It feels like a jagged nail that keeps catching on things, raw and exposed, but it’s my heart. It can’t be filed down.
The last time I saw my father, he had his eyes closed and was struggling to breathe. I sat beside him holding his hand and hearing the watery gasp of each breath. He was so thin, all angles and bones. His cheeks were sunken. I thought of pictures I’d seen of people in concentration camps. That is how my father looked.
His legs were curled up next to him, reducing his once 6’2” frame to child-size. Every few hours the hospice nurses would come in and turn him. He wouldn’t let them straighten his legs, so they would just place him on his other side.
It’s been two months since he died and I can’t get that image of him out of my head: how small he was, how vulnerable. I sat there a long time holding his hand and talking to him. I wish I could say he heard me, but I don’t know.
I wish I had told him sooner what a great dad he was, before death began its crawl up his body. Even a few days earlier he had been more alert. I should have told him then but it didn’t occur to me. Maybe I hadn’t accepted that he was dying. I thought this would be just another hospital stint. He’d be released, so there was no need to say goodbye.
I should’ve seen it coming, because he was barely eating and no longer able to feed himself. I fed him bits of his breakfast, mostly fruit and grits. He opened his mouth like a baby bird, obedient, compliant, helpless. Then he shook his head no. No more.
But he could still talk and hear then, so he probably would’ve understood me if I had told him how important he was to me. He was the singular most influential person in my life. He was the one constant figure stretching back to my childhood, the daddy who was always there for me. The daddy who loved me without question. He never wanted anything from me.
A few days before he died, he saw me and knew who I was, so why didn’t I tell him? Instead I stalled. I told myself this was time that needed to be managed. It was temporary. He only needed comforting.
I climbed in bed behind him, wrapping my arms around him. He felt so slight, his head on my shoulder, his skin paper-thin. We talked while he dozed. Well, mostly I talked and he listened. He was in and out of consciousness but occasionally he would smile. He even laughed a few times.
I opened my mouth and words came out like water from a faucet. “Remember when you bought me my first new car, Dad?” I said. “It was a stick-shift and I didn’t know how to drive it, so you drove it home for me. Then over the weekend, you taught me how to drive it.” I remember the car—a blue Chevy Sprint, 3 cylinder hatchback. Toy-sized car but I loved it because it was new and it was mine.
As I lay there with my father, memories kept popping into my mind. So many firsts. He taught me to ride a bike. He took me to school on my first day and stood there stoic in his top coat while I cried. It must’ve been so hard for him seeing me crying and calling out, “Daddy, daddy,” knowing he had to leave me.
He brought a teddy bear to the hospital when I had my tonsils out, and stood there comforting me after I threw up ice cream. I was around four years old.
He was the tooth fairy, the Easter bunny and Santa Claus, silently slipping money under my pillow and leaving me baskets and presents. On Valentine’s Day, he would give me a small heart-shaped box of candy and a card saying I was his best girl. I felt so special, so cherished. I don’t remember ever feeling like that again, not even in adulthood. Especially not in adulthood.
As he was in and out of sleep, I prattled on about his favorite foods. Peanut butter, sausage (links) and an expertly-grilled filet (rare). Banana cream pie, vanilla ice cream, milk shakes and carrot cake. Corned beef hash and eggs benedict. Breakfast was the best meal of the day!
After he had his teeth pulled, his food preferences changed. He got stressed about eating things that were difficult to chew. When he lived with us, I made his new favorite breakfast every morning. It was always the same thing: peanut butter toast and a smoothie, usually strawberry and banana.
He would sit at the table with his newspaper. I’d bring his coffee—extra sweet (three sugars) and cream—and then the rest of his breakfast. He always said, “Thank you, Baby” and “Good smoothie!”
He was so appreciative, so gentle and complimentary. I’d look at him sitting there at the table, happily drinking his smoothie and reading the paper. This rush would come over me, building from the inside and infusing my whole body. I’m not sure what it was, but maybe it was joy. It was the closest thing I’ve ever felt to joy.
It felt so good to see my father happy, relieved of the stress and pain he endured for years. Watching him at the kitchen table or sitting on the couch holding my little dog, Piper, while he read his book. It felt so… right. Something clicked inside me with a resounding snap, perfectly in place.
And a selfish part of me said, “You’ve finally done something right, Eileen. Something good.”
My life became all about my father, the routine of his day. He didn’t veer much from his schedule. He usually got up at around 7:00 am. I’d be in my room making my face and listening for the sound of his walker on the floor. As soon as I heard it, I’d come out to see him standing there in his pjs. He’d look over at me, waiting for direction.
“Good morning, Dad! Why don’t you sit down and I’ll get your coffee.”
“Great!” He’d say. “Thank you, Baby.”
Sometimes I’d finish my makeup, get dressed and still not hear the walker. I’d go out to the kitchen and check a few times until he arrived looking distressed. “I overslept big time!” he’d say.
Chuckling to myself, I’d say, “It’s ok, Dad. There is nowhere you have to go right now, so you’re fine. Why don’t you have a seat and I’ll get your coffee and newspaper?”
But then everything changed. He went into the hospital and when he came out, he was in a wheelchair. Then I could no longer manage him so we moved him to a facility that provided a higher level of care. He would get anxious about not getting his coffee. I’d come to visit and he’d tell me he hadn’t gotten it. He’d sound angry, unlike himself, put upon and paranoid. I’d ask a staff member and she’d say he did have coffee just a few minutes ago.
I learned there was no point in telling him that, because he didn’t remember. It would only frustrate him and make him feel small. He stopped remembering things and there was no one to reassure him that he was ok. There was no way to tell him he was getting what he needed. There were a lot of patients, some even worse than my father, and only a few beleaguered employees.
I wanted to tell them how special my father was, how much people loved him, how charismatic and dynamic and handsome he had been. I wanted them to know when my dad retired, I watched the men who worked for him cry as they talked about how honored they were to have been on his team.
I wanted to say, you don’t understand. This is my father. He used to bring me Suzy-Qs home from the grocery store. When he worked on the pipeline, he saved change from playing poker and gave it to me when he came home. I had a big jar of quarters for the pinball machine.
He bought my sisters and me “thingies” we needed (because we were too embarrassed to say maxi-pads or tampons), never protesting. He taught me how to play poker and black jack.
My dad carried me to bed when I was little girl and rubbed my back until I fell asleep. Sometimes I would fake falling asleep on the couch, because I felt so comforted and safe when he tucked me in.
When I had a nightmare, I would stumble down the hall to my parents’ room and climb into bed with my dad. He would hold me and tell me everything was going to be ok. Sometimes he would go look for monsters under my bed to make sure they were gone, that I was safe.
My dad waved to truck drivers and said to be nice to them, because they had a hard job. Once on a road trip we stopped for gas and I watched him give a man money. We didn’t really have money to spare, but the man looked like he needed help.
I wanted to explain all this to the employees at the memory care facilty, but it was too much, too late. All they saw was a shrunken old man in a wheelchair complaining about his coffee, his shirt stained with food, his swollen feet bursting out of ratty slippers.
Today is my birthday and my father’s birthday. My mind is filled with images, some hazy and some vivid. Shared birthday cakes and rooms filled with balloons and my dad and I sitting at a table together smiling at the camera. Our special day. He picks me up and kisses me and tells me I’m his special girl, his little Puddin.
One side of our cake would be his (vanilla) and the other mine (chocolate). I have pictures of us wearing party hats and my dad hugging me or kissing me on the cheek. I am smiling broadly, so happy and proud to be my daddy’s girl. This was the best gift I could ever have—to share a birthday with him. Just us.
I can’t get it out of my mind—the first birthday without him. No visiting and bringing him a piece of cake. No watching him open a gift—ones I had to open the past few years because his arthritic fingers fumbled with the wrapping.
All the phone calls. Every year on our birthday he would call. No matter where I was—what state I was in—he would call. He’d say, “Happy birthday, Pud!” And I’d say it back to him.
Every year except last year. Last year he forgot it was his birthday. When I reminded him, he said, “Oh ok. How old am I now?” I watched him open his gift. And for the first time, he didn’t remember it was my birthday too. A sadness engulfed me. I felt the loosening of a bond we had for so long. It unraveled like a kite string, slipping from my fingers and disappearing into the air.
I don’t know how to have a birthday without my dad, how to celebrate another year of my life without mourning his death.
I don’t know how to accept that in the last moments of my father’s life, there is so much I didn’t tell him.
I’m sorry, Daddy. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you what a wonderful father you were and how I loved you with my whole heart. It was the biggest, purest love I’ve ever felt.
I’m sorry you had so much pain in your life. I wish you had known more joy. If I could do it all over again, Daddy, I’d ask God to bring me to you sooner. I’d ask him to let me help you earlier in your life. I’d ask him to show you that you are his beloved son, his beautiful child, and with Him you will never know pain again.
I’m so sorry, Daddy. I wish I could hug you one more time.