a little tighter and smiling at him, tears falling from my own blue eyes.
"I love you too, Dad."
It is late afternoon. I am exhausted and overwhelmed. The already long journey from the States had been lengthened with delays both before my departure from Las Vegas and through an emergency landing for a sick passenger in Canada. Now finally here in England, my confused mind cannot take in the circumstances. My father is far worse than I expected, and somewhere in the back of my mind I am angry. My mother and sister had not prepared me for this. I had known my father was in the hospital, but the telephone calls in recent weeks were optimistic. Mum had told me that Dad was talking; he was his ever-feisty self, wanting to leave the hospital and go home. My mother and sister had seen his decline but chose not to share that information with me, and now I can't help feeling resentful, cheated. Seeing my father's poor condition today is an unexpected and unfair surprise.
It was only three days ago that Mum had called to say that Dad probably would not leave the hospital any time soon, and perhaps I might want to come over to England and see him sometime. That call was the first time I sensed the urgency in my mother's voice, and it alarmed me. For the first time, I understood that Dad's time was limited. I immediately made arrangements for myself and my son, Mark, to fly to England, not wanting to miss a moment with Dad. Still, I thought there would be more time than this. I thought we would have a couple of weeks or longer together. I thought we would have time to talk; time for me to say those things I had always wanted to say to my father; time for us to have those conversations people always plan on having sometime; time for me to tell my dad how much I love him and respect him, how much I appreciate everything he has done for me; time for Dad to tell me he is proud of all I have achieved. I desperately need to hear that, to know I have earned his approval, his respect.
I see now, and all too late, that I have got it wrong. I had been given fifty years with my father. Fifty years to talk to him, to spend time with him, to share moments and achievements with him, to tell him I love him. I see now that I have spent my life doing what I want to do, traveling the world, rarely visiting with my family, thinking there would always be time at some later date; but now the time we had been given together has passed. The time for those most important of conversations is gone. My heart breaks as I now recognize all I have regrettably lost.
There is a movement behind me as Mark enters the room. Without looking away from my father's face, I sense Mark's presence as he stands on the other side of the bed. I study my father's face intently, trying to read his expression, to get some sense of how he is doing, how he is feeling. His surprise and delight at seeing me and then Mark is expressed by a toothless grin, an incongruous ray of sunshine piercing through the shadow of the moment. He hadn't been told that we were coming. The sheer joy in his eyes as he looks at Mark, then at me, and then back at Mark again is moving. Tears well up in his blue eyes. My heart breaks at the sight of this man who had been so strong and reassuring as a father, but who is now physically diminished, lying weak and helpless in this hospital cot like a needy child.
Mark and I behave nonchalantly, talking cheerfully about how happy we are to see him, and how we hope he is feeling fine, as though we just happened to have time to pop over from the States to visit. It is a charade, and not a good one. Everyone knows we are here because we have been given the final summons. Our presence, unannounced and unexpected, completes the family circle, and the family is together again for only one reason.
Dad wiggles his fingers, and his mouth opens as he struggles to talk, but his guttural sounds make no sense. He is looking at me, wanting me to understand him, but I don't. I retain my smile like some grotesque grinning mask, but inside I am panicking. What is he trying to tell me? I stand rigid, unable to comprehend and respond to his words, feeling like some inanimate object devoid of intelligence or feeling. I don't want to do or say the wrong thing, but I am clueless as to what is the right thing. This situation is foreign to me, and I don't have the language skills to interpret my father's wishes. When Dad turns to speak to Mark, I take the opportunity to escape from the room, shouting, "I'll be right back, Dad."
After finding Mum in the waiting room, I lose my composure. The stress of the long journey and its unanticipated conclusion wreak havoc with my vulnerable state. My emotions, barely held at bay in front of my father, now take control, causing me to stand in the doorway of the waiting room sobbing, tears streaming down my face, my head and shoulders shaking. I run my hand through my short blonde hair, unable to contain my frustration at my incomprehensible ineptitude.
"I don't know what he's saying, Mum. I don't know what he wants. I can't understand him." Ignoring the sympathetic glances from other visitors and not caring that I'm making a spectacle of myself, I hold my hands out toward my mother as if begging for an answer. "I can't help him, Mum. I don't know if he wants a drink, or what he wants to say. I don't know what to do for him." I, the well-educated, professional woman, am standing like a petulant weeping child. It isn't supposed to be like this.
Mum walks back with me to the hospital room. With her soothing voice, Mum tends to her husband, using years of nursing experience to plump up his pillows and tuck in his blanket. She then holds a plastic beaker up to his mouth so he can take a sip of water through the straw, his slurping sounding childlike. I watch with sadness as Mum cares for Dad, as she makes sure he is comfortable and has what he needs. She speaks to him softly, answering his awkward mumblings. She knows what he is saying. Cathy and Ian — childhood friends and then sweethearts, they had been together more than sixty years. Mum understands him.
A bell rings throughout the ward, its shrill sound impatiently announcing that visiting time is over. Its annoying ring continues for many minutes, impervious to the disappointment of visitors and patients alike at the command to say goodbye. The hour and a half I spend with my father has passed quickly, and I was useless. All I was able to say over and over again was "I love you, Dad," as I stood awkwardly by the side of the bed with a silly smile plastered on my face.
I am thankful that Mark was able to speak to his grandfather with a charming ease, his banter making up for my own ineffectiveness. I resolve to go home now, regroup my thoughts, and come back tomorrow. Tomorrow I will be better prepared. Tomorrow I will say all the things I need to tell my father. Even though I might not understand what he says to me, even though I might never hear or understand him say how proud he is of me, I will tell him how proud I am of him. That is more important. I will tell him that all of my achievements were motivated by him. He is my shining example of the best in people. He is my mentor. He is my hero.
We leave the room with promises to return the next morning. I turn one last time to wave goodbye to my father.
"I love you, Dad."
In the middle of the night, the telephone rings, its shrill tone rudely disturbing the silence of the sleeping house. The abrupt sound startles me, dragging me instantly from dream state to black reality. The bedroom is still dark, evidence of the early hour, but then a sliver of light slips under the door, cutting across the dark floor of the room as the hall light goes on. I hear my mother's footsteps descending the stairs to answer the phone. Despite the time difference and the weight of my jet-lagged body, my mind is alert. Instinctively I know what the call is, and I wait for a knock on the bedroom door. It comes soon and Mum's head peers round the door. "That was the hospital. Dad's not doing too well. They think we should come." Mum had left instructions with the nurses that if they thought Dad was coming to the end, they were to call her. This is the call.
My sister, Loretta, had been called, and now she, Mum, Mark, and I walk along the deserted hospital corridors, our footsteps amplified by the stone floors and walls. It feels as though we are trespassing. We are here outside of business hours, outside of visiting hours. But it is one of those occasions when the rules are waived, when you don't have to stand in line or take your turn to get assistance. I don't want it to be one of those occasions. I silently acknowledge to myself that sometimes we don't get to choose. The one person we do pass in the hallway looks at us knowingly, smiles sympathetically, and then turns away. Only one reason brings people to a hospital in the early hours of the morning.
We follow the signs and find the elevator to the ward. My senses tune into the environment. The hospital epitomizes the British institution. Built around 1904 as a military hospital, its painted stone walls do nothing to disguise the sparse and somber character of a National Health facility. Serviceable, with no frills, this is a typical part of British life as I remember it. It is the life I escaped from many years ago. Yet as I walk along the hallways with my family, it is as though I have never left. I feel myself slipping back into my British persona. Life is simpler, more no-nonsense here.
Dad's room has taken on a different character from yesterday. It has become a theater set, lit to reflect the somber mood and with Dad as the focal point of the scene. A track light angled from the ceiling spotlights Dad's face. The tiny lights and beeps from machines add to the effect. Dad lies sleeping, his breathing labored. The nurse says he had taken a bad turn after we had left yesterday, and he has been given morphine to ease his last few hours.
His last few hours. This is it. I follow my mother and sister as we take our places of vigil around the bed. Mark chooses to lie down on the floor in the corner of the room, falling asleep immediately, still exhausted from his journey from the States. I look down at my son, his six-foot-four frame curled in a fetal position, his mind oblivious to the world. I think, You silly boy. These are the final moments for your grandfather, and you do not have the strength or stamina to remain alert. I wasted fifty years with him. I am not wasting these last few hours.
I sit down on a chair next to my sister, committing myself to remaining to the end, however long that might be. I look at my father and wordlessly share my thoughts with him: I'm not going anywhere Dad. I am here for you. I look down at Dad, asleep, his blue eyes no longer visible. I know I will never see those blue eyes again, and I am again overcome by a crushing sadness and heart- ache. I ask myself, Do people dream when they are on morphine? Oh Dad! I hope you are having the sweetest dreams.
With nothing to do but wait in witness of my father's final hours, I sit and listen as the gentle flow of each breath my father takes slowly extinguishes his life. The dimness, the silence, the reverent atmosphere of the room lends itself to reflection, and I begin to philosophically ponder those questions we all have but never want to ask: How is it going to end, not only for ourselves, but also for those close to us? I chastise myself and tell myself not to be morbid. Of course, I knew this time would come; it is a natural part of living. The life given to us, the experiences, the accomplishments, the challenges, the relationships, the good times and bad — all come with a price, mortality. We are allowed to experience that most wonderful of human emotions, of loving someone, but only if that experience is accompanied by its antithesis, the pain of death, of losing that same loved one.
Every life consists of a unique tableau of connected scenes ending with its own finale, an unknown mysterious conclusion keeping us in suspense until the very end. The practical lawyer in me reminds me that at least my father's finale is not a completely unexpected event. I did get a chance to say goodbye, sort of. I think back to yesterday's brief visit and I am again overcome by remorse. I mentally chastise myself. I am stupid! Stupid! Stupid! I thought I would have today to tell Dad all the things that I wanted to tell him. Again I see how I have got it all wrong. Fifty years, and I have run out of chances to get it right.
But I did tell him I love him. Was that enough for him? I have read or heard of those times when the dying hold on to life just long enough to allow loved ones to come and share a final moment. I wonder, Was that what had happened here? Had Dad held on long enough to allow me and Mark to come from the States to share a final moment? Was that all he had needed? To see that we had come to pay our last respects? Had he then allowed himself to let go? So many questions that I know will never, can never, be answered.
Excerpted from "Our Grand Finale"
Copyright © 2017 Laraine Burrell.
Excerpted by permission of She Writes Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This account of a strong woman who grows from a young girl to a young woman into a grown, successful and almost satisfied and fulfilled adult is very endearing. It is a very raw and truthful account of the times in which she grew up and how perseverance played a key role in her success. A story of a young woman who wasn't necessarily a victim of poor circumstances, but chose a path in life to free herself to live life through the eyes of her father, even if she didn't know it at the time. Although she may not have chosen the best path at times, and every decision may not have been the best for the situation, I couldn't help but admire her spunk and charm. I did feel that the father and daughter connection during her childhood years deserved more attention and merit, as the book was a little confusing at first, painting the father in a little of a negative light. Of course, I understand, that was times of "spare the rod, spoil the child" that aren't tolerated in today's world (unfortunately). I enjoyed reading her growth and seeing her rise up after falling and pushing herself to excel even further. I'd recommend this book to anyone who wants a good walk in the past and/or to learn more about the life of a traveling dancer/free-spirited soul.