In honor of my father Roy's last Father’s Day on this earth.
At twenty-four, I was too young to know that I could start missing my mother before she died. Instead, my feelings for her were swept up in the urgency and angst brought on by her cancer diagnosis and her subsequent death.
Watching her die broke something in me. At forty-seven she was too young and she’d found happiness only a few years before when she married my stepfather. There had been so little time for me to get used to the idea of her as a happy mom. So little time to get a sense of her as a woman and not simply a mom. So little time to get a sense she felt good about her life.
It was March of 1984 when my mother took her last trip to the hospital for doctors to remove a tumor on her kidney. When they opened her, they discovered the melanoma had spread throughout her body. They closed her back up and sent her home with hospice and an intravenous port so we could give her pain medication.
I was too young to know I could start missing her before she died, so I helped bring her home instead of sending her to a nursing home. I helped care for her there in their living room, a familiar shelter the last gift we gave our dying mother, however awkwardly, however clumsily and naively.
I was too young to know it was unlikely her death would be movie peaceful where the dying person takes a last long breath surrounded by the ones she loves. My mom was either in pain or not lucid as we juggled whether to give the next dose of meds or to wait. It didn’t seem to matter which we did, her pain was severe and frankly terrifying.
In the midst of caring for her, it was as if we forgot she was dying, so focused were we on doing a good job. So focused were we on keeping her clean, keeping her comfortable, anything to escape thinking about the one thing we couldn’t escape, her death. I was too young to understand that most of what we worried about wouldn’t save her, wouldn’t extend her life, and wouldn’t make it easier to watch her fading.
So, this year, March of 2017, when my father’s doctor delivered the news that Dad has stomach cancer, I knew that I needed to immediately begin missing him. It was the moment to begin getting ready for being on the planet without him. As it turns out, I’d already started. I had begun missing him four years ago when a stroke left him unable to see or communicate well enough to read or write. He’s struggled mightily in these intervening years and I’ve often wondered how many more he could endure.
Now, every time I leave his apartment, I wonder if it’s the last. And if not, will the next goodbye be the last? Every time I arrive, I feel grateful for the day, one more simple day, to sit with him and witness his life and his dying. I’m careful to not drag him into the past, it’s clear he can’t focus on that nor is it helpful. I’m careful to not push him to do things in the present, things like going for rides in the car even though he used to love doing that. It’s not my place to push him to get stronger or push him to visit with anyone or to entertain him. He’s done with this earth, his business is complete.
Along the way, he has helped me get ready to miss him.
One day as I told him goodbye, I told him I loved him. He replied, “Well, you’ll only have me to love for a little while longer.” When I suggested I could keep on loving him even after he was gone, he nodded. “Well, I guess you can do that, if you want to.”
He frequently reminds me he will die soon. He says we will wait and wait and then one day the guy won’t be around, and we won’t wait any more. He says, one day soon enough, the guy will be dead.
At fifty-seven, I’ve lived long enough to know these are the days to practice missing him, now while he's still alive. I’ve lived long enough to know there will be an emptiness after he dies. And, also long enough to know that I can keep him close and not lose his presence in my life. Most of all, I anticipate his loss with no regrets of my own, no unfinished business, no feelings left unraveled or unspoken.
Peace and respect, these are the things sitting in the space between my father and I.
In an unexpected development, these days of preparing for my father’s death have brought my mother closer to me, until it almost seems she’s helping me care for my dad. Never mind that they divorced when I was a child. Never mind that they almost never spoke after that. These two people, my mother and father, starred in the leading roles of my childhood and they star in this phase of my adulthood, this saying goodbye to a parent.
I still miss my mom, and I hold her close.
I will miss my dad, and I will hold him close.
With peace and respect.