Schrödinger’s father

Schrödinger’s father

The impending death of a loved one often leaves us sitting in a between-state.

Kenneth Sutton
Sad girl reading phone message at home in the dark - Stock image

© AntonioGuillem/istock

© AntonioGuillem/istock


It feels like my father is Schrödinger’s cat. As I sit here in Boston in early November, deciding between trying to work, pretending to work, or giving up on any pretense of working, my father is lying in a hospital bed on the other side of the country, dying.

Or perhaps he’s in an ambulance, being transported to his home to die there under hospice care.

Or maybe he’s already dead.

Like the cat in Schrödinger’s thought experiment, my father is both dead and alive.

After a decade or more of health problems, a combination of old age, heart disease, and infections have accelerated a process of gradual decline that my sister and I had become used to, if not comfortable with. The feeling that every time I traveled across the country for a visit, sometimes planned, sometimes in haste, might be the last I would see my father has a certain familiarity. But eventually there is a final goodbye and now, it seems, we’ve gotten close to that point.

I first said goodbye to my father over thirty years ago when he found out I was gay and refused to speak to me. I suppose he may have said goodbye to me as well, but we didn’t say it to each other. A year later he had a near-fatal accident that started us on a path of reconciliation. That reconciliation eventually laid the groundwork for saying our mutual goodbyes several times over the years as he was beset by various ailments.

Living thousands of miles away has always meant that family news comes second- or thirdhand, and usually on someone else’s timetable. “If you don’t hear from us, nothing has changed” has been a regular message. Or, “We didn’t want to worry you until we had more information.” Even in my late teens and early 20s, when I still lived in the same state (albeit in California, where that can mean a very long way away), my mother didn’t tell me my grandmother had a stroke; she only called when my grandmother actually died two days later. Granted, there was nothing I could or would have done, but it established a pattern.

When my mother herself was dying (oh, the irony: we all thought my father would die first), I learned how much worse the waiting is than the grief that comes after.

The grief after a death is sharp and strong. It pops up at unexpected moments, even years later, but its sharpness creates an urgency of response, like acute physical pain. The grief may be strong enough to stop my daily routine, or it may be something I work my way through in the moment. If I’m sad, I might cry or talk to someone or ask for a hug. I move along in what feels like a process of incorporating the grief.

Waiting for a death, on the other hand, is diffuse while at the same time a very distinct state of being. Entire theologies are built on liminality, on being on a threshold. That doesn’t make this waiting any easier.

There’s the usual waiting of a deathwatch, whether in person or remotely. But I’m also three time zones away, so there’s the waiting for other people to wake up, for their day to get started, for them to have a convenient moment to call. Then there’s the late-night phone call that isn’t urgent, but simply not a late-night call for the other person.

And am I waiting for good news or bad news? Do I even know which is which? Sometimes I think the best-case scenario is getting a call that my father died two hours ago in his sleep. How can that be a best-case scenario? And yet it’s far better than many alternatives, at least as far as my family understands such things.

But the call hasn’t come.

I try to come to rest in a place of not knowing. It is difficult. The oft-rehearsed goodbye is at hand, but not yet. It feels like the process of saying goodbye that has come and gone in the abstract so many times before is now actual, visible, just over there, but also not here.

The call comes, and he is resting peacefully at home in the care of hospice. For now, Schrödinger’s father is alive.

My father died at home under hospice care on November 15, 2017.