Many of us face Father’s Day without our Dads. Even for an adult, the process of losing of a father can leave us adrift and bereft. On an intellectual level, we know it’s inevitable, yet the reality can hit us with a tornado of emotions, and sometimes when we least expect it. This piece was written as my Dad was dying, twelve years ago this year. I mark the years by the age of my first grand-daughter. My son placed his newborn daughter in the crook of her great-grandpa’s arms, the day before he dyed. I’ll never forget the look of pure joy on Dad’s face and the way he squeezed little Emma close to his heart.
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, and I thought as a child. But when I became an adult, I grew far beyond my childhood, and now I have put away the childish ways.
– 1 Corinthians 13, 11
This verse keeps running through my mind. The one persistent thought among a kaleidoscope of memories that wash over me like waves against a lone rock on the beach. Each time the passage enters my consciousness; I end it with this thought: I was about eight when I put away my childish ways.
When I was brand new at the job I’ve had for nearly a decade, I called one of my best friends. She’s been my friend since grade school.
“I’m the Most Responsible Person.” I explain, over the phone, about my new position as head of Regulatory Affairs for a small pharmaceutical company. “Whenever I submit papers to the Agency, there’s a line that asks for ‘the most responsible person’. That’s me!”
This woman, who’s known me for so long, laughs a deep, from the belly laugh. “You’ve been the most responsible person since you were born.” I can see, in my mind’s eye, her head thrown back as she laughs through the phone line.
Several months ago I called my father. It was my weekly ‘how’s everything’ call. He’d just come from the doctors, explaining the results of what he described as a routine annual physical.
“Let me read you the results of the CAT scan.” He says. “A distended abdominal cavity due to excessive adipose tissue. A two cm growth on a rib extending into the chest cavity.” “The Doctor wants to do a biopsy.”
“Sounds like you’re fat, Dad.” I needle him. “Too much ice cream, I suppose. You know, sometimes cells get senile. They forget what they’re doing and go their own way. Kinda like their owners.”
“Well, I’ve never felt better.” His voice is overstuffed with optimism. “No need to worry until there’s something to worry about.”
Mom gets on the line and asks me to pray. Just in case.
When I was a little girl, just learning to read and write, with a freshly sharpened Number 2 pencil, I wrote notes to my father:
I love you. Do you love me? Yes or no. Check one. I pass the crookedly printed note up from where I sit under the dining room table and put it on his knee. The table is filled with men, his brothers, my uncles. They stop their lively conversation while my father reads the note and writes his response. Smiling, he passes the note back under the table to me. Neither box is marked. Instead, there are several lines of heavy script. I can’t read cursive yet. I carefully fold the note and put it in my worn jeans pocket.
Forgotten, the note stays there until it’s reduced to shreds in Saturday’s laundry, causing my mother’s dismay to travel up the stairs from the basement laundry room. “How many times do I have to tell you?” she cries.
Long before I’m a teenager, being the second of nine, mostly beautiful, dutiful girls, I take care of the fields, the farm animals, bury the barn cats when they inevitably die, and fix the downed fences. My father works long hours to support his family. Given responsibility, I assume authority, even though I’m really too little for either. Not a good thing when the head of the household comes home. Angry checkers fly in the air, as I gloat at beating Dad. We have life and death battles over whether golf is a sport or an activity, and neither of us even plays golf. He challenges me to calculate the amount of sand needed to fill a foundation. And criticizes that I took too long to figure it out. He teaches me that next to everyone, I’m nobody; and it only takes 10 pennies to make a dime, 10 dimes to make a dollar. He pays me a dime for each “A” I bring home on my report card. I empty his pockets. No one makes my father angrier or prouder than I do.
When I was barely into adulthood, I lamented to my mother that people assume I am much older.
“You’ve been thirty since you were eight years old. You were born grown up.” she says in the voice that reminds me of my first grade catechism:
Q: Who made you?
A: God made me.
Q: Why did God make you?
A: God made me to know love Him, to love Him and to serve Him in this world and the next.
Simple answers to seemingly simple questions, no room for discussion. I accept what my mother says without argument. My father remains silent, looking up from his TV show only long enough to increase the volume.
Several weeks ago, I went with my parents, the couple of 52 years to get the results of the tests, which followed the biopsy.
The doctor’s voice is matter-of-fact. But his eyes are big and brown and moist. “Three lesions on the liver. No treatment is certainly a viable option.” he says. I think viable is a strange choice of words.
My mother, my father’s bride, looks at her steno pad, at the doctor, and at the steno pad again. Her carefully prepared questions, follow-up to a different prognosis, are neatly aligned on the right side of the double line. The left side is blank, waiting for her to jot down the answers. She grips the pad with two hands, then flips a page searching for a question that will have an answer. She comes up empty.
My father’s eyes fill with tears and meet mine.
“Well, we’ve got a lot of work to do, if we’re going to finish your book.” It comes out of my mouth like it’s a fence we have to finish before we can go on our annual camping trip. A natural storyteller, my father wants his life recorded as fiction, in case he needs to hide. I know he’ll never write it himself, he’s only written three letters in his life: one to me when I was away at college.
When my own children were nearing the age I was when I first married, I went to visit my parents. My divorce was, at last, final.
My father has nothing to say to me. Catholics don’t divorce. Mom offers her own form of support. She knows I made a bad choice to begin with.
“Go out and talk to Dad,” she says, always pushing for harmony.
He is flat on his back, repairing the hay baler. I sit beside the toolbox and hand him wrenches and secure a nut, while he tightens a bolt. When we finish, he sits beside me and wipes the grease from his hands.
“You know this wouldn’t have happened if I’d been a better father.” Tears roll down his face.
“And here, I’ve been thinking it was my fault.” I offer him a Kleenex and keep one for myself.
A few years ago, I was in the passenger seat with my brand new husband as we negotiated a traffic circle we dubbed “Suicide Circle”. We’re having a light-hearted debate about the difference between mist and haze.
“You’re the stubbornness woman I know,” my loved one says to me with a mixture of pride and distress.
I turn my head to deliver my retort. In one of those rare moments of discovery, I realize it’s my father’s head that turns from the window, slowly, almost lazily; it’s my father head that tilts on my shoulders and looks out of my eyes through my brows.
“Just limited to the women you know?” I hear Dad’s smart alack remark through my mouth. I laugh so hard my face is wet with tears. The expression on my husband’s face reveals he is puzzling over which direction my mind has turned.
“I actually felt my Dad’s expression on my face.” I am able to feign a serious expression for a moment.
“Yeah, so what’s new?” My husband confesses to seeing it a thousand times, delighting at the obvious connection between my father and me. My husband tells me he’s been aware of the similarities from the first day he was in the same room as my father and me. “You don’t mean to tell me you just realized?” he asks with true surprise.
Last week I went to see my father. My mother was angry with him.
“He’s got a cold. He’s such a baby when he’s sick,” she says as she purchases high protein drinks. The three of us are on our way to the University hospital to get him into a clinical trial. I’m there to flex my intellectual muscles regarding ‘compassionate care’ use of unapproved drugs.
The doctor explains that the disease will continue to progress at least eight more weeks. “Think hard about how you want to spend that time,” she says.
Mom is ecstatic. He’s accepted into the study. Everything will be all right if he just shakes this cold. She asks everyone to say the rosary. I promise I will and remember doing the same for her during the Bay of Pigs, understanding just enough to be terrified of nuclear fallout, but not enough to understand why Cuba would want to bomb America’s pigs.
The two-hour trip to and from the hospital exhausts Dad. I scoop him out a small bowl of ice cream. Vanilla, even though we have his favorite, butter pecan with the chocolate topping right there waiting for him. Some things just don’t look good to him anymore. He eats about a tablespoon.
“It’s the strangest thing.” he says. “I get full and I can’t eat another bite.”
“Yeah.” I agree. “You’ve always been the kind of guy that could put down one more bite.” I look at his big belly, one of the few leftovers of the Santa Claus look that remains on his shrunken frame. He searches my face waiting for an explanation. “Do you think your liver is crowding your stomach?” I offer.
“Yes. Yes I do.” His sparkling blue eyes look deep into mine and cloud over to a dusty gray. There is dead silence in the room. He breaks it. “Did you know I learned to fly after I came home from the War?” Dad tells me of his flying lessons and his one and only solo flight. I have it all on tape for our book.
Only a few nights ago I lay awake counting all the things I’d miss about my father, all the changes that will happen in our family. The little things and the big things. I think about my mother and the half-empty bed that will be hers. The joyful whoop my father has forever made each morning, that will no longer jar me awake when I’m visiting; and how my own children hate that I sing in the morning. I sob uncontrollably. I feel like a small child about to lose one training wheel from her bicycle, trying to convince herself that one training wheel can give half the support. I try to accept God’s will in all of this.
The world, busy at work around me, is unconscious to the churning inside me. I am in a meeting this morning, strategy for Phase III clinical trials and approvable manufacturing changes. A simple question inside of me wants begs to be voiced, Did you know my Daddy’s dying? I surprise myself at the naïve, child-like question that comes out of nowhere to the front of my consciousness.
This afternoon, I go to a dentist appointment; just a checkup. A young man escorts an elderly woman; he could be her son, or perhaps her grandson. Each step is slow and looks painful. They conquer the curb, then approach the building that houses many doctors’ offices. A courier rushes by, in a hurry to deliver or pick-up from one of the offices, it’ s impossible to know. What holds my attention is the moments it takes the woman to regain her momentum and the pain in the young man’s face as he helps steady her. I hold the door for them both. My eyes meet the young man’s, but we do not speak. No words can contain what we both know is inevitable.
On our nightly walk, I tell my darling how much I’ll miss my father. I’m not sure exactly why. I don’t ask my dad for advice. Sometimes he’s a real pain in the neck. But I like being with him. There’s so much I still don’t know about him.
“I won’t miss him at all.” My husband surprises me with his apparent lack of sensitivity.
“Really?” I say.
“All I have to do is look at you, and I see your Dad.” he says.
It occurs to me that I’m not only losing my Dad, I’m losing a touchstone.
Up until the very end everyone prays for a miracle. The big problem with miracles is, they’re best appreciated looking back at them, and we seldom recognize them when they happen. I search for a wise prayer. What miracle do I hope for? I ask and find the answer sorely lacking. So I remind God next to everybody, Dad is really Somebody, he loves a good challenge, and he’s too scared to make another solo landing. I swear, when the day comes, I will be there to say goodbye and good luck. I don’t break my promises.
(also published evergreen on About.com)