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.
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.