My father died four years ago of Stage IV Lung Cancer. As did my mother. I could say they “passed away,” I suppose. A softer, more palatable alternative. But, that’s not really what happens, is it? If only.
Four years. It seems like a long time…but not really. Not when I’m feeling like it was only yesterday when my sister and I sat with them in the hospice room they shared. Two beds, side by side.
What did we talk about? Nothing and everything. Anything, actually, that would keep them engaged and in the moment. Instead of dwelling on what was waiting in the dark beyond. I doubt that it worked. They were too far gone for bullshit. And far too tough.
We brought them food they didn’t eat. Optimism they didn’t buy. And, at some point in their inevitable decline, Dad stopped talking. As if he had been robbed of his ability to speak. My sister and I believe that, when he became incontinent and had to be diapered like a newborn, the loss of his dignity was an even greater blow than the cancer.
He lost his power of speech and gained an eerie, thousand-yard stare. I don’t know what he saw, nor do I want to. I just wish I could get that look out of my mind.
Dad was a keeper. I wouldn’t have realized this if my sister hadn’t told me about the letters, little notes, photos, file cards filled with the names of books he had read and their ratings — and all the other “stuff” he held onto. The stuff that defined him…and us. The stuff of love. Boxed away, to be taken out and read and re-read. Later.
Dad loved crossword puzzles. He labored over them incessantly. I still seem him, hunched over the kitchen table, his expression tight, focused. I think puzzles freed him, if only briefly, from the dark thoughts and depression we now know he struggled with, all his life. Thoughts of the man he was, and the one he should have been.
College was not an option when my Dad was growing up. His father — my grandfather — was a cab driver with a propensity for gambling. The money just wasn’t there.
A Jew, Dad bought into the cliché of thinking he should have been a doctor or lawyer. Instead, he was a salesman. And, a good one. My siblings and I never wanted for anything. Yet, he never gave himself the credit he deserved. That hurts, to this day. I hope he knows, wherever he is, how much we owe him.
An eloquent writer, which, I like to believe I get from him, Dad could have made a career of that, if only he’d had the encouragement to flourish.
We had a difficult relationship. Possibly because I was so much like him. Blowups were frequent, and we could go for weeks without talking, even when I still lived at home.
There were times when I wondered if we loved one another. And other times when I realized that we did. Fiercely. And, it didn’t matter that my baby sister was the favorite. She deserved to be. While she did everything for them, even before they got sick, I was off nursing my wounds from the latest dust-up with my father, mother, or both. My brother…well, he’s no longer in the picture. Families.
Love really is in the details. The little and not-so-little things that Dad held onto. So many displays of his love.
My sister recently showed me a note from Dad’s stash. One that I’d written to our parents when I was just a dumb, little kid. I’d heard them having sex one night and it shocked the hell out of me. Even though I was too young to know what it all meant, I had a sense, somehow, that sex was “dirty.”
The note said something to the effect of (punctuation cleaned up, by the way): “Mom and Dad, I can’t believe what you did! My friends’ parents wouldn’t do that! I’m running away. Sherry. P.S. I’ll be at the park.”
My father got the biggest kick out of that. I’m smiling just thinking about it. He held onto his little girl’s note, forever.
Everyone talks about “true love.” How to get it. How to keep it when you finally do get it. And on, like that. But maybe, the truest love is evidenced by what our loved ones leave behind, for those of us left behind.
Love you, Dad. And, thank you.