I’ve been quiet for awhile. Sometimes, silence feels good. So does breaking it. As Pythagoras is purported to have said, “Be silent or let thy words be worth more than silence.” Hopefully, this post does that.
The father / child relationship has been on my mind of late. I don’t know what kind of dad you had, but mine was often pretty tough. I loved him, and I know he loved me, but for a number of reasons, our relationship was never as easy or as close as I would have liked.
Whether fathers are loving and encouraging, or hard-asses who can’t be pleased, or they just up and leave the building one day, literally or figuratively, the indelible father-mark left on an adult child is so strong it almost announces itself to the room.
There are a lot of fortunate people who had or have great relationships with their dads, but Dear God the number of people I know with Daddy Issues is staggering. Why is this chasm between fathers and their children so common? Why is this essential male person, half responsible for our existences, often so hard to reach, often unwilling or unable to connect and really know their kids or allow their kids to know them?
A couple of things prompted this post. The first is that I was recently listening to an episode of Debbie Milman’s “Design Matters” podcast featuring an interview with Petter Ringbom, a New York-based director of documentary and narrative films. The segment (between 10:50 and 16:06 in the episode) that got my attention was about a collaborative 11-minute film Ringbom did with artist Karl Haendel called “Questions For My Father”. Its simple, stark presentation of sons looking directly into the camera and asking questions that they would like their dads to answer makes powerfully clear the depth of not knowing that exists between each of them and their fathers.
I would love to see the entire film but have only been able to find this trailer and what I heard in Milman’s interview. But the sentiment in this film resonated – that longing to have known my father better, and moreover, to have felt like he wanted to know me.
It resonated and I happened to hear about the film around the two-year anniversary of my Dad’s death, which reminded me of the final days of his life and the gratitude I have for having been a part of them.
Shortly after he died, I wrote an essay called “A World Without You In It”. It’s posted below. I guess it’s my way of remembering and honoring him – acknowledging our less-than-perfectly-close relationship, and how much I loved him and was shaped by him despite that. It was also my way of remembering things both hard and beautiful in his last days. Read on if you are so inclined.
A World Without You In It
“The pain of grief is just as much part of life as the joy of love; it is perhaps the price we pay for love, the cost of commitment.” – Dr. Colin Murray Parkes
Dad died on November 1, 2012. That moment was a long time coming, its inevitability having been confirmed several years before when his colon cancer metastasized to his liver. In the “living-longest-with-metastatic-colon-cancer” category, he was a high achiever having surpassed 95% of his cohort a solid year and a half before his death.
He hung on for a surprisingly long time in creeping decline, but by late September, the biological switches that caused his cancer cells to proliferate were stuck on “go”. His body was like the hot zone map of a formidable virus that had successfully jumped containment – all rapidly expanding areas of sickness and no hope of stemming the advancement.
On Monday, October 29th, I heard from my distraught Stepmother that Dad’s already fragile health had taken a nosedive and his time was drawing short. I expected the call since he had looked on the verge of death when I visited him a month earlier. I’d left the kids with Steve and gone home by myself in September to get what I hoped would be quality time with him, specifically because the visit I had with him that preceded, over Father’s Day weekend, was accompanied by some ugly drama. I didn’t want its sour taste to be what lingered when he succumbed to his disease.
My parents divorced when I was four and we moved with my Mom to another state. A visit to my Dad’s house was always complicated. I loved him, but he wasn’t the easiest person. Alcohol was a problem for him. It didn’t make him jolly and fun, it made him short-tempered and mean, and caused enough trouble that he quit drinking altogether after a full-scale, family brawl one night when I was about thirteen. Though stopping drinking improved the atmosphere in that house to a degree, Dad remained hard to reach emotionally, critical and harsher than was necessary when making his points. He never did address and heal the underlying reasons for which he drank in the first place. Perhaps he didn’t think it necessary.
I could tell that my Stepmom was in a panic when she called to tell me about Dad. It was obvious she needed support and backup. She had shouldered the burden of his increasingly dependent home care almost exclusively for months, and difficulties in my relationship with my Dad aside, I wanted to honor him by doing what I could to help during his end time. So I left the kids with my husband and went home. I hadn’t told my Stepmom I was coming, I just got in the car and headed that way. I drove into South Carolina farm country. The gray, windy day cast a flat light onto naked trees flanking lifeless, partially harvested fields of burst-open, white cotton bolls on brown, brittle stalks. Everything seemed in the process of dying.
I arrived home and came through the door. Dad exhaustedly looked up at me and gave me the slightest nod of acknowledgement from his hunched over position in his green recliner. He now spent most of his time in the recliner because lying in bed was no longer comfortable. His stomach pain was constant, and breathing was hard work. He took halting sips of breath, the oxygen that the loud machine next to him delivered offering no real help. He was so physically frail that it wouldn’t have surprised me if he died that night. But he didn’t, and with grim determination, we did what we could to make him comfortable understanding fully that our best efforts made no discernible difference.
There is no impotence like that of watching someone you love suffer. His naked desire for the relief that a hastened death would bring bloomed brightly around him. Every wince of pain, every frequent but vain bodily shift attempting to find a more comfortable position, every labored exhale was a tiny prayer for the end.
On Tuesday, my brother John arrived. Dad’s body, having exhausted its reserves, was failing in earnest. He could no longer walk or stand on his own, so John and I, each under one of Dad’s shoulders, shuffle-carried him to the bathroom. We tried to attend to his needs in ways that allowed him some dignity, but slow, decaying, terminal illnesses strip those options to a minimum. Case in point, though we didn’t have a wheelchair and Dad wasn’t ambulatory, he was still determined that the only place he would relieve himself was in the bathroom. We improvised by putting him in a rolling office chair while one of us pulled the chair toward the bathroom and another of us held his legs up to keep them from dragging on the floor. Though the distance we covered was relatively short, each of those trips was arduous and increasingly upsetting for everyone involved.
His discomfort though was unrelenting, and our well-intentioned, hovering efforts to provide him any physical relief were the definition of insufficient. My Stepmother did her level best to see that he lived out his days at home, but by Wednesday, October 31st, the impossibility of that scenario was apparent to everyone. Exhausted by the prior days’ round-the-clock exertions, the decision was made to get Dad to a hospice facility.
He resisted at first, saying that he needed to go to the funeral home to pick out his casket, this being the remaining detail of his funeral that he hadn’t locked into place. Ever the boss, he had already written his obituary, chosen the hymns to be sung and the readings to be read, chosen the soloist and pall bearers, and hammered out funeral service details with his minister. But late in the game he had changed his mind about his casket, opting to be buried in a pine casket as both of his parents had been. (The modern-day pine casket is more beautiful than I imagined, by the way.) Though we assured him we would take care of it, he was unconvinced, and found breath enough to bark at me to bring him a phone and the phone book. I did, and he placed a call to the funeral home.
A while later, the phone rang as the funeral director returned Dad’s call. I brought Dad the phone, and as I went back to hang up the other receiver I put it to my ear first. The gentle exchange between Dad and Mr. Burroughs was so tender and touching that I couldn’t stop listening. In the whispery shadow-voice that the cancerous lesions on his lungs had made, Dad haltingly proceeded through the conversation giving instruction about what he wanted and why. Mr. Burroughs had clearly known my Dad for a long time, and his voice gave away his surprise to be hearing from Dad that day since most everyone in the small town knew how sick and close to the end he was. Each of Dad’s requests was met with a quiet, reassuring, respectful “Yassir” and “Don’t you worry about that, Mr. Hunter. I’ll take care of it.” As the conversation came to a close, Mr. Burroughs’ voice cracked and broke as he said, “Mr. Hunter, I want you to rest and take care of yourself now. Don’t you worry about a thing. I’ll take care of it all.”
Something about hearing this funeral director, a person who deals with death daily, crying while talking to my dying Father was my heart’s tipping point. My chest hitched in rapid, upward, silent spasms as I tried to keep quiet. Tears brimmed and then broke over my lower lids and dripped from my jaw making wet spots on my sweater. I hung up quietly, feeling both slightly ashamed for eavesdropping on such intimacy and also like I’d just been handed the rare gift of witnessing a pure moment of human connection and compassion.
I had to retreat to a bedroom while the wave of emotion washed over me before I could go back in and check on Dad. When I did, I could hardly speak because speaking would’ve meant crying, and then I might have had to explain why I was crying, which I didn’t want to do. Blinking hard, I managed to ask him if he needed anything. He tiredly shook his head “no”. I kissed him gently on the top of his head and walked out of the room.
About an hour later two hospice nurses arrived, took one look at him, and busily began completing the paperwork to transport and admit him. It was a relatively slow process, taking more than an hour to meet the bureaucratic requirements for admittance to hospice and wait for the transport vehicle. As the local EMTs wheeled his gurney toward the ambulance, I realized this was the last time he would see his house, his things, his loyal little dog. The upshot of this somber moment was that the other end of the ride held the promise of the relief of palliative care dispensed by the expert hands of hospice nurses – the kind souls manning the front lines of the way we now die in America.
We arrived at hospice around 6:00 p.m., and immediately, those whose calling it is to usher the dying from this life to what lies beyond gathered around him and began to make him comfortable. The medicine they administered to relax him so he could breathe easier took effect quickly. Within thirty minutes he was sleeping deeply and peacefully, something he hadn’t experienced in months. Six hours after arriving at hospice Dad died. The drugs put him to sleep and he never woke again, exhaling one final time at 12:45 a.m. on November 1st.
I admit that took me a little by surprise. Other than being completely physically spent, he was lucid right up until the drugs took effect. While it soothed me to know he could finally experience relief from his ceaseless discomfort, I half expected and hoped he would break the surface of consciousness at least once more before he let go for good.
Shortly after Dad died I heard Elie Weisel, who is now 86, talk of the heart surgery he had the year prior. His condition was serious and heart surgery was the only option for prolonging his life. At his age, he knew the possibility of dying on the table was very real. After the successful surgery he spoke about how scared he had been, knowing that when sedation began, it might be the last time he ever went to sleep. He hadn’t been sure he would see his beloveds again, and that distressed him tremendously.
Weisel’s words made me wonder if my Dad had experienced similar fears as the i.v. was put into his vein. Was he afraid he wouldn’t wake again? Was his just relieved it was almost over? Did he think something else altogether, or maybe nothing at all? I don’t know. The experience was his alone – from the jolt of the diagnosis, through the brutality of the cancer treatment that bought him time but left him in misery, and then through the slow deterioration toward death. We were there, but only as bystanders who could merely tell him we loved him while sitting uncomfortably by knowing we couldn’t really begin to understand his experience and how it made him feel. Regardless, I was glad to have been there as a witness, having helped where I could. Hopefully, my presence spoke in ways that my words could not.
Truth is that I had a long time to mentally prepare for Dad’s death and make sure nothing of importance was left unsaid between us. I bring that up because our relationship was difficult throughout its duration. My parents divorce, though ultimately the right thing, left a mark. A four-year-old simply doesn’t understand divorce. All I knew was that there was a Dad-shaped hole in my life and that the fact that I didn’t get to see him often, and theoretically build a more loving bond with him, hurt. It hurt acutely as a kid, and achinglingly as a teenager / young adult.
Well before he died, I had accepted the reality that my relationship with my Dad would never be as I hoped. For a host of reasons, he wasn’t able to throw open the door to his fatherly heart. While there were certainly beautiful moments between us, he just couldn’t seem to get comfortable consistently demonstrating the kind of love a child (or this child, anyway) desperately wants – one that feels like a warm, all-encompassing blanket of security. Maybe that level of expectation is simply unfair to place on anyone, parent or otherwise.
In some respects I give him a pass – because of his generation, because of his cultural background, because of the chilly example of parenting that was shown to him. Fortunately, I’ve cultivated deep relationships that are authentic, vulnerable, touching, and based in love, respect, and a willingness to be open. So I have managed to find the type of connection I was looking for, it just never quite happened with my Dad.
As Kinky Friedman once said, “A happy childhood…is the worst possible preparation for life.” If nothing else, difficult childhoods offer excellent raw material for growth. My relationship with my father made me both tough and compassionate and helped me see more clearly the type of parent I wanted to be. Some days I think I’m doing a decent job staying on my desired parenting path, and some days it feels like it’s almost nothing but course correction. I do know that my own children are having a completely different fatherly experience than I had. They have no idea how truly lucky they are to have the father that they do. Still, I wouldn’t change my childhood if I could. I hope my own children ultimately say the same about their childhoods.