Friday, June 15, 2007

21 Years Gone

It was raining on the last day my father saw the open sky. I remember only pieces of that day, and the short days that followed. It was late May 1986. I had just gotten home from my sophomore year of college, and I knew my father was very ill. Just how ill, maybe I really didn't fathom at the time. Or didn't want to.

As spring break approached that year, I got a call from my sister in Milwaukee. She'd taken a trip down to Illinois to visit Dad while Mom visited our brother in Germany. "There's something really wrong with Dad. I think you need to come home." I was packing for my college choir's annual tour when she'd called. I was scheduled to spend spring break singing in a handful of Midwestern churches and small concert halls with the rest of the group. I went to see the testy and high strung assistant director of the choir - a woman who would, eventually, embarrass me into quitting the choir because I could not read music. (But I could sing, man. I could sing.) She had been tasked with leading us on tour, so I explained the situation as best I could. My sister didn't know what was wrong with our father, but she was panicked. Mom was coming home from Germany, and the choir bus would run us through my hometown. Could I leave the choir in Moline to see my family?

The answer was no. (So cold.) Either I went on the whole tour or nothing at all. I didn't have cash to get home on my own, and Mom was still overseas. I had a terrible relationship with my father, and I didn't want to get on the phone and say, "Hey, I hear you may be dying. Can you send me money so I can home and see you?" It was just a mess. A bloody big mess.

I packed my bag for tour and headed out with the choir. Mom returned home while I was on the road. I called her from a phone in the back of a church hall somewhere in Wisconsin. She didn't sound good. She told me I had to come home. What I didn't know - and she was keeping to herself - is that she had been diagnosed with colon cancer. But she kept silent. She knew, I think, before any of the rest of us, that Dad was going to die. She put her own health on hold. She'd had cancer before and survived. She was goddamn tough.

I told the assistant director that I absolutely needed to leave the tour. The bus driver told me we would hit my home town around noon the next day. I called Mom and asked her to meet me in the parking lot by the mall near our house at noon. No cell phones then. I was at the mercy of pay phones when I could find one.

Again, the cranky woman told me I couldn't leave. To this day, I don't know if she was more concerned about dumping a kid in the middle of a college-sponsored tour (and her liability) or the lack of one of her first sopranos. I tend to think it was the latter, honestly. The other members of the choir could see that I was quietly freaking out, and they sympathized. I made a deal with the bus driver. I sat up front and quietly gave him directions to the mall when we hit the outskirts of Moline. I saw my mother in her little Escort wagon, waiting in the empty lot by Von Maur - one of those big, high end stores with a pianist playing standards on a baby grand next to a small fountain.

The driver stopped in the lot. I grabbed my bag, turned to the appalled woman charged with managing us and just said, "Sorry, I'm leaving." And I was gone.

Mom took me to the hospital, where my father was already on a downward spiral. He had lost a tremendous amount of weight, and with his dentures out, he looked even more hollow. I don't remember much about that time. Even in good times, my father and I rarely communicated. He didn't enjoy my company, and I was surly around him in return. There was simply a great deal of silence. No one really talked to me about what was eating him alive. In truth, I think the doctors were having a hard time pinning it on one thing. Systematically, he was shutting down. But briefly, he rallied.

He came home from the hospital, and I returned to Minnesota to complete the academic year, mostly in a daze. Plans were in place for me to leave for a year in England in the autumn. I was pretty shell shocked finishing that semester. I was parting ways with my friends for a year (which became a critical year and a half, in fact) and I had no idea what waited at home, where my mother tended to "her Eddie" - a man she loved, but I listened to treating her with something less than love so many times.

I came home again in late May. By then, my father lay in bed almost all the time. Only once or twice did he shuffle down the hall in one of his nightshirts, looking lost, looking vacant. There was no conversation. I tried a couple of times, but there was no response. He was vanishing, and he retreated into the bedroom - just him and CNN and the shelves of Louis L'Amour books he loved, but could no longer read.

I stayed quiet. I stayed out of the way. I watched. I waited. I let my mother spend time with him. If we had been close, it would have been different, I think. If he hadn't been so damn mean and unpleasant so much of the time, it would have been different. I think. But I just stayed out of the way.

And then, one morning, things declined to the point where my mother couldn't handle it. "We have to take him back to the hospital," she said, her voice quavering. I called my brother Ed up from his basement room and we walked Dad out to the car.

That's my single most clear memory of the week when my father died.

The walk to the car.

Mom went ahead to open the car doors and start the engine. I could feel the urgency in her movements. A light rain had started to fall as we walked out. My father was a shuffling ghost in his nightshirt and loafers. His eyes were sunken and his jaw hung open. I held one arm and my brother held the other as we led him out. It was as if he had no weight at all. No strength, no power. So light it was as if the spirit had already left him.

And then, in the middle of our small yard, the rain increased. Big drops hit my father's face, and something happened. He stopped stock still. Rigid. And he gripped my arm so hard, it hurt. He was an immovable object. I heard my mother calling, "Ed, Ed, come on, you have to get into the car!" But my father just stood there, the rain running down his face. And he slowly turned his face up to sky. His jaw dropped lower and his eyes seemed to seek something there. I wonder if he knew right then that would be the last time he would see the sky, to know the enormity of the world. I wonder if in his silent sickness, he was pleading to leave right there and then.

It's a path I would have chosen for him. Instead, he lingered in the hospital for days. My siblings gathered, goodbyes were said. My mother sat at his bedside, taking notes in shorthand when he actually did speak. I think I've mentioned, one of the last things he said was my name. But I have no idea if it was to wish better for me or tell me he loved me or just to condemn me. I will never know.

There is a Polaroid of me and my father, probably taken the day before he died. In it, he is jaundiced from his failing liver, his eyes so deep in their sockets, they are mere pinpoints in his face. I was trying to cheer him, I think. 21 years later, I can't remember the exact circumstances, really. Strangely, I am smiling. It's a big, forced smile, disturbing in its context. The picture popped up in a packet of documents after my mom died in 2001. It really rattled me to see it again. I gave the photo to the Sasquatch to hold for me. I still can't look at it without a mix of really rough feelings.

My father died on the Sasquatch's birthday, you know. We had just become friends at the beginning of that college year. He phoned me from his parent's home in Nebraska a few days after Dad had died and said, "You didn't call me for my birthday." I told him where I'd been on his birthday. I think he felt terrible. I did, too. Isn't it strange? I can clearly remember taking that call from him in my parents' bedroom, sitting on my father's side of the bed. Feeling strange. Feeling wrong.

I still feel strange and wrong about how my relationship with my father ended. Or didn't end.

I just see him in my mind standing in the yard, whatever strength he had left to call up radiating through his limbs. Do not take me from this place! Do not take me from this sky! Do not take me to the room where I will be ended! I will make my stand here!

But then, he faltered, and we moved him on.

I'm not sure how to end this post. I'm just not sure.

I am my father's daughter. I have his gift with words. I can tell stories and speak convincingly in front of groups. I also unfortunately have his prematurely grey hair, hand tremors, and broad nose and even broader calves. I have his ability to sing, his ego and his sometimes incendiary temper. There are times when I do not appreciate seeing him in myself. And there are others when I depend on it.

I still don't know how to end this. So I will simply say this: father friends, be good to your children. Trust me - a time comes when you cannot mend fences anymore.

Be well.


radiocynic said...


Beautiful writing once again, as usual.

This will be the 24th fatherless Father's Day for me, and yeah, it really doesn't get any better or less weird as time goes on. Time simply does go on. So as weird as this may sound to a lot of folks, I offer my continued sympathy.

My dad and I actually had a pretty good relationship, though I believe I've never really completely forgiven him for cutting out when I was only 23. I still believe that he truly thought I had my crap together, and could handle taking care of my mom and all, so he just gave up fighting after a heart attack. I still think he was wrong.

The car ride really rings true for me, too. I drove him to the hospital the night before he died. When it was just him and me in the car, before my mom got in, he just said, "well, shit." Interesting only in that my dad never EVER cursed. I guess I knew then I was in for some trouble.

So when a second cardiac episode killed him the next morning (at age 67) my mom was already at the hospital, but I took a shower first and got there a few minutes later. Didn't matter that much to me that I wasn't physically present at the specific time of death, as my belief systems aren't very physical-body-specific. But the first thing my mom, an acknowleged queen of guilt-mongering, said to me was, of course, "You're too late."

Hmm, I guess it was actually THEN I knew I was really in for some trouble!

Sorry to ramble on. VERY nice writing there, Melissa.

paulnojustpaul said...

M, beautifully written as always...

Just over a year for me.


Anonymous said...

Beautifully and sadly written.

Loss is never easy, and it's never a done deal, is it?

suze said...

Beautiful post.

Relationships with our parents are never easy. Even after they're gone...

Janet Kincaid said...

To echo everyone else: beautiful post.

I keep hoping my dad and I can master some sort of meaningful relationship before he dies. I know he loves me and my siblings, but we'd like to know he likes us and is interested in what we're doing and who we are...

Anonymous said...

that was an absolutely beautiful essay, like spontaneous prose. and so it goes