Just to get us started on the right foot, I’m using a pseudonym because I want to be perfectly honest with you. Honest about my life, my feelings, my troubles, my happiness, my dilemmas…and if I’m going to be honest, then I’d rather do so behind a veil. It will make things easier. Easier for me because I won’t have to worry about hurting those whose life stories are inexplicably intertwined with mine. Easier for you because you won’t have to worry about reading your life story in print...I may give you all pseudonyms as well.
Why hide? Well, everyone’s life has its ups and downs but not everyone wants to have their sagas open for public scrutiny. Why do I? Because I think that when we have our moments, dark and terrible or joyful and uplifting, these are experienced by so many of us — and yet we never seem to have time to talk about them.
Not to say that our society doesn't do a lot of talking — good God there’s so much talking — frivolous, insignificant, harmful talking that we do (in person, over the radio, on television, through Facebook and Twitter and IM-ing) but that’s not the kind of talking I’m talking about.
It’s been difficult to zero in on just what I should share first with you in our conversation, but I think my father’s death would be appropriate. My father and I had a distanced, stormy relationship at best. His was a life of childhood poverty, loss, and abuse that created his violence and bitterness. I stayed out of his way mostly and being the youngest, my siblings took the brunt of his anger and rage, but they also enjoyed his occasional merriment and were part of his conspiratorial pleasure in the pranks he played. There was irony in the fact that as the least favorite of his children, I was the one with him the last week of his life.
I was going to stay with my dad while my mom traveled west to be with my sister. We’d kept my sister’s health crisis a secret. Secrets were common in my family and though they annoyed me, they seemed an inevitable part of my past, present, and, I’d supposed, future. Due to my dad’s unwellness, my mother was unwilling to leave my father alone for ten days, so I was coming for seven of them. I arranged an enjoyable week for my own family and planned to care for my father while maintaining the secret of my sister’s illness.
I’d already created a fantasy that my father and I would spend the time connecting: talking, sharing, cooking and eating (two of his favorite things) and laughing about what was good in our family’s past. Perhaps I’d already composed the fairy tale of his finally giving me what I’d always longed for and never gotten — his unconditional love. Though it had never been a part of our “relationship,” even at this late date, it didn't stop me hoping. I went with an unspoken and enormous expectation.
My dad was in the hospital for yet another episode in the story of his failing health — heart attacks, chronic lung disorders, high blood pressure, diabetes, now acid reflux. I even felt a bit relieved thinking that the main responsibility for his care that week would not be mine. Surely the hospital was the best place for him to be, while my mother was away. His hospital stay actually seemed to be a good thing on the eve of her departure. But she told me she was not going to leave; after 56 years of marriage, she just couldn't go and leave him. I believed she was being foolish and losing her chance to escape and to help my sister.
The next day brought a diagnosis of advanced esophageal cancer and with it, little hope for any recovery, given his declining health. The only “remedy” would result in his inability to eat real food at all and given my father’s love for food, it seemed a particularly cruel way to live out the short remainder of his life. When the choice was put to him, he insisted on being taken home, with no treatment of any kind. He wanted out and he wanted out right then and there. It was up to my mother and me to get him home.
I could spend another column covering the details of his last days, but for this story those details are not what’s important. What’s important for me is that after getting him home, hospital bed and hospice in tow, my father died four days later and we had no conversation at all. No reconciliation, no shared love, no wistful expressions of how we wished it could’ve been between us. We existed those last four days in much the same way we had lived our relationship, avoiding any intimacy.
Here we were, at the end of his life, still holding back whatever might lie inside, not giving a thing to the other. I felt it was HIS responsibility. He was the father; he was the adult. He should have been the one to open the door to closure.
Why didn’t he? Why did he die in the same way he lived his life, not inviting me in? Why couldn’t he have given me that which I so longed for — his love, his affection, and his pride in who I was and what I had become?
It’s years since he slipped off into congestive heart failure, a peaceful kind of drowning of him. As it happened, I sat and watched and did what the nurses had instructed me to do, but ever since, reliving and rethinking and rehashing those four days, I’ve come to understand something awful about me. The opening of doors was as much my responsibility as it was his. I could have said what I wished to hear. I could have given up the fantasy for the reality in front of me: that he was incapable of giving me more than he did, that his life was troubled and his psyche flawed, that if I wanted to get something, there was something I had to give. The forever-missed opportunity to have that final closure was more a failure of mine and less of his.
He was my father: I hated him, I loved him, and I wanted to know that he loved me.