When my father stopped eating and we all understood it was a matter of time, I drove from Vermont to Boston to see him at the nursing home. He’d suffered a steady decline and lost the ability to care for himself, but his memory and cognitive abilities did not have the savage gaps of Alzheimer’s. He knew me. He knew all his family and why we­­ mattered. He could whistle beautifully, recite Frost, and he laughed at jokes. Yet it was as if someone kept turning down the volume of his mind and body, and less of him was able to live.

That day, my father was tucked in white sheets, propped on white pillows, his bearded face bathed with sun. He said my name and smiled at my arrival. All his muscles were slowing, and his smile was huge and lasting. The smile carried years inside it: his broad shoulders hauling me up mountains, his faithful attendance at my screechy flute concerts, his eyes on my early poems, his gladness at my marriage and his grandsons. Small talk exhausted him now, so I held his hand. I sang. I told my father that I respected his decision to let go of life. And then we sat in the glow together, the glow of his unconditional love for me, and the love I returned.

When I rose that afternoon, certain now that we were drifting toward our last good-bye, I felt something loosening from my shoulders. A physical lifting. A tug and a release. It was as if a heavy cloak had been pulled away from my body. A raiment as they say in Genesis. I did not know I had worn this raiment all my life, had borrowed it, until that moment, when I understood I had to give it back. The instant my father died, I realized, no one on this earth would see me the way he had seen me. Not even my dear mother and brothers. No one. Even a love as great as his was lent.

My father would not walk again, and within days, he would not speak again. The night before he died, he became, briefly, frightened. My brothers and I held his hands and sang “Be Not Afraid” and “Die Lorelei” in his native German until his grip in ours relaxed. That night, I elected to stay, sleeping in the bed by the window and rising every hour to check on him. He developed a deep, rattling cough, which later diminished to teaspoons of breath. His spine arched, his chest jutted, and his eyes stopped fluttering. A final stillness started to spread. As I returned to my bed, I wondered if I was right to doze at all, remembering Christ’s anger at his disciples in Gethsemane for nodding off while he prepared for his imminent death. And yet, their leader was asking the near impossible. Keep watch with me. The living sleep. It’s what we do. We cannot wake to the last journey until it is ours.

The next morning, when other family returned, my father was a mere shell of breath, fainter by the hour. I was not present the moment he died. This didn’t sadden me. We had said our good-byes. Meanwhile, a new, unexpected hope arose: maybe I hadn’t reached the end of receiving his love, but the end of seeing it housed by a dying body, and the beginning of a new correspondence.


Dear Dad: Today I take my young sons to the northern lake where you taught me to swim. We play and splash although it is late in the year, and yellow leaves float in the water. I dive down, until I am submerged completely, and emerge to my boys waiting for me. Their faces shine with glee. Again I dive, and rise, countless times, until it feels like my body is sewing two things that can’t be sewn, one element to another. For your grandsons’ sake, I pretend it’s a game, and not a conversation with my own grief, this first stage, when I am still in shock at the magnitude of your loss. In shock, but also gratitude.

Every time I shoot into the air again, back to my children, the entire lake slides off me, like a cloak. Your loan to us is that deep. It glitters in sunlight. It stretches all the way to the mountains.

Maria Hummel is the author of five novels, including Still Lives, a Reese Witherspoon Book Club pick, and Goldenseal, forthcoming in 2024. Her poetry collection, House and Fire, won the APR/Honickman Prize. She lives in Vermont.

Photo by Dinty W. Moore