HOMAGE TO MY FATHER

HOMAGE TO MY FATHER

The last time I wished my father dead, I meant it. I was on a plane home to Phoenix after visiting him in Buffalo Grove, Illinois, where he was in his final stage of life.

As a nurse, I knew when I first saw him and noticed his left facial droop and partially closed eye that he had suffered several minor strokes. I tended to be kept out of the loop, as far as getting information about his medical needs. His wife Sue, 35 years his junior who he married shortly after my mother’s death, didn’t like to share him with his children.

Father sat on a couch staring into space while Sue watched a golf tournament on a large screen TV, using terms like ‘backspin and banana-ball,’ cheering for the golfers as if she knew each one personally. I sat uneasy next to Father, touching him gently, wondering if this might be the last time I’d ever see him. His eyes looked empty as though he was looking through me. His behavior wasn’t entirely new, since he had treated me in a distant manner for years. But this separation between us was no longer intentional—it was due to aging. Father had just turned 98.

I asked Sue, “What’s the update on Father’s health?”

“Just fine,” she said.

“Has he recently seen a doctor?”

“Yes,” she answered without looking my way.

In less than two years, Father had gone from being a tall and lanky self-made man, who in his prime resembled Richard Deacon (Lumpy’s dad on Leave it to Beaver), and an entertainer with the dry humor of Bob Hope, to a shut-eyed, unresponsive, forgetful man with fingers now balled in arthritic pain.

Terry&Dad

He knew who I was, but couldn’t carry on a discussion without long silences between words and then giving up before he finished a thought. There wasn’t much dialogue during my visit, except for the sports announcer on TV and Sue interjecting ‘good shot’ now and then.

This wasn’t surprising since I had talked with him weekly, sometimes twice a week. The one positive to surface during his decline lay in our closing conversations—words I seldom heard from him. “I love you.”

Father used to be a man of energy. He practiced law for 54 years, stayed in the military reserves for 40 years, until he became a Lieutenant Colonel. He played golf on weekends, bridge on Tuesdays, poker on Thursdays, and read two newspapers on Sunday.

His intense love for me as a young child was like a wool blanket in July; he wanted me to be his little brown pig-tailed girl forever.

“If only I could keep you at age four or five.” He’d been saying that since I was six.

I never lived up to his high expectations. I felt he set me up for failure with his demanding perfection. But when I didn’t act like his idealized image of me, the eruption of his wrath could cause after-shocks in an otherwise peaceful home. So over the years I tried to shove those other versions of me—creative writer, dreamer, poet, democrat, free spirit—out of sight to make sure I’d never lose his love, which was my first addiction. My second was writing.

After graduate school, Father asked me in his usual teasing manner, “Just what is creative nonfiction? Is it made-up, a kind of fiction, or the real thing?” I tried to explain it on many occasions, but he’d just laugh and say, “I don’t get it.

It wasn’t until I hugged him goodbye after my last visit and he clamped my forearm in a vise grip, that I realized how much he loved me and how he didn’t want me to leave him. I think he knew it might be the last time we’d see each other.

Father died on Christmas day, ‘peacefully in his sleep,’ is the way Sue announced it two days later on December 27. Father’s military funeral was set for January 15. I wondered why it wasn’t immediate, but I never found out the reason.

I was wrong about his death. It didn’t set me free of his love. I’ll never be, nor do I want to be. But his death liberated me—it gave me license to write about our bittersweet relationship, to examine it, gain new perspectives, and understand and accept it for all it represents.

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About TRatner

Terry Ratner is a freelance writer, registered nurse, and writing instructor in Phoenix, Arizona. In June of 2004, she graduated with a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative nonfiction from Antioch University, Los Angeles. Writing has always served a purpose in her life, but it wasn't until her son died in a motorcycle accident in March, 1999, that she began to publish her works. What's unique about Terry is the way she balances the life of a nurse with the life of a writer. "Nursing allows me to give back to the community and then write about those experiences." Ratner teaches creative writing in a variety of settings from community colleges to a school for homeless children (Thomas J. Pappas) to wellness communities throughout the Valley of the Sun. In 2004, Terry launched an Arts and Healing program for children undergoing dialysis at Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center. She has published numerous personal essays, cover stories, interviews, and book reviews for a variety of national and regional publications. Her manuscript, a work in progress, features a series of twelve essays, ten of which are introduced with black and white photos, dealing with issues of family and identity.
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5 Responses to HOMAGE TO MY FATHER

  1. robert tamis says:

    Terri, you are an amazing person and writer. What a beautiful story. You are not alone with having parents that have difficulty expressing their love until the end.

    I, myself, came to terms with my parents inability to express there “proud feelings” towards me, though I always knew deep down that they loved and respected me. But…. they could never say it, or hug, or even say that they loved me. On the other hand, there is no question that I am who I am today because of (or is it in spite of) their lack of feelings and communications.

    I am sorry for your loss, and proud that you have become the person you are.

    BT

  2. Dear Terry, you were so close and you missed an opportunity. When your dad wanted to know what was “creative nonfiction” that was a stem for you to demonstrate with your best “creative nonfiction” work you ever had done or were to do. It’s the last tear you did not wipe away that stays longest in your memory. (I never heard that or said it before. You inspired me!)
    W.K.

  3. Peter Balkan says:

    Just read this, Terry.  It’s a very good story; concise and without schmaltz. Very moving in its own frank way.

    Thanks for sharing it.
    P.B.

  4. Joanne Dean says:

    Thanks for sharing with me. I can not imagine having a father that was not sweet and kind to his daughter. I know it must have been painful.
    Joanne Dean

  5. Terri, I stumbled onto your blog today and enjoyed your writing – your father’s passing and the bittersweet memories that accompanied it; your service dog, Gracie … or should I say, your gentle lamb with the soft curls? (I have a service granddog – a Bichon Frise – who, because my son and DIL travel the world with their work, are now allowed to carry Chloe with them wherever they go.)

    I too lost a husband to cancer and turned 60 – both occurred last year. You write beautifully and poignantly about your experiences. I plan to revisit your site often. Keep up the good work.

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