A comment over the weekend had me remembering that my father died two years ago this Thanksgiving. Or rather, he died the day after Thanksgiving, but only because we delayed him on this side of the door until the dinner dishes could be cleared. His death was swift but a long time coming, unexpected but unsurprising, inconvenient but flawlessly executed.
I hope you understand when I say my father’s death was his finest hour. I was proud of him, something I never genuinely felt before.
My mother ran interference for Dad in our lives. Despite her frequent assurances that “Your Daddy really loves you,” my father did not love easily nor was he easy to love. Although no child could be expected to know or compensate for it, my father showed us what a lifelong submersion in pain could look like, and how insidiously it could spread. As soon as I could steady myself on two feet, I kept my distance. For the rest of his life, nearby or not, I cultivated ways to buffer myself. I owe my strength, resilience, independence, intelligence, humor and oddly enough, peace of mind, to him.
My sisters and I would sometimes imagine my father’s decline into illness and incapacitation. We would stew in the cynical certainty that the burden would befall us to be kind to an unkind man and generous to a self-centered scrooge. We weren’t at all sure we could do it.
Suffice it to say that isn’t what happened.
About a year before he died, my father began to do some strange things. He imagined a new life, or death, in a new place, far away. And he set about, with the intention and resolve he had lacked in nearly every other year of his life, to accomplish this. He gave away or sold all the stuff we were so sure we would be saddled with sorting out. He sold his home, the albatross we’d already hung around our necks. He loaded up his dog and his truck and moved to a mountain home where six months later he could no longer breathe.
When I arrived at his bedside, he was not breathing on his own. I sat for two days to the rhythm of the respirator while we waited for a pathology report delayed by the holiday hiatus. There was no hope, nor was there need for any. We saw so clearly the perfect plan and timing, the wisdom, the care, the great responsibility he had stepped forward to shoulder for his life, finally, and his death, and weren’t they one and the same?
The last night, I felt his life rush out like the tide, and I lost my footing. I could not stand. I could not walk. The nurses wondered if I had the flu and if I should go to the ER.
“No,” I said, “it is my father dying.” They could only assume that it was an emotional response. But it wasn’t emotional. It was physical. I clung to my chair like a raft lest I flow out in the undertow. And then I felt, as never before, that my father was me.
When all was said and done, we turned off the machine and death came. It was simple and effortless. It was easy and on time. I spoke prayers, verses and encouragement, and I found out I could. I owe my compassion, faith and fearlessness to him.
I owe him my life, and my dog.
Good night, Daddy.