Close your eyes and try to remember what you were doing in 1980. Maybe you were celebrating the birth of a new decade, the election of a new presidential administration, the new things the eighties promised to bring. Maybe your life went on as usual, the newness of the decade not meaning anything to you. Maybe you were doing something uneventful. Perhaps your life was changing.
In 1980 I became an adult. My adolescence ended one year after it began. For me, 1980 would be a disembarkment from child to adult.
On February 1, I celebrated my fourteenth birthday. I spent my day of celebration in a hospital waiting room, awaiting news about my father. I passed the day pacing the room, wondering what the future of the next few days would bring. But, by their very nature, hospital waiting rooms provide no answers, only more questions. That day, my birthday, was the beginning of the culmination of events that had begun almost a year earlier.
The Spring of 1979 was a time when my family (my mother, father, brother and I learned the lesson of living for the present, not waiting for tomorrow. As the flowers were poking through the soil, we were dealing with the aftermath of the operation that removed the majority of a malignant grapefruit-sized tumor from my father’s brain. While the leaves were populating the trees, we were helping my dad re-learn to walk, re-learn to write, re-learn to use his right hand. As the April sun was conquering winter’s death, we were learning to accept that my father had five to eleven months to live.
Spring melted into Summer. Summer ran into Fall. Fall rushed into Winter. Before we realized it, my father’s five to eleven months had dwindled down to the final two.
January 1980 brought with it a miracle: Dad’s cancer was in remission. He could write again and had regained the full use of his right hand. My dad walked with the vigor of a man half of his fifty-five years. But the miracle was to be short lived.
My fourteenth birthday dawned in the hospital waiting room. During the night, dad had a seizure and could not move—he had lost almost all muscle control. We rushed him to the hospital and waited. The early morning sunlight that drifted in through the waiting room windows carried with it not the joy of a new day, but the fear of what was to come.
I remember the white-coated doctors conferring in hushed tones with my mother, their whispers adding an eerie dimension to the stillness of the sterilized barrenness of the drab green room. The doctors thought I was too young to be included in the conference, but my mother’s face answered all the questions they kept me from asking: Dad’s cancer was back. My dad was once again at the starting block of the race against death. No matter how many times one brushes by death on the track, death always wins in the end.
The days following my birthday are a blur in my mind: my memories are nothing but images of my father’s slow going rush to the end. Each day brought a new progression in my father’s decent into death. Each day was one day closer to my death as a child, to my birth as an adult.
Friday, my birthday, became Saturday. My dad could no longer feed himself. Mom fed him most of his meals.
Saturday became Sunday. Dad lost control of his bodily functions.
Sunday turned into Monday. Dad’s fluent vocabulary was reduced to “I hungry”, “I thirsty”, “I tired”.
Monday was Tuesday. Only “yes” and “no”.
Tuesday, Wednesday. I.V. instead of food.
Wednesday, Thursday. Coma.
Friday. The End.
Friday. Child to Adult.
I wrote those words on February 8, 1992, the twelfth anniversary of my father’s death. I sat down, with a pencil and a notepad, and was not writing much of anything, when, in a rather frenzied burst of writing, I wrote that brief story of my father’s last days. The words, except for some spelling changes (and removing some unnecessary words like “very” and “just” and “that”), are exactly the way I wrote it. No editing, no revising. The words just flowed from my brain, to the pencil, to the paper. I was rather pleased with it, and, was especially pleased with the ending.
Later in the year, I submitted it to my college’s non-fiction journal, for publication consideration. Obviously, I hoped they would publish it, but, I sincerely doubted they would select it. It rather surprised me when the journal’s editor contacted me, told me he thought it was great, and wanted to publish it. The only catch was he thought there needed to be more of an ending, a resolution, a happy ending. He believed readers would want to know how my father’s death impacted me, and what lessons I had learned from it. I thought he was full of shit, but, I wanted to be published, so I said I’d try to come up with a resolution.
Since it was a school journal, and, since I would receive no money or gifts for the publication of my essay, there was no force driving me other than the need of any writer: the aching need to say “I’ve been published.” I could have said I didn’t want to add more, that I thought it was fine the way it was, but, heck, if it meant Getting Published, well, I could find a few words to add to the ending.
I came up with a page full of schlock to add to the end, presented it to the editor who read it, and promptly agreed to publish the whole thing. The ending, to my eternal mortification, is more pop-psychology than I care to admit to, and I’m embarrassed at the amount of cliche in the published ending. Take, for example, this smarmy piece of wisdom: “Today I will plan for my future, but will not wait for the future to happen.” Or how about this: “Today I will not become angry, for the time spent being angry takes away from the time I have to enjoy.” The International Cliche Police have been sending me warning notices ever since.
There is one part amongst all the smarmy fluff I am pleased with: “It has been said that time heals all wounds. Unfortunately, no amount of time is ever mentioned…. The gaping gashes of grief and loss are now only problematic scars: they have scabbed over, but occasionally rip open and bleed.”
Yesterday was the twenty-seventh anniversary of my writing the brief essay above and is also the thirty-ninth anniversary of my father’s death. I share this essay, the first part at least, as a remembrance, but, I can’t bring myself to share the schlocky ending. It’s not that the ending is icky (well, yeah, I think it’s icky, but others have given me positive feedback on the ending, so who really knows), but, rather, it’s because I believe none of what I wrote in the resolution. I don’t believe my father’s death taught me to be less angry, or taught me I need to appreciate every moment because it might be my last.
Alright, maybe it taught me those things.
After thirty-nine years, those aren’t the prevailing feelings. What I’m left with, after thirty-nine years is a sense of loss that’s much more profound than it was in the first years after my father’s death. As a fourteen-year-old boy, I missed my dad. As a fifty-three-year-old man, I ache because I never got to find out what kind of person my father was. I know many things about my mom: that she was a conservative Republican; that she thought anyone who had an abortion should go to hell; that Obama was a Muslim; that she was antisemitic, racist, and homophobic; and that she believed sushi ranked right up there with women who’ve had abortions. I’m not happy that this is what my mother thought, but, I’m glad I knew who she was: as a woman, as a person, and not just as a mom.
I don’t know, firsthand, any of those things about my father. I know that he enjoyed sushi. I only recently learned that he liked playing chess (we never even had a chess set in the house while I was growing up). His upbringing was more liberal (an Iowa Democrat), though so was my mom’s – she became a Regan Republican and went from Regan to Bush to Fox to Tea Party to Birther. Perhaps he might have changed too. I never knew him well enough to know what his beliefs were. His death meant that I’d never get to throw my hands up in the air and walk out of the room because it was better than staying in the room and listening to how Rick Santorum was the answer to America’s problems (which I did one night while my mother was on a rant). I know the basics (where he was born, when, what he did for a living), but, I know so few personal stories. Over the years, I’ve heard all kinds of stories about my mom — stories she’s told, and stories that others have told about her. It’s because of these tales about my mom that I know her as a complete person, and I can see her as not just my mom, but, as Mary, a woman who’s had a full life long before I was born. I don’t have that complete image of my father. My father is just my dad. I don’t know who John is (John meaning my father, not John meaning me).
In those early years after his death, my young mind grasped that he was dead, and, while it filled me with a great sense of loss after he died, the implications of his death meant little. I was young; I was having to continue with my life, continue with all those things that seem so important when you’re a teenager, and, though he was always in my thoughts, I never really thought about him as a person. It wasn’t until I got older, in my twenties and thirties that the implications of his death haunted me. I’d hear someone say something about their father, and I’d realize that I had no way of knowing if whatever it was they said applied to my father; I’d hear someone tell a story about their dad’s childhood, and I’d have a piercing moment of grief when I realized I had no childhood stories of my dad to share. Mom was 93 when she died in 2017. I have memories and stories of her to keep her memory alive. With my father, all I have is a wispy, vague image of him when he was healthy, and searing images of the last week of his life, images that will always stay with me. But there are no stories. Just an emptiness that seems to hurt more with each passing year.
Maybe time heals all wounds. I haven’t reached my quota of time, I guess.
I miss you daddy. Every day.
(to be continued…)
This is a revised/expanded version of a post I made in 2012 on an old blog