I just have so much to say, and I keep trying to tease it all apart, but it wants to come back together in one glop, so I’m sorry. I’m going to break this into four posts to make it easier:
- Why I’ve been gone
- Things on my mind #1: Labels revisited
- Things on my mind #2: Planet Fitness and why I care
- Things on my mind #3: I’ve Been Rethinking Lately
There, all hyperlinked for your convenience so you can pick and choose, or to read right through. No promises that things won’t be disjointed if you hop around, though.
Why I’ve Been Gone
I see that my last post here was on July 3, 2013. It makes sense. The following day would have been a holiday, and then shortly after that, I would have gone back to work after a week-long vacation. I would have been getting back into the thick of things at work and making the best of summer. Until it happened.
My mother called me at work around 1 p.m. on July 23, and from the tone of her voice as she said my name, I knew instantly something was very wrong. “I think your father’s dead,” she said. I mean – how do you handle that? “I think your father is dying” – OK, the man is alive but it’s very serious. “Your father is dead” – horrible but definite. But, “I think your father is dead”? There was nothing to hold on to.
I asked her over and over what happened, because none of it would sink in. My parents had come home from a shopping trip and parked their car in the garage, which is at the basement level of their house. They were walking up to the kitchen, my mother in front of my father, when she heard him yell. She turned around to see his body crumpled at the bottom of the stairs, his eyes rolled back. Not breathing.
She called for help, but they lived out in the forest, and it took time. When they asked my mother if she wanted them to get him breathing, of course she said yes. So, he breathed. But he never came back. By the time I got there, he had been in a twilight state between life and death for a day. His eyes fluttered up and down, but he responded to nothing – not sound, not stimulus, nothing. He had reflexes – his knee would bend, his teeth clench when the breathing tube adjusted. But that was all. Nothing.
I had to listen in to the neurologist talking to the medical students to learn what they wouldn’t come out and tell us. “Decerebrate,” he said, and I repeated it in my mind until I could look it up. Basically, his brain stem had ceased to communicate with his cerebrum – the part of the brain that holds our ideas, our memories, our values and all that makes us who we are. He had enough brain activity to breathe and keep his heart beating, but that was about it. There would be no coming back. All that made him Dad was gone already.
I explained it to my mother, told her what she already knew. The decision was an easy one. His directives said he didn’t want to be kept alive, so he had chosen anyway. All that was left to do was to honor it. I honesty believe the nurse was compassionate enough to dose him with extra morphine, because at first they were saying we would be watching him die for days, but after she came to retrieve us after removing his breathing tube, she said to make it quick. He slipped away 15 minutes later as I held onto his arm and told him, “You held me as I came into the world; now I’m holding you as you go on.”
Everything changed. I suppose I should add that dad already had Alzheimer’s, so my mom and I (I’m an only child) knew the inevitable was coming. At the time of his fall, he could still talk, remember who we were, eat and – questionably – drive. However, he got confused putting his shirt on, couldn’t remember how to tie his shoes and, alarmingly, had recently jumped into a pool and then forgotten how to swim.
Dad was such a smart man, one of the brightest I’ve ever known, and I think he was using all of his mental ability to hide the extent of his decline. That’s why when doctors asked him to take verbal memory tests, he treated them like a game. “Do you want me to name animals? Watch as I name them alphabetically, two for each letter.” They thought he was progressing slowly, but we knew better. The man we knew had never before struggled for a word, never walked away from the car leaving the door swung open, never confused the gas and brake pedal. We knew.
But we weren’t prepared to lose him so suddenly or so violently. There was no time for a last, real good-bye. Just time to hold him as he took his last breath and hope he knew I loved him.
Because, my god, did I love him.
I don’t know who I would have been if he hadn’t been such a good dad. He was the one who encouraged me to write, and was truthfully, sometimes brutally, honest when he edited my work. Yet he believed in me, always, 100 percent, and if he was hard on me, it was because he knew I was up to the task.
He never talked down to me. He always assumed that if he understood something, then I was capable of understanding it, too, and he would treat me as such. An example: Just last week, I was writing something for work that had to do with the Constitution, and a memory clearly came to my mind. We were at the dining room table, I was in about seventh grade, and he was telling me that the Constitution existed to preserve the rights of the minority against majority rule. It was precisely the thing I needed to know for my assignment last week, and I could almost hear his voice in my mind as I wrote it. I’m ambivalent on the afterlife thing, but I can’t help but hope he knows that the dinner conversation 30 years ago stuck, and that once again, he made something possible for me.
But he taught much more than that, too. During one of my bouts of depression, he sat me down and asked me what my job in life was. I tried to guess the answer he wanted, and said things like, “to have a good career,” or, “to have a family.” He waved those answers away. “No. Your most important job in life is to be happy. Do you know why that is? Because no one else can do it for you, even if they want to. Not me. Not your mom. Not anyone. You have to make yourself happy.”
The odd thing is, though, that until my girlfriend pointed it out about eight years ago, I had no idea at all that I was such a daddy’s girl. “You’re always quoting him,” she told me – and she is right. From “fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke” to “here’s your hat, what’s your hurry” – I hear his voice in mine so often.
I was lost to have him gone so suddenly. My mom, a thousand times more so. I’ve always believed my mom is tough as they come: rational thinking, no-nonsense, always sure of what she wanted. But losing dad shook her like I couldn’t have expected. All of a sudden, she was timid and afraid of everything. Of going out shopping for the day. Of leaving town. Of living in a house alone. Of surviving financially, even though dad had taken care of that. Every decision she made, she ran past me for my approval, even though I never disapproved. Her world had simply flipped on its head, and she didn’t believe anything was safe anymore. Like she didn’t even believe the ground beneath her feet would be solid if she stepped onto it.
Something good that came of it, though – my mom and I talk every day now. We were never distant at all, and before, we’d talk several times a week. But now, it’s every day before 9 p.m., or we start to think that something bad has happened to the other. I suppose in part it’s because I know she’s lonely. But in truth, it’s also because my only regret about my dad is that the last time I spoke to him was on the Friday before his fall, which happened on a Tuesday. I’ll forever wish I had called him sometime over that weekend.
At any rate.
Losing dad hurt like nothing I’d felt before. It took months before I could get through a day without crying. More months until I felt I could laugh and smile again. And even more time to be able to think about him without losing myself to tears. And it’s better now, but it still hurts. Like last week, when I thought about his lesson on the Constitution, and it hurt all over again.
Fact is, I associate writing with my dad. He had always encouraged me. He stood behind me every step of the way, and against the odds, I made a living as a writer. Just hours after he died, I sat down to write about him, about losing him, about death and about stories and why they matter. It was a great thing I wrote, but I can’t read it. I haven’t been able to get through the whole thing since the week after he died. It just hurts too much.
And while I’ve been able two write for work, I’ve just not been able to write personally since then. To be honest, it feels weird even now. But it’s time to take it back. I know he’d want me to.