It was my first time in the hospital. I was three or four years old and had my tonsils taken out. After the surgery my throat hurt so much I could barely speak. I was scared. I didn’t want to be alone, and then my father appeared. “Hi Pud,” he said. He brought me a teddy bear. A nurse brought me some ice cream, and my dad sat with me while I ate it. It felt cool and comforting on my throat. I ate it too fast and then threw it up.
The second time I was around nine and had surgery on my eyes. My left eye was “lazy” and unable to focus. I’d be looking at someone and my eye would wander to the side. The operation tried to repair the muscles of both eyes, but it was not successful. The problem returned and I had a second surgery a few years later.
I remember only snippets: daddy taking me to the hospital. The doctors explaining the procedure. Fear gripping me when I learn the surgeon will have to remove my eyes in order to get at the muscles underneath. I imagine him dropping my eyeballs, them rolling on the floor and getting squashed like bugs.
Then the surgery is over and I am awake. I hear my father’s voice beside me. I cannot open my eyes because they are crusted over with dried blood and bandaged. Daddy is holding my hand and telling me everything went well. His hand is large and warm. “You did great, Pud.” You’re going to have a couple of shiners, but you’ll be fine.” Then I feel his lips brush across my forehead.
These are pictures in the movie of my life. My father is leading man. He is in every scene.
- I’m perched on the flowered seat of a pink bicycle, which my father bought and assembled. He is holding the seat and jogging next to me. Then he lets go and I’m peddling away, laughing and exclaiming, “Daddy! I’m doing it!” I don’t remember falling, but if I did, I know he picked me up.
- My dad is standing tall and handsome in his top coat as I board the school bus. It is my first day of school and I’m terrified. I push my face against the glass, crying and begging him not to leave. He is waving and smiling, mouthing “I love you, Pud” and “you’ll be ok.” The bus pulls away and I watch his figure get smaller and smaller. I never see him leave.
- I’m about 14 and have a cold that won’t go away. I’ve missed three days of school and my mother is not happy. She says I’m faking. My dad says, “Something is wrong. I’m taking her to the doctor.” On the way home, I lean out the window and throw up. We got inside and my mother says, “How did it go?” My father says, “She has pneumonia!” He is so angry I barely recognize his voice.
- I’m not old enough to drive yet and I need some feminine products. My father goes to the store. He comes back with the products and a Suzy-Z, my favorite treat.
- We are in the high school parking lot and my dad is teaching me to drive. His voice is calm and gentle. We circle the parking lot for a few days and then move to a neighborhood street. He never yells or chastises me, just gently corrects me. “Ease up on the gas a little bit” or “Watch for this turn up ahead.”
- I have four impacted wisdom teeth that need to come out. I’m 20 years old and living on my own, but I stay with my parents a few days while I recover. My father takes me to my appointment, drives me home and gets my prescriptions filled. He brings me soft food and coaxes me to eat. I get dry sockets and am so sick I can’t eat for a few days, and my dad takes me back to the dentist.
- I drop out of college and get a job, then decide to buy a new car. It is my first new car, a Chevy Sprint. It only comes with a manual transmission, which I don’t know how to drive. My dad takes me to the dealer on Friday and drives my new car home. He spends the weekend teaching me how to drive a stick so I can drive my new car to work on Monday.
- I’m my father’s youngest daughter and the last to get married. As he is walking me down the aisle, I sneak a look and see tears in his eyes. The minister asks who is giving away the bride. His hand is shaking as he walks me up to the groom, and I hear a catch in his voice when he says, “Her mother and I.”
These are moments with my father I remember, but there are so many others I have forgotten.
There were birthdays, lunch dates, and phone calls that have faded from my mind. Sometimes I will see a picture from long ago and the memory will come flooding back.
In one of them my father has a goatee and is wearing a green leisure suit. We are sitting at the table sharing our birthday cake. His half is vanilla and mine is chocolate. In another we’re at a pool in Las Vegas. I’m seven or eight and riding on his back while he swims. Our faces are sunburnt and we’re squinting at the camera. Still another—I’m wearing a polka dot shorts-set and my dad is lifting me in the air for a kiss, even though I’m too big to be lifted.
There are older photos like these—on thick paper with the Kodak stamp on the back—when he is “daddy.” There are ones less old when he is “dad.” And there are more recent (electronic) pictures in which he is “my father,” because there are two of me: his caregiver and his daughter.
I speak to many people about my dad, so many people they blend together: internists, cardiologists, neurologists, nurses, insurance contacts, oral surgeons, memory care personnel, Veteran’s Administration staff), hospice, relatives. As his condition has worsened, the list of people has increased. Most want to know about my father, not my dad.
Eileen, the caregiver, is efficient. She can describe my father in detail, rattle off information at a pretty good clip. When he had his first—and second—bypass operation, that’s he’s been deaf in his right ear since childhood, when his defibrillator was inserted. She can list his medications, favorite foods and what he won’t eat. She can even recite the score he got on his last cognitive test and the month he stopped reading.
But only Eileen (“Pud”), the daughter, can fully describe my dad. How sharp his mind once was, how’d he quiz me about politics and history. The laugh that seemed to come from his toes. The way his eyes light up when he sees me, even if it’s just been a day. The joy on his face when he drove my little Miata convertible, expertly shifting gears, his tall body enmeshed with the car.
No one asks about my dad as he was then, but it doesn’t matter. I will never forget him. He was the dad who was there for all my firsts, all my beginnings. And I am the daughter who will love him through all his lasts. I’ll be here for his ending.