My father died 3 years ago, at the advanced age of 87 yrs. He was my intellectual mentor and my emotional scourge. Our lives as children were filled with the conflict between him and my mother, which spilled over to us. But they were also filled with his wonderful intellect and creative intelligence. It was from him that I learned to love words and to use them well. It also was from him that I learned to walk on eggshells and to fear saying the wrong thing to the people who matter most to me. In the best of times we shared wonderful discussions and heated debates. In the worst of times he could shut me down with two words. As a child he entranced me with his magic tricks, pulling cigarettes our of thin air, or tearing precious paper money in half and then producing a perfectly whole bill. As a young adult he took me to dinner, wrote poems and stories for me, and enchanted me.
I think my father was about 55 the evening when he said, over a meal, "I'm looking forward to dying: it will be a totally new experience." This was the man who had read *The Search for Bridey Murphy* when I was still a child, and the man who introduced me, at an early age, to the idea of parallel universes. I still remember myself as an amazed 10 year old sitting in the kitchen saying, "You mean there could be Indians riding through here on their horses right now?!" However, this was also the man who had had terrifying nightmares from his earliest childhood, nightmares that never left him. At the end of his life, I think it was terror, not excited exploration that dominated his world, and tinged his anticipation of death -- the fear of an eternal nightmare. Yet he never gave in completely, standing on his own two feet only 12 hours before he died.
Only on his last trip to the hospital was my father taken by ambulance. Every other time he somehow managed to drive the 30 miles. And only a month before his final hospital admission, he had signed himself out of the hospital in a huff and driven himself home! Two weeks before he died, I drove 2 hrs to the hospital to see him and take care of family business. He lay in his hospital bed, a frail and shrunken man, having trouble speaking but determined to communicate. One of my first comments was about a nasty "bruise" on his forehead which he'd received from trying to get out of bed on his own. "It's not a bruise; it's a cut," he snapped. He began to speak about something that concerned him and I tried to show that I was listening with some simple feedback. He told me to stop talking, and when I said I was just checking that I understood him clearly, he told me, "Don't. Just shut up and listen." In that moment I closed down reflexively. My caring evaporated and in place of compassion I felt anger and amazed pity that at the end of our lives we are what we've always been, only writ large.
As coordinator of our whole family entourage -- a handicapped sister, deaf brother, aged mother, plus his grandchildren -- I saw my father once more, a week later. The last time I left his hospital room, to hustle everyone to a restaurant before my mother became faint, he was dispiritedly trying to eat a little. "Don't go yet," he said. "Stay a minute and give me strength to finish drinking my milk." When the hospital phoned me a few days later to say the end was near, I couldn't find the strength to cope with driving the long trip late at night, knowing I would have to go back and forth to get my sister and brother the next day, and would then be making funeral arrangements while marking student mid-term essays & exams and helping everyone else cope. Yet I regret the ambiguity of our parting, and the lack in myself of the compassion that I had once hoped to share.
This is part of the background to "Portraits of My Father" which follows. The piece was written while encouraging a class to write a description from the memory of a photograph. It emerged in its entirety quite unexpectedly, and is, I suppose, my eulogy of sorts.
"Portraits of My Father" (Fall/94)
It is the fall of 1987. My father is sitting, all alone, on a high-backed restaurant chair. He is wearing a smart-looking steel grey business suit that perfectly complements his remaining steel grey hair. He is no longer young. Captured on celluloid, he sits hunched over, resting his elbow on his knee, his chin cupped in his hand. His mouth is twisted and there is a feeling of helplessness, perhaps even senility, to the expression on his face. Draped over his shoulders is the pink wool shawl that was knit for my wedding. Its tassles are twined among his badly gnarled fingers. This is one of my favorite portraits of my father, but it is not what it appears to be.
The occasion is my parents' fiftieth wedding anniversary. We have rented a private dining room in a small city hotel. In the room are my parents, the three adult children -- my brother, sister, and myself -- and four early adolescent grandchildren. Our three generations span over three quarters of a century. Within the privacy of these four walls, we are not always a decorous family. My children don the restaurant's linen napkins to become bandits. My younger daughter forces her older sister to beg for the grapes she slowly drops into hwer mouth. In moments when they forget their self-consciousness, my niece and nephew run around getting into the action too. Tonight, my father is on holiday from his usual critical and demanding self. Tonight he is an honored child among children, ready to share in the fun. The room, we notice, is chilly and we complain as we sip our drinks (determined to act like adults for at least a few minutes). Then, one of the children rescues her grandfather from the cold by throwing my shawl around "poor grandpa." The actor is captured, my father succumbs. He wraps the shawl tighter around himself, huddles into a caricature of senility and mutters about what a poor sad old man he is. We all laugh and the picture is frozen onto film.
It is the spring of 1993. My father is now eighty-seven. He is sitting alone in a large armchair in his hospital room, wearing his winter parka because he never feels warm. His feet are wrapped in large sheepskin-lined slippers. On the bed a bolster lifts the sheets so that when he lies down he will not have to bear the force of blankets pushing against arthritic limbs. About every twenty minutes he asks to use his urine bottle, keeping his pride intact, controlling his recalcitrant body. His voice is now a strained, gravelly whisper. "Why . . ." he says so slowly that each word seems to hold an hour's pain. "Why . . . should we have thought it would be different for us?"
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P.S. - And having written all that is here, I am surprised. The trembling anxiety and urge to share which pushed me here have passed. The tears which seemed imminent have not come. (The only times I cried was when I cleared out my family's home.) The land is still parched and the knots in my stomach and shoulders remain, to be lived with for however long it takes, perhaps forever.