To understand his death, it is helpful to recall his childhood trip to the department store Santa some 80 years before. His mother had taken him, and had been horrified that when Santa leaned down to little Alexander to ask what he wanted for Christmas, my eventual father had whispered just loudly for all the overdressed women in line to hear. “An orange.”
My grandmother, who despite the family’s modest circumstances managed to put an orange in a bowl in front of young son every morning, was livid. But he would explain decades later to me, his eventual child, is that he remembered that he loved his morning orange so much that he just wanted Christmas Day to be just like any other. So Dad’s answer to the Kansas City downtown Santa was basically a request to leave well enough alone. He already had what he liked, thank you.
I don’t think Tess, his mother, understood because she still bristled a half century later at the memory of the fur-wrapped matrons murmuring sympathetically to her child and glancing at her cloth coat with mild disdain. She always ended her recounting of the incident with the words. “An orange. He had an orange every day of his life.”
Some years ago, my then long-time father began the dying process deliberately, laying aside the medicine that forced his battered heart to beat. He was tired and lonely, and since my mother had gone on without him to wherever it is that we go from here, he was determined to follow her as quickly as possible. He began hiding his twice daily doses of medication in his bathroom pocket to flush down the toilet until my sister and I told him knew what we was doing and we promised we wouldn’t stop him. He thanked us for our understanding, and we alerted his nurse that he no longer wanted anything other than something to soften the pain of his failing heart. Quietly and simply we had arrived at a plan, and most of his remaining days and their abbreviated routine were kept as ordinary as possible. A hospice nurse joined the circle, and we continued to move through the familiar rituals of living.
Dad’s mind remained engaged, but his body faltered quickly. He put his shoes away, and placed his slippers (now cut on the sides to accommodate his swelling feet) within easy reach. He was never again in street clothes until he was dressed for the last time in his good suit and tie.
The last time I ever saw him sitting upright was less than two days before he died. He was settled in his easy chair, his slippers on the floor and his feet propped up on a little footstool. He was rubbing them together lightly the way he always did when he read something interesting. I noticed that it was a copy of The Smithsonian that had arrived in the mail that day that engaged his attention.
He was simply proceeding with his evening, however it intended to go. He had paid bills at his desk, had a bit of supper, clicked through the news channels on his television, and settled on a magazine article about a remote part of the world that he would never see.
It was absolutely his regular routine. Nothing more — and more to the point – nothing less. An orange in a bowl. He had seen no reason to change a thing.
I kissed the thin spot in his hair on top of his head, and let myself out the front door.