My dad died eight months ago after a very long battle with cancer. He was 85 years old. I am grateful to have had him near me for so long. I can count on one hand the number of times out of my 53 years that we didn’t live in the same city. We talked almost daily, visited often and celebrated every holiday together. I lived with the illusion that my parents would always be here for me because they were. Now it feels like I’m in new territory without an emotional compass.
I felt close to my Dad at a very early age. He sang lullabies to my sister Lynn and me at night. “The Three Little Fishes” was my favorite. They got killed in the song, but my Dad used comical voices and hand gestures while singing and this way it still sounded like a goodnight lullaby to me.
We often sat together in front of the television sharing a tin of sardines with onions on rye watching Amos and Andy. It was a fool-proof way of keeping the rest of the family out of the room.
When I became an adult and owned my first home, like my Dad, I had a vegetable garden. We would compete as to who could grow the first tomato of the season; who grew the largest cucumber, who could boast about the biggest bumper crop of oranges, lemons and grapefruits.
My dad felt like my backbone. When he died, it broke.
His passing felt too abrupt. After he died, I started seeing psychiatrists, psychologists and therapists. I topped it off with a grief counselor. Finally, I became increasingly aware that no therapists, psychologists, or psychiatrists held magic healing pills in their palms. There was only grief to swallow.
While most of his life my Dad seemed to favor nature and Blue Light Specials, I was into people. I focused especially on strangers, their expressions, words, their kindnesses or lack of them. I treat people as if I’ve known them all my life. My dad’s idea for meeting strangers was different: be friendly but not familiar! To me, they are friendly and familiar until they’re not, which thankfully isn’t often. I love to stand in line at the grocery store and listen to people’s conversations chiming in with my opinions as if we arrived to the market in the same car.
My dad used to phone me and tell me to stop everything immediately and watch the early evening sky turn blood-red. I’d always tell him, “no problem”, but rarely obeyed. I figured sunsets would always be there and he wouldn’t know the difference whether or not I obliged. Like sunsets, I took him for granted. Now when I see a brilliant orange-red sunset, I pause and watch.
Sometimes he’d call and tell me to head straight to Fry’s Foods. “Ten ears of corn for a $1.00”. I pretended to heed his advice, but didn’t. Now that he’s gone and I see 10 ears of corn advertised for a $1.00, I buy it. I don’t even want the corn, but a deal is a deal.
Occasionally he’d call and say, “Put down your comic book and go outside! It smells like rain is coming!” I never read comic books. He knew it and I knew it, but he rarely ever called without throwing in a quip like that.
I remembering crying myself to sleep at night at the thought of him being gone one day. I think I was about six years old then.
When I was three, we were stationed at a military base in Bourne End, England. He rented a large Tudor home in a small village right outside of London. The two-story house was massive. It had so many rooms my dad locked a portion of the house to limit the number of fireplaces he’d have to light each morning. The house sat squat on several acres of land. He built the largest wooden swing that I’d ever seen. He suspended it with thick, braided ropes and hung it from an ancient chestnut tree on the grounds.
Every time I see a swing now I think of him. I recently saw a set of swings as I passed a city park. I drove past them but turned around. Without a thought of where I was supposed to be, I parked my car and headed for a swing, sat and pumped my way up and away from my daily thoughts. Swinging is where I’d wish and dream as a kid. Now I swing and don’t wish or dream at all. I pump back and forth for the sheer joy of the air sweeping through my hair and on my face.
During yet another one of his military transfers, our family drove from the East to the West Coast and through all the states in-between. At night I made my way to the front seat of our Ford station wagon while the rest of the family slept in the back. I’d lean my head against the window and sing duets with him of our favorite tunes. We sang Frank Sinatra songs and Bing Crosby’s and Grace Kelly’s “True Love”. He was Bing; I was Grace.
He’d pull into a Howard Johnson’s and let me sit and sip coffee with him while the family snoozed in the car. I couldn’t have felt more special.
I think I inherited his cynical gene. As a young adult, we would often sneak away after the family meal and retreat to his study. I’d lie on his bed while he watched a sport event and occasionally reach for his desk drawer to dip into his snack stash; sometimes Lays Potato Chips or Planter’s mixed nuts; foods our Mom didn’t allow in the house. We’d make fun of the guests that someone brought along or neighbors, which was pretty easy to do. It was lighthearted fun. Not such a great gene to inherit, but we did whisper.
During one of my pregnancies I got horribly sick. I couldn’t keep anything down. In and out of hospitals to hydrate, I was also totally out of my hormonal tree and referred myself to a psychiatric hospital.
I felt like I was dying rather than growing a new little human being inside my womb. I was diagnosed with panic disorder and agoraphobia and quickly released. Lock-down units aren’t very therapeutic for one who feels easily trapped.
Throughout, my Dad was my faithful guardian and in true form with a sense of humor.
As soon as I was released from the psycho ward, which my Dad referred to for years as my stay at “The Resort”, he’d drive to my home every day precisely at 11:30 a.m. to take me to the Big A Restaurant. He’d sit patiently while I ate the Number Six Special, a hamburger topped with mounds of Caesar salad. It was the only dish I craved. This routine went on for over a month until my hormones settled down.
Memories like this still bridge him to my heart, especially when I wolf down a Caesar Salad.
His dying process took forever. I watched him suffer way too much as he withered away. I learned about a new side of him that rocked my stability right out of orbit. It wasn’t so much the withering away that rattled me, it was the ever-growing fright in his eyes that terrified me while I’d sit close to him holding his hand.
Watching him lose his grip, I eventually turned numb and tired. His gradual collapse made me feel like I was dying right along side. During that time I began to cry a lot. Tears in the middle of the night. Tears while driving. Tears when I mentioned his name or when someone asked how I was doing. I welcomed the tears nonetheless. They were his gift to me. Tears were my way to purge my heavy heart without spending a fortune on therapy. My Dad would have appreciated my thrift. I also spent too much money on books about grieving. Had he known, he would have told me to buy them used; Or better yet, get them from the library.
Before he died I thought I knew what “sad” meant; however, I was ill-prepared for the sadness that overtook me when he was gone.
Ultimately it brought me into his circle of what gave him joy.
When he was alive, I hated birds. He loved them. Now I watch them scatter their droppings on my porch, which used to seriously disgust me. I finally understand there’s more to them and what they represent than what they leave behind.
My Dad couldn’t build my character or teach me how to think, but somehow I learned to copy his style. He was a smooth talker and an incredible charmer.
Like pros, we both smooth-talked our way in and out of sticky situations. Like him, I had no long-term goals of financial wealth or grand titles. Good enough things just dropped into my lap. This seemed to end when he died. His death left my lap empty.
Shortly after he died I sat a lot; more than I ever had in my life. I’d catch Oprah on T.V., interviewing people who had overcome mountains of grief. I’d watch them; feel humbled for about ten minutes and go back to feeling sorry for myself.
My Dad died like the man he was all his life. I didn’t know he was a fearful man until his final year and he was never horribly sick until he was. I saw him flinching at death, but not caring what others thought of him. He had lost his camouflage.
One morning the phone rang around four a.m. His nurse said I’d better come right over. He was having a rough time. I called my brother Ken right away. We both showed up quickly. When we walked into his room, my dad looked exhausted yet clear. When he finally opened his eyes, he said, “I’m still here?” He wavered between the fear of dying and wanting to die because he was excruciatingly miserable. But most of all, he was afraid.
He welcomed me to his bedside. He hadn’t for weeks. With a clear look in his eyes, he continued to speak:
“What a night! Glad it’s over. I love you both so much.” Then he closed his eyes again. That was the last time he spoke to me.
My brother had to head back to his home in Phoenix and wanted to say good-bye to our Dad privately. I got scared and bolted. I told the nurse to call me once my brother had left. I didn’t want to see Ken walk out of our Dad’s room. I came home, a three-minute drive, and without thinking, walked into the back yard and started watering my citrus trees which didn’t need watering. As I stood aiming the hose into the tree wells, I was overcome with the smell of orange blossoms for the first time.
Orange blossoms were my Dad’s big thrill every Spring. It became a tradition to pay a visit to his back yard and have morning coffee with him when the white blossoms filled the air with their sweet perfume. I always pretended to like it. Truth was, smelling them was not high on my priority list but I didn’t have the heart to hurt his feelings.
Still pointing the nozzle into my tree well, I could hear the phone ring inside the house. I didn’t pay attention. I’d just been at my Dad’s; surely the call was from someone else. I just kept watering and feeling overwhelmed with the smell of orange blossoms. Suddenly, I looked up and saw my daughter standing by my side. She gave me that look. My head was swirling with perfume and panic. I inhaled deeply, knowing my Dad had taken his last breath.