My father died four years ago today. I’ve been thinking of him a lot, remembering that terrible last week. He had been in and out of the hospital, and we had just finally been able to place him at a local nursing home facility. He was going blind, and he couldn’t keep up the situation at the independent living center anymore – not even with the help of my brother and myself.
His dream had been to retire to the heart of the Smokey Mountains, and he moved there from Massachusetts some years before. He had managed to eke out a very minimal living there selling “computerized” photos on mugs and tee-shirts. It was cold in the winter, though, and healthcare facilities that he could use weren’t nearby. He needed supplemental support. His longtime companion Lorraine finally moved back north to live with her family because of her own health issues. Living alone in that environment wasn’t a good choice for him. Harrah’s Casino moved in and changed the dynamic, and it was harder and harder for him to survive. He moved to Atlanta about a year before his death.
I am grateful for that last year, although I also have some regrets. He was always good to our son Ben, and that covered a lot of ground with me. Somewhere I have a video of him pulling Ben in the red wagon – patiently, over and over, circling the front yard. We spent some uncomplicated time together, and that was a priceless gift. We didn’t really work through any issues or anything like that, but somehow just spending some time together made many of them somewhat irrelevant.
He had been on dialysis for a few months. Initially, he was opposed to it. He was more than ready to go and his images of what it entailed were a bit outdated. We talked about it, and he finally agreed to try it – but on the condition that he was absolutely free to stop anytime he wanted. I think it was the only time we ever came to an agreement about something (smile).
He had multiple heath issues by then. He’d been in critical – and a whole team of doctors were needed even to delve into the mysteries of all that was going on in his body. Still, he lived longer than anyone thought he would. When his doctor would say, “Now, be careful of what you eat or you could have a heart attack” his response was always something like, “Promises, promises…”. That was typical of his dry (and sometimes cruel) sense of humor.
In the nursing home, the telephone hasn’t yet been connected. I visited him there and found that his bed didn’t go up and down properly. I asked them please to replace it, because he needed to be able to control that after the dialysis. I don’t know whether they did, and I suspect not – but it can’t be helped now.
Then, I got that deadly flu. I was at death’s door myself – it certainly felt like it. I was out for the count. Even if I could have stirred myself, it wasn’t a thing that one would bring through the doors of a nursing home. I had been planning to bring Dad come to the house for Christmas, but I couldn’t even reach him to let him know that it wouldn’t work. The people at the desk wouldn’t even pass on a message. It filled me with rage. I regret not asking a friend to go over and tell him. I should have done that, but I didn’t think of it.
I talked to him, finally, on the 27th. His phone was finally connected and he called me. He could tell by my voice that I was really sick. I told him that I was so sorry to leave him all alone on Christmas with no word. He just said, “well, that explains it then.” We talked for a few minutes, and then he told me that he loved me. I still smile thinking about it. It’s not something he said easily or often.
That night, he was found unresponsive in his room, and rushed to a hospital about two miles from my house. My brother got the call. He had just returned to town and was exhausted. He says he didn’t call me because I was too sick to have gone to say goodbye. Reportedly, my dad’s last words were, “What’s a guy gotta do to get a cigarette around here?” (He hadn’t smoked cigarettes in some years, but he liked a cigar.)
The next day, my brother Michael showed up at the house dressed all in black. He didn’t have to say anything. My defenses were immediately up and running. I vaguely remember being flippant. I’m a bit like my dad that way; when things are overwhelming I tend to become inauthentic. I shut off. I become darkly humorous. I don’t really connect to the people around me. It’s something I’m working on, but for me it is so hard to be in the moment with another person when things are difficult.
Daddy wasn’t someone who showed his emotions easily, or dealt with them well. For much of my life I thought that he didn’t have them, but now I think his emotional life was so overwhelming to him that he just buckled it down. He was a bit of a control freak. I never thought I measured up to his standards (whatever they were). I wasn’t the perfect child he had tried to raise as a Jehovah’s Witness. That I was female was always a problem, too; he didn’t really like or understand women.
I wish that I had finished the Ph.D. before he died. I was almost there.
Our relationship was complex, ambivalent, frustrating, confusing. We could never get the right closeness, the feeling of authenticity. Everything always seemed awkward. Just awkward. Part of the problem in our relationship was mine. I didn’t really understand until recently the extent to which I had kept him at arm’s length, too. He always remained the archetypal father to me. I never really had much insight into him as a person.
“Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word,” Renee Stahl’s version of the Elton John Song
I am so grateful to his family and some of his friends for sharing some of their experiences, insights and thoughts with me. Through them, I found out that he actually was proud of me and bragged about me all the time. His friends knew everything I was up to – they had the details.
I think of my Dad, ultimately, as a tragic figure. He had his faults and they helped to destroy the glimmering possibilities of who he might have been. What he was given and what he chose made his life a hard one.
I have some good memories, even so, to call upon. I miss him terribly.
I regret my own lack of insight, compassion, and maturity in communicating with him. I hope that he found the answers he was looking for. I hope that now he understands. I hope that some part of who he might have been is clearer now.
Today, I honor my father, and I let go – finally – of all the issues and negativity. I light a candle in his name, and I send prayers to cosmic benevolence and love to care for his spirit. God and Goddess, bless his soul.
Maybe there is an atom or two floating in the back yard…
I call upon the someone that he was and the someone that he could have been. That energy and those bits live on through his children and grandchildren – sending love back into the webs of being and non-being. He lives on through us, and we accept him as part of who we are. I miss you Daddy, and I love you always.
“Hushabye Mountain,” Stacey Kent’s version