My Father’s Lesson

My mother calls. The doctor wants to confirm the Do Not Resuscitate order for my father; he is in his final hours. It is time to come and say goodbye. I close the office door, cry my eyes out, and then tell my colleagues that I won’t be in for a few days. In the car, the radio plays “Daddy’s Little Girl.”  It is another ten minutes before I can start the trip to the hospital.

I go to my father’s bedside. I am alone with him. He appears to be in pain, moaning and moving his arms.  I look around for a nurse or some medical person who can tell me what is going on, and to make my Dad better. I am terrified. There are so many things I want to say to him, but I can’t find my voice. I am crying so hard. I am so scared he will die in front of me. I lean down and tell him that I love him. I try to croak out “You are the best dad in the whole world.”  If he hears anything it is simply guttural sounds, matching his own.

I need to apologize to him for making him get out of my car when I was 17 years old, in the rain, a block from the service station where he was picking up his car. I was a brand new driver and it was a busy intersection and I was terrified of making left hand turns in a car that stalled in the rain. I made him get out and walk in the rain. He would never have done that to me. He didn’t refuse to get out, nor scold me, nor make me pull into the service station. He just got out, huddled into his collar and made his way on foot the final block.  I completed a series of right-hand turns that got me home that rainy afternoon, feeling guilty about what I just did to my father.  Yet, I never said anything until my final moments with him.

I am ashamed to say that I leave my father’s bedside. I can’t bear to witness his final breath. On previous hospital visits I often witnessed people sobbing uncontrollably and wondered how they could do that in public. I was now that person, so enclosed in my grief that I am unaware of the world around me. I try so hard to tell the nurse that I will be in the lobby in case anyone from my family arrives.  The sobs are breaking my ribs. My mother finds me in the lobby and I collapse in her arms. While she comforts me, I think: she is losing the love of her life, but she is worried about my grief.  I’m behaving like a child, and being a good mother, she puts all else aside to comfort me.

My sisters, mother and I spend the day gathered around my father’s bed. I have the courage to be there with my family beside me. My father comes around enough to hear our professions of love, and to tell us to go home. He passes away in the middle of the night. The dawn of February 29th. He wants us to mourn appropriately, but to go on with life. We only mark his passing every four years.

After I receive that middle-of the night call with the worst news of my life, I lay in bed staring at the popcorn ceiling, wondering how anyone ever thought that was a good idea. It is going to be a real pain to remove. I’m struck with the knowledge that these are my first moments on earth without my father. Illogically, I feel like an orphan. In their homes across the city, my sisters receive the same phone call, lost in their own thoughts. All four of us, in an unexplained choreographed response, rise from our beds and go to our kitchens to cook.

Twenty-four hours after the Do-Not-Resuscitate call, we all gather in our childhood home with our various dishes, and make our plans. We bury our father in his tuxedo. He looks very dapper and is dressed for the dancing he’ll be doing in heaven.

My mother is now on in years. I am honoring my father and my mother as I handle her declining years with dignity. When it is time for her to dance with my father, I will hold her hand and not need to apologize for anything. I will cry, for sure, but I want the final things she hears to be beautiful. Thanks to my dad, she will not be alone. My father let me work out my fears with him, whether it was making left hand turns or saying a final goodbye, so I could be strong when he wasn’t around.

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