The last time I got to see and talk to Dad, it was a quick check-in visit, just over a week ago.
I’d called, and he told me he’d been “sick as a dog” in recent days, unable to keep anything down, but that now he was doing a little better. I asked if there was something I could bring him, or anything he needed.
“Mouthwash” was the answer, since he felt like he couldn’t get the taste of sickness out of his mouth. So I bought a bottle of Listerine, got on my bike, and rode over to his apartment.
He looked weak, sitting on the couch in an undershirt and pajama pants while an old western TV show played on the TV. But he told me he’d managed to eat a couple of ice cream sandwiches for breakfast that morning, so he considered himself on the mend. (As I told Joe later, this awful-but-typical dietary choice certainly suggested he was feeling like himself again.)
But also during that short visit, I told him how sorry I was he’d been so sick, with no one around to help, and that when he wasn’t well, he needed to let us know. That that was a big reason why we’d moved him to Michigan earlier this year.
Yet the move was only one of many things we’ve helped with in recent months. It’s been hard, and it’s tested us all. But I must say that Dad at 78 was, in some ways, a pretty different man from the one I remember growing up with.
Since our mom’s death, and after years of living alone, he’d become someone who reveled in small talk with others. He’d get teary when talking about how, while working at Ford, he told his bosses he wanted to travel as little as possible, because time with his family was his first priority. And while I still don’t think he enjoyed asking for help, he didn’t fight us when we stepped in, either. Though he felt embarrassed, he thanked us. He listened (eventually) when we advocated a course of action. He cooperated.
This surprised me. But he’d surprised me years earlier, too, when our mom was diagnosed with cancer. I was a young adult at the time, just a year or two out of college, and I’d felt a profound, angsty disconnect with him. But when, again and again, he took time off of work to accompany our mom to every doctor’s appointment, and cared for her after each chemo treatment, and even learned to give her injections (though he’d previously been queasy at the mere sight of blood), I began to be able to see him as a loyal husband and man, instead of just my father.
Even so, connecting with Dad never came easy. He wasn’t a hugger. He didn’t call for weeks at a time, leaving you to wonder if it’s because he didn’t want to burden you, or because he simply didn’t want to talk to you. And you could pour your heart out to him while looking him right in the eye, and all you might get in response is a nod.
Plus, at times, since Mom’s death, I felt like Annie Sullivan, signing messages about how to be more human into his hand. Messages like, “You need to visit your newest granddaughter now, not when it’s convenient for you.”
But then, people aren’t necessarily who we want them to be. People just are who they are. And they’re almost always doing the best they can.
When I called Dad’s apartment complex’s office on Tuesday, the woman on the phone sounded genuinely sad to hear the news, saying, “Oh, no, we’ll miss him! He was such a sweet man. We loved having him as a tenant.”
I assumed, since the complex has hundreds of units, and Dad had only been living there for about seven months, that the woman was just being nice, but then she added, “He told us all about how his granddaughters want him to get a cat.”
Oh. Those were MY kids. They really DID know and remember Dad.
Similarly, when I relayed our sad news to the therapist that I’d nudged Dad to start seeing during this year of upheaval – again, Dad surprised me by his willingness to give therapy a try – the therapist wrote back that Dad’s years of misguided financial decisions “appeared to be a symptom of his grief from the loss of your mother, which he did not fully recover from. Last session, we had ended on an idea: deep pain comes from deep love, and it’s worth it.”
The therapist’s email went on to say: “When given the opportunity to lead, he focused on decisions he made throughout life and retroactively confirmed he made the right decisions. Ultimately, the confirmation that his choices were good were all of you, his family. … Not one appointment went by where he did not speak with great joy about you.”
So although he struggled to find ways to express himself – other than recording a million movies on blank DVDs and mailing them to us, unasked – he did love us.
And as difficult as the last year has been, I’m so grateful that we got more time before the end. I met up with him for lunch at restaurants; he’d come to our house for dinner, or to watch a Michigan game; he came to my 10 year old’s birthday party at the local pool; and he attended, albeit a little grudgingly, one softball game each for Neve, Lily, and Sabrina.
Yes, he was hard to know or feel close to. But as I told Joe last night, I’ll still miss him.
I’d like to close with a Robert Hayden poem that, when I first read it in college, immediately made me think of my father, and it will likely do the same for many of you.
Those Winter Sundays
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?