Before my father died in 2000, he bestowed a lot of advice on me. Much of it helpful: “Just get enough education so you can support yourself,” after I dropped out of law school following a dismal semester that I don’t mind sacrificing on the altar of fading memory. “You need to read as widely as you can,” when I looked at him with exasperation as he handed the teenage me copies of Scientific American, The Wilson Quarterly (no relation!), and The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Some of it practical: “Be sure to keep at least a quarter of a tank of gas in your car at all times,” upon meeting me by the side of the road, my car on empty. “Preferably half a tank.” And, “If you marry a jerk and I’m not around to help you, don’t stay in a bad situation,” as he bemoaned my singlehood. I married at age 41, two years after Daddy’s death. My husband, Precious, and I celebrate our twelfth anniversary today.
A bit of it subjective: “It’s not appropriate to put ketchup on steak.” I promise I don’t anymore, but I think I was about ten at the time and not yet schooled in the fine art of dining out anywhere other than Morrison’s Cafeteria. And, “Don’t ever wear that tie-dye shirt with that skirt again. It upsets your mother.” I must have been in my hippie period. Oh wait. I still have that shirt…
In the end, some of the best advice my father gave me, through example and instruction, can be summed up in two takeaways: keep your own counsel, and “to those whom much is given, much will be expected.”
One of my sisters said to me just this week, “I wish Daddy were here, so I could get his take on something.” I’ve thought the same thing over the years, wondering what he might say to me when presented with this situation or that problem. I can’t know, of course, but I think it would go something like this: “Trust yourself.” And so I do.
What the ornaments hanging on this wreath lack in finesse they make up for in memory, and tradition, and family. Like when my father was still alive, his arm wrapped around whichever of his three daughters happened to be within reach. When my mother didn’t have a diagnosis of dementia, and we painted wooden cutouts shaped like snowmen and Santas. When my sisters and I were young. These ornaments are as much a part of me as my green eyes and my tendency toward impatience. I pack them up with a heart made full by tenderness for what was, gratitude for this present moment, and acceptance of what will be.
“He looks like Grandmother Wilson,” I said, remembering my paternal grandmother, who died in the early 1980s.
“Yes,” said my mother. “He does.” She took a shallow breath and then, “Why did this happen?” Mother stared at Daddy and I patted him on the shoulder, which seemed to make me feel like I was doing something helpful.
“Would you like to go ahead and take his jewelry with you?” asked the nurse.
His wedding ring and class ring (University of Mississippi, Sigma Nu, 1948) came off fairly easily, but the watch was harder. His hands had always been big—something I inherited from him, along with his sensitive skin and his tendency toward impatience—and it seemed his hands and wrists had doubled in size since he’d been in the hospital. Watching the nurse struggle became too painful. “Greedy daughters take jewelry off dead father. Film at eleven.” In reality, we were simply clawing for any piece of Daddy that we might keep, anything that might outlast death.
“I’ll get that off for you later,” said the nurse.
Mother cradled his wedding band in her palm, and I slipped the class ring on the thumb of my right hand. It was too big, even for my pudgy fingers, but I wasn’t about to let go.
“Sometimes I like to pray with the family,” said the nurse. “Is that all right with you?”
Who knows how each of us prayed silently as the nurse spoke, her voice soft and clear and sure as she asked for the emotional healing of my family. Her short hair and wire-rimmed glasses gave off a certain air of efficiency, but it was not just about the job for this woman. It was about us, too, the ones left behind. The ones she could still help.
As for me, I thanked God for giving me such a fabulous father. And then I bawled like a baby.
“The obituary pages tell us of the news that we are dying away while the birth announcements in finer print, off at the side of the page, inform us of our replacements…”—Lewis Thomas, The Lives of a Cell
As my father drew his last breath, he did not rise up to confess the name of an unknown love child or reach out to my mother to proclaim his love one more time. He simply died.
“Is this it?” asked Mother. At 78, she looked like a child who had lost sight of her parents in a crowded shopping mall.
“I think so,” I told her, crying, searching the nurse’s face for a signpost of my own. She nodded.
“Yes,” I said to my mother. “I think this is it.” She climbed onto the hospital bed and lay down beside Daddy, cradling his head in her arms and whispering into his right ear. She was wedged between the side rails and her soulmate. My two sisters and I huddled around the other side of the bed, taking turns telling Daddy good-bye. Later we discovered that Ann and Mother were begging him to stay, while Ginny and I were telling him he could go, his work with us was done, he had done it well. We did not know if Daddy could hear us, and in light of the conflicting messages, maybe it’s best if he didn’t. It’s a good thing Daddy always knew his own mind.
It became obvious rather quickly that my father was indeed dying. Numbers dropped on machines, glowing lines lost their arcs and veered toward flat. I know you’re not supposed to be able to hear hearts break, but I swear I heard something, loud and clear. After twenty-four hours of his head swaying back and forth, his face obscured by an oxygen mask, the first love of my live was gone.
The nurse moved to turn off the machines that accompanied my father from this life to the next. Despite her best efforts, she could not get one of them to stop beeping.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t know what’s wrong.” More beeping.
My friend Mary said when her sister died of skin cancer—she was only 35—there was a death rattle, sort of a guttural sound. All I heard, besides the beeping, was absence. Ann, Ginny, and I helped Mother down from the hospital bed. We gathered ourselves one into the other and moved around the room as a single unit, a glob of grief, not knowing where to go or when to stop. Occasionally one of us reached for a tissue or glanced out the window at the skyline of the city that had served as our family’s backdrop for more than half a century. But mostly we drifted around Daddy’s bed, first one side, then the other.
When Mother sank to the floor in a heap, phrases that didn’t begin to do the scene justice came to mind: thought I might die; took my breath away; hit me like a ton of bricks; I was beside myself. I kept looking for the just-right cliché, but I did not find it. As a daughter, I was speechless. As a writer, I was at a loss for words.
When a doctor entered the room, my mother looked at him square in the face and wailed, “Why did this happen?”
“Blood vessels get weak over time,” he said. “There was nothing we could do.”
“She thinks she might have done something to save him,” I said, softly. “She thinks it’s her fault.”
I was pleading to a stranger for some remnant of reassurance. Anything. The last family member to arrive at the hospital, I wasn’t introduced to the doctors, wasn’t allowed to view X-rays my sisters saw, pictures that convinced them our father could not be saved.
“We’ve already told her it wasn’t her fault,” said Dr. Meany Pants, curtly, before leaving the room. “Your mother knows better.”
Note to self: After suitable mourning period, confront people who piss me off during the process.
The curtain that separated us from the rest of the world, the world of the living, made a slight shushing sound as it came together behind the doctor.
“Wow, the color sure goes out of you fast,” I said to the nurse, as my father faded to white from his head down.
“Yes, it does,” she replied.
Did I just use the word “wow”? Surely something more meaningful was in order.
“How long can we stay?”
“As long as you like.”
“We might be here a while, then,” I said, but I did not know how long would be long enough. I did not know anything.
I asked the nurse to remove Daddy’s oxygen mask and take out his mouthpiece. The minute she did, I was almost sorry, because then I could really see my precious father’s face. I was reminded this was not some sort of terrible mix-up, like when surgeons remove a kidney instead of a lung or amputate the wrong leg (you read about that all the time). Daddy is dead. Repeat after me.
I made my way toward him—it did not occur to me to say, “the body,” for even without breath, he was still my daddy—and smoothed his bushy eyebrows. In doing so I accidentally raised one of his eyelids and saw into the nothingness of his eyes, eyes that used to light up when he saw any one of his girls come into a room. Always a believer in another world beyond this one, I saw for myself, in that very instant, that something separate from our skin and bones, something apart from our organs and tissue, makes us who we are. Call it spirit, call it soul, call it whatever you wish. Whatever it is, it no longer resided inside my father. Just like that.
My father has just enough time to blow on his coffee, black, and flick a few drops of Tabasco on his eggs, runny, before he is summoned to the hospital. The nuns at St. Dominic’s have told him he has time for breakfast, so he walks around the corner to the Dobb’s House on State Street. As soon as the waitress puts Daddy’s plate on the paper place mat at the counter and turns to wipe her hands on her apron, someone calls him to the pay phone in the corner. “Your child’s being born,” says the nun. “Hurry back.” He’s wearing a suit, like always, this time his blue-and-white seersucker. Maybe his tie is loosened. The shoes, I guarantee you, are lace up. Never one to make sudden moves, my father puts down his fork, pays for his meal, and makes his way back to St. Dominic’s just in time for my arrival. “The nuns told me it would be a while,” he explains to my mother. When he sees me, his last child—all girls—he says to my mother, “Anything that pretty couldn’t be a boy.”
Excerpt from my memoir, Anything That Pretty.
Posted on September 25, 2010, the ten-year anniversary of my father’s death.