Dad died bloated and babbling about giant spiders on the hospital walls. Nobody deserves such an exit, Mother, which is likely why he ordered the “Do not resuscitate” clause; why drag out the final scene? Someone once said: “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus!” It was a chorus of angels in Dad’s case. At one point during his last week, he forced himself (the pain was that of fire on his skin) to roll over and face Uncle Bob.
“Bob, when I get outta here, we’ve got to find jobs.” He was back in the 1960s, stuck in a schoolboy reverie induced by morphine drip and toxins that his liver could no longer fight.
“Of course, Wayne, of course.”
Bob had the disheveled gaze of one who watches his own blood perish, when he knows that goodbye is a forever deal, that time is in fact not on our side, that we all have to leave one day, destination unknown.
I watched Dad daily as he met his demise by force of cancer and failure of liver.The two afflictions teamed up on him. We never knew which one led the race, and it didn’t matter. He knew that his vices would bring him here. He almost welcomed it. In quieter
moments down through the years, moments of deep introspection, his life spread out like an impossible landscape. He’d stumbled awkwardly on his seventy year journey and he was just as baffled as any of us, Mother. He’d taken others down during his race. He’d
cheated, he’d lied, he’d conned and connived. He did it his way; you knew all that. But in equal measure, in attempt to balance his own scales, he’d stop in his tracks to lend a hand to a fellow runner. He led many around him to a victory lap of their own. He was a school teacher and a life teacher. He was a martyr and a money lender. He was a man who’d earned a lengthy eulogy. He was my dad; I’d shared his triumphs, his hell and his horrors more than anyone. I’d tasted his knuckles, endured his spite. In better moments I’d see his softer side; the English Major explaining a good book...the Artist explaining the importance of light and shadow...the Dad bringing groceries, ordering pizza and doting on his grandchildren.
I returned to his world often and sat with him in the smoke and dust and solitude that only a forlorn but full-hearted madman could know.
On a December evening, an evening he knew was coming, he received the call from his doctor. The tests were in. It was bad. It was final:
“Try to enjoy your Christmas. Get together with family. Call me after the holidays.”
I cast a vote to the heavens for any man who has to tell another that his hour‘s up. God bless the doctors of the world!
The English teacher, the magic man, the madman, Mr. B., Einstein, Mr. Bean, my Dad, at a loss for further action, pulled out pen and paper and said a staggered goodbye:
"I must go back to that place. I must revisit that place so vivid in my memory. It is not sufficient that I simply recall those events; I must give them form and substance; I must make them real again! They have too much significance to put them aside and merely dismiss them as...Yes, I must go back. (switches to second person) As he allowed his thoughts to continue in this vein, he realized that he had been quietly crying. A deep sadness and longing settled over him and he knew that those tears, born of such echoes, memories, were a reminder of just how deeply he felt in this matter. (back to first person) I was a child of the war, born in 1940, son of…and…. Why am I writing this? It’s not born of any need to give…to my existence, nor is it meant to…Simply put, I feel I must put into words and…a simple accounting…more of my childhood later? Many things and events have…to shape me. None have…me more than the account I feel compelled to relate in the pages to come. It is a simple story, told with a soft, patient voice, uninterrupted by anything other than the quiet scratching of my pencil as I…And what of these words? I shall be pleased if nothing shall come of them other than someday, someone will chance upon them and see that they were penned by…who once breathed and …just as they and that…held very deep meaning for him…they will exhale and blow away the dust and perhaps say: “This was a noble man who loved and cared and…died.”
With that, he shook the hand of time, a good sport, and walked willfully toward his end, the ambulance ushering him onward before he could write another word. In my own solitude during the days following his death, I filled in the missing words in his goodbye as best I could. Standing over his memory, I promised him I’d find that place he had to return to. Had it been a place too awful for words? Was it a place of perfect love that finally betrayed him when he turned his back, perhaps a discovery of a child’s wandering…a stumbled upon horror, or perhaps an inflicted wound from a cruel hand. I may never know, though I vowed to him I’d search.
During more acrid moments I thought his illness to be a fitting end to the story.
His was often a tale of terror. You knew that more than anyone, Mother. We were free to move on now. Or were we?
He howled one morning as the nurse tried to shift him; blood was pooling beneath his skin on his backside.
“Don’t get too excited, Dad. Try to stay positive!” I scolded myself immediately for my shabby pep talk; it was nickel and
dime advice tossed out in haste, a reaction to suffering I’d
never before seen.
“Don’t go getting all religious on me now Jay!” In a rare moment he was lucid; he was himself. I began to think he may just pull through:
“Oh, I’ll come over there and give you some religion alright!”
I flew from my chair. I was my father’s son. The old prick couldn’t fight back this time, Mother. Should I have popped him one for the whole family?
Uncle Bob shot me a look and I recoiled, but he understood his big-headed brother all too well, and our silent exchange affirmed it.
Dad softened quickly. He knew it was almost time to cross the great divide. He was out of breath. He focused on me with fading strength. His eyes scanned across seventy long years and laid those years before me: I am sorry. I knew in that moment that someone had once said sorry to him too, for good reason, though I doubt he’d ever accepted the amends. I knew that he had often been what he had been against his own better judgment, and that his many magic moments in life had been true and real, even the ones exercised by sheer force of will against inner, instinctual opposition. The right thing isn’t always the most comfortable thing for any of us. If it was, the whole world would be far more right than it is.
Goodbye, you crazy old man. Hope you made it to the finish line.