Intellectually, I knew you were mortal. And your health hasn’t been good for several years. It all started to go to shit when you slipped on the stairs and broke your leg. After that was a 5-way heart bypass. You never really came back from that. Though your scars healed and your cardiologist said your heart was working well, you never got over the deep fatigue. Your wobbly gait we thought was related to recovering from surgery. But years went by and it didn’t get better. I got you a cane. A couple years later you finally gave into my nagging and let me take you to a neurologist. He diagnosed Parkinsons. But the meds didn’t work and I took you to your sister-in-law’s funeral in a wheelchair. I found another doctor who diagnosed you with Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus. Too much cerebral-spinal fluid made you walk funny. They did a spinal tap, drained off some fluid and YOU COULD WALK. But it didn’t last. The long-term solution was a stent in your head to drain off the brain juice and send it south to be absorbed in your abdomen. It worked for a while, but when the surgeon went to adjust the flow of the valve, it was a faulty unit. Cue another surgery. This one never seemed to stick and you gave up. I fought you and nagged you. I bought you pill organizers, picked up your prescriptions and took you to doctors. You’d read bullshit on the internet and decide your blood pressure pills were the enemy.
The last time I took you to the doctor I told you that if you wanted to try to stay healthy, I would help and encourage you. But if you wanted to watch CNN and eat ice cream and not take your meds, then it was your body and your choice, and I’d respect it. I guess I was trying to scare you, but you took me at my word. Even your doctor sort of shrugged.
And yet. You didn’t seem to believe you’d die. And though I thought it was weird, I guess I really didn’t believe it either. I’d laugh when you’d say “If something happens to me…” I laughed out loud when you told me you didn’t want me to be interred in California with the rest of the family because it would be too far to visit.
On Thanksgiving you arrived ninety minutes late. Your driving was so erratic someone had to take over for the rest of the trip. And yet. You said, “I think I’m going to give up driving in about a year.” I was worried and upset. I made some snotty remark–a “joke” that was meant to admonish, not be funny. “I’m sorry we were late, Bear,” you said, sheepishly. “It’s okay, Dad. You were two hours late last Thanksgiving.” I said it without humor.
It was the last time I saw you before the stroke.
You’ve been gone five months and here’s what I’ve learned:
- I am stronger than I thought. I kept my shit together while others were losing theirs.
- There are some friends that will drop everything to fly to your side when your dad is dying. I have two of them, and I can never adequately express my thanks to them for just being with me–you wouldn’t be at all surprised at who they are.
- The arrangements after death are not a burden; they’re a blessing. I always thought I’d retire to my bed and curl in a ball and let others handle what needed handling. Staying busy kept me upright.
- There was–for me–a phase of grief that was mostly role-playing. I behaved like a grieving daughter would based on books I’ve read and movies I’ve seen. I wasn’t aware I was doing this until suddenly it was Spring, and you’d been gone an entire season. And then the actual grief hit.
- I cherish the night I spent in the ICU with you. You had a big black hole in your brain from the strokes, but I think you know I was there, holding your hand. Did you hear Segovia playing in the dark? That was me.
- On some level–alligator brain?–I guess I thought you’d come back. Of course I knew that’s not the way it works but I found myself sobbing–FINALLY–in my grief counselor’s office, saying “I just want my dad back. He’s been gone a really long time and it seems like he should be back by now.”
- I am weaker than I thought. I am fifty years old and I know now that you were my rock. I could always depend on you. To tell me a stupid joke, to call me “Hair Bear,” to say “sneak-sneak” when you went through a yellow light. To rescue me if my car broke down, or drive me to the ER when I had a panic attack. To be proud of me no matter the idiotic shit I got into. To always treat me as a full human with strength and agency–even when I was a little girl. I counted on you, and now you’re gone and I’m afraid. There’s no you to run to, or call, or hug, and I don’t feel safe.
- I feel very conflicted about your legacy. I don’t have to work, and can afford travel and private school…and in that way my life is “better.” But you had to die first. So while I’m so grateful, and I realize you weren’t going to live forever, it’s still hard to draw much joy from the freedom and privilege you left me. I wasn’t expecting that.
- It gives me peace to take your ashes places you loved and places you had on your bucket list. Besides finishing raising Allie, it’s pretty much my only purpose in life.
- Sometimes I listen to your voicemails and they mostly make me smile instead of cry. But I don’t think I can ever listen to the last one. The 5 am call I slept through. You were at the hospital and scared and you started to cry and said “I just wanted to hear your voice.”
- Now that you’re gone you’ve become young again. In my memory and in my dreams you are tall and strong with dark hair and a ready grin. Nothing hurts, and you are full of puns, curiosity and joie de vivre.
Anyway, Dad. I miss you every day and I still can’t quite accept that I’ll never see you again. It turns out that you were my favorite person on earth.