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a small gesture of life

july 21, 2012–Dad died today. At 4:46 am. Yesterday Karyn asked me to stop by the nursing home to pick up his laundry for her to wash. I live 40 minutes away. She lives 5. I felt put upon. Not by the drive or her request, but by the fact that visiting my dad was difficult for me and something I avoided between bouts of guilt compelling me to be a dutiful son, to take care of my aging parent despite the emotional void that had separated us since I was a child.

My father was not a compassionate man. By my estimation he was an emotional cripple–broken. As a young child, I didn’t understand this and it made me sad. As a teenager, it filled me with angst and I pushed hard against him with outspoken anger and quiet resentment. As a young adult, I played his game–distancing myself emotionally–and bit my tongue to keep peace in the family. I avoided the connection of eye contact. I rejected his narrow ideas of the world, his staunch closed-mindedness, his self-serving pessimism, but I told myself I accepted him for who he was. I pitied him and yet still wanted his approval.

I avoided the connection of eye-contact… I pitied him and yet still wanted his approval.

Fifteen years since my wedding day, I can feel the sting of how in the bliss of the celebration I embraced him in a hug–the first by my recollection–and he stood there cold, with arms dangling at his sides, not knowing how to return even the smallest degree of affection. This was the last time I attempted any affectionate contact with my father, save perhaps occasional recent pats on the back (shaking hands was too awkward and conveyed a degree of respect I struggled with). Even this gesture–this pat on the back–that may have looked casual and thoughtless to observers was one for which I had to muster courage, to play through in my mind before executing.

Looking at old pictures, his hands betray his lovelessness. 1970. Thanksgiving. My mom stands beside my dad, leaning in, gazing up into his eyes, hand on his chest. Dad looks down at her, his left arm hangs straight, palm open as if to imply a shrug, as if to ask what do you want from me. 1979. Summer. In the gravel drive of the old house, my sister and I flank my father for a photo before a trip to the Brookfield Zoo. He crouches down for the photo, arms around each of us, but hands dangle in paralysis, fingers curled–as if to avoid touch. Now, so many years later, my hands curl similarly as I enter his room in the nursing home and begin to collect his dirty laundry from the closet floor. It’s oddly wet. I don’t want to touch it, and yet I go through the motions. It is my duty, as posing for those photos was his.

The days leading up to his death, my father had learned the price of a lifetime of bad habits–smoking, drinking, sedentary existence, deadly pessimism. The lessons tumbled down one after the next over the course of only weeks and at what I am sure was of great personal upheaval to what had become the safe predictable world of his easy chair. A spot on his lung. Crippling anxiety. Treatment plans disrupted by a fall, a broken hip, and rehab. Nursing home day one, a cantaloupe piece lodged in his throat; he passes out. CPR. Back to the hospital. Chronic swallowing issues–aspiration. Pneumonia. A GI tube. Likely permanent. The doctor asks him about his end-of-life wishes. A purple bracelet is snapped to his wrist with big black letters–DNR. Back to the nursing home. His body looks stronger, his color is good, but his spirits sag. He stairs blankly through us at stained and stale wallpaper.

I knew he had been wearing that bracelet his entire life. I thought about a life never lived.

Visiting one day, we all suggest a little party to celebrate his and my mom’s 50th wedding anniversary. He eschews the idea, saying let’s wait until he’s back home. We press on, telling him that it’s a special occasion that we should all celebrate. He looks at me, points to that damn purple bracelet and says, “This is my special occasion.” It was at that moment I knew he had been wearing that bracelet his entire life. I thought of the irony that whenever I would text my sister with reference to “dad” my smart phone would autocorrect “dad” to “dead.” Perhaps my phone is smarter than I thought. I thought about a life never lived.

He saw people flat in two dimensions–the Chinese cleaning girl, the Mexican physical therapist, the nurses aide who is Indian, but nice–the liberal son. My biggest regret is that he never saw me for who I really was or who I could become. He never saw Aidan, my son–his grandson–for who he is and who he will become. Authentic moments were fleeting–quickly dismissed–avoided.

During our last conversation, my dad did what he had done so many times before in recent days–went through a mental checklist. He was getting his house in order:
Money.
Papers.
Taking care of mom.
He was happy to have recently reconnected with his estranged brother. This he made clear. “Maybe you can have them over to your place when I’m out of here. We could have lunch or tea or something. That would be nice,” he said. This didn’t sound like the father I had known for so many years. Tea?
Don’t care about me, he said, just worry about mom when the time comes.

I joked with him. “Relax, already, it’s not like you’re knocking at death’s door.” I actually said that. He smirked. He would be dead in 7 hours.

I feel he was seeking closure with awkward nonchalance.

The conversation turned to what might come next. Earlier that day, sitting around my sister’s kitchen table, we had a family meeting (without dad) to discuss what would happen when he was released from the nursing home. He couldn’t stay by himself. My mom, battling her own cancer, wasn’t ready to go home with him and re-enter the demands of co-dependent living. She needed to take care of herself for a change. We talked about hiring in-home healthcare. I mentioned this as an option to my dad, reminding him that they have plenty of money to cover those expenses. I don’t want to waste the money on me, he said; that’s for you kids.

He suggested that he could stay with me until he got stronger and things got better for my mom. I hesitated when he suggested this, and redirected the conversation to in-home healthcare options. I hesitated. He let it drop.

Thinking over my life and the moments I remember with my father, I always struggled for connection.

I tried to wind the conversation down, standing, suggesting he get some rest. But he kept talking–so unlike him. Small talk. Nothing of great consequence it seemed. Though I felt drawn back to his bedside. I pulled a chair. I can’t recall the exact details of our conversation from this point, but the words didn’t matter. In retrospect, I feel he was seeking closure with awkward nonchalance. Time passed as it does.

“It was nice talking to you, Mike. We don’t get to talk like this very often.”

No. Never. “I’ll try to come around more often,” I said. I meant it. “Call if you want or need anything…”

“Okay, see ya. Thanks, Mike.”

Last words can be so trivial.

Thinking over my life and the moments I remember with my father, I always struggled for connection. I came to see him through a lens clouded with the film of my own defenses. Self-righteously I tell myself I had him pegged. His shortcomings. His faults. The blame I carried for all he wasn’t. Beneath all that, though, there was more. I know he struggled in ways I will never understand truly. I said that I regret he never really knew me. I guess, as it turns out, I never really knew him either.

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