When I was 23, I completely shaved my head. In part I was inspired by Sinead O'Connor and Ani DiFranco. I also was suffering hair loss from stress and a vegan diet. So I decided to embrace it like a true 90s feminist and give the middle finger to beauty standards. I had just enough hutzpah to flip the bird to the entire world...but not my father. I had moved back home with my parents post college, so there was no hiding the loss of my crowning glory. He loved my long golden hair, and called me Buttercup. I stayed out late, calling my mom to let her know what I had done, and to not let Dad know until the morrow.
I sat cringing at the breakfast table the next morning like it was judgement day, steeling myself for the furious response I was sure would come. Dad entered the kitchen with a scowl and avoiding my gaze, proceeded to fix his bowl of cereal. Coffee and flakes in hand he approached the table and looked up for the first time. His eyebrows lifted. His eyes twinkled. He snorted and said, "You look like Peter Pan.". The biggest fan of my new style, he let it revolutionize his own ideas about how a woman could be in the world. That eyebrow lift became part of a secret communication between us, one I would receive through the decades of adulthood.
In 2016, at the age of 89, my dad had been actively dying for a year. It masqueraded as normal dementia. physical symptoms were hidden, and we were all filled with dread that the suffering of both my parents...my dad paralyzed from a stroke in 2007 and my mother as sole caretaker...would go on indefinitely. Two months before he died, my mother hit her limit and decided it was time he move to a nursing home. The transition was chaotic, filled with medical emergencies as his health suddenly deteriorated and his true decline came to light. The conversation rapidly went from "Is a nursing home really best for Dad?” to "You should get on the next available flight". My daughter Fern and I were at the river when I got the phone call. 45 minutes later we were driving to SFO.
We had some of the best conversations of our relationship during that last year. My dad and I had many talks throughout my life, all those stories about his childhood in Maine, about his experience in WWII, how to find one's path in life. I loved our talks, which could be expansive and deep. I also avoided getting locked in conversations with my dad, because they had a tendency to be lopsided in one direction...I would do the listening and he would do the talking. He was rarely inquisitive as to what was happening in my life, and would quickly turn the conversation back to himself. However, when it really mattered, my dad did listen to my troubles with a wisely compassionate heart, offering keen insight. He was a master at the pep talk and his favorite saying, "Illegitimi non carborundum" became a lynch pin of my confused crawl as a young woman trying to navigating life, relationships and career in San Francisco.
Our last few handfuls of conversation were different. Dad asked a lot more questions. How was my garden? How were my chickens? Did I like living on a horse ranch? Did my daughter like school? Deprived of his sparkling and witty intellectual faculties, instead he asked questions from the heart and listened with deep interest. Then he would ask me the exact same question one minute later with renewed curiosity. He told me new stories about his past, some hard to verify, others completely fabricated, but also as real to him as dreams are when you're asleep.
Sometimes he would call me in distress. He knew something was wrong…was he crazy or was everyone else? For weeks he was on a train, one he couldn't get off and couldn't get to stop. I ran interference for him, letting him know I would call the train company and find out the schedule, or order a different sleeping car or meal. I would call him back with the updated information, and the news that my mother would bring him a complimentary cocktail from the dining car. It felt stupid to lie to him, but it was better than trying to argue with his reality, which only made us sad and made him livid. Intuitively it made sense…My dad was on a train, speeding towards an unknown destination, on a schedule he did not like. He was stuck in his seat, out of control and the whole business was being operated by inept morons. I think anyone would feel thus if their world was encased in a crippled body and mind, marooned in bed or in front of the television., the end of life bearing down on us.
Each time, before I hung up the phone, my dad and I spent several minutes telling each other how much we loved each other. I told him until I knew that he really got it. Each time, I told him I loved him like it would be the last, because I knew that it could be.
By the time I was able to be with my dad in hospice, he was already wandering inner caverns, kept down in the depths by morphine. When he heard my voice, he stirred for the first time in days, but then quickly slipped below again. Thus began the vigil of waiting and watching, sometimes with acute, unbearable presence, sometimes with sorrowful boredom. I sat and held his hand as much as I could, letting my heart stretch and break to hold it all. He went for days without food, five days without water, his tongue shriveling with dryness. They gave us little sponges on a stick to bathe his mouth with, and though seemingly unconscious, he would bite down and suck all the moisture out of them. I questioned the use of morphine, I railed internally against his advance directive that said we were to let him die. Were we letting him die, or killing him? I didn't know, and still don't. He awoke. I said, "Hi Dad, it's Mary. I'm here with Fern.". He smiled. I told him I loved him. He said, "I love YOU.". He smiled at Fern. "Love Fern.".
He awoke. He tried to talk to me, but couldn't get out the words and became distressed. I told him it was ok, sometimes words just make it harder, that I understood. He nodded his head.
He awoke. I started sobbing. Forehead crinkling in concern, he whispered "What...what...". I realized he didn't know that I was crying because he was dying. I tried to smooth it over. Still holding his hand, I turned my head away to get Fern to come over. Although seemingly weak, he yanked my hand with shocking strength, turning me back around. He didn't want me to leave or turn away. He wanted me to stay. So I stayed.
He awoke. I was wearing a hat. He looked up at the brim, and raised his eyebrows, our secret communication. "I'm wearing a hat." I grinned. His eyes sparkled. "Do you want to try it on?" He smiled as it slipped down over his eyes. I put it back on my head, both of us still smiling. He nodded. He saw me.
He didn't wake again. Still I held his hand. I played some of his favorite classical songs on an iPhone, and gripping my hand he pumped his fist like he would do when particularly moved by a piece of music, playing the part of the great conductor. My brother brought in a world class Hawaiian slide guitar player, and with ukulele accompaniment, they gave my dad a fond Aloha. He didn't respond.
Almost a week without water and he didn't die. The hospice nurses checked his feet for signs of organ failure, but everything still looked normal. They gave him more morphine. My mom went home to feed the cat. My brother and daughter sat coloring in a corner. I wandered the room, feeling lost. Then I felt another yank, like the one he gave my hand, like a lift of the eyebrows, a secret communication. I looked over at him, and he wasn't breathing. This was it.
The breath returned, but in shorter, more infrequent intervals. Long enough for me to pick up his hand, for my brother and daughter to gather around. Long enough for me to call out over and over, "I love you dad. We're here. It's ok….”
All my life, I was afraid of my dad's death. Having a father as old as a grandfather brought with it significant gifts and also a sense of imminent departure. From the time I became aware of death as reality, I dreaded my father's passing. All daughters see their dad as an enigma, but mine truly was. He had a brilliant mind and a sharp wit. Coming from a long line of generals, he had leadership qualities that sometimes strayed into dictatorship. He was a wonderful storyteller, and loved to receive a good yarn, especially if it was funny and maybe a little bit dirty. He played by the rules except when he thought they were stupid and he didn't suffer fools. Being in my dad's presence was like stepping back in time, to an era when things were done in a proper way, when the world made more sense. He was a keeper of knowledge and lineage, of different ages and sensibilities. I knew that when he died, he would take all of it with him. A childhood wish I carried into adulthood was to be there when he packed his bags and left. I wanted to be by his side, holding his hand, and for him to know it. It was a terrible and beautiful blessing to have this wish fulfilled.
For three nights after he passed, he haunted my dreams with mirth. In the last, he exited out of a courthouse, produced one of his old walking sticks, tipped his hat, and danced down the marble stairs, stepping out from the last ten years of paralyzation.
The day he was cremated, it was nearly two weeks after his death. We hadn't been told when it would happen, but I knew the exact moment when he entered the inferno. I was sitting outside with our chickens under the shade of a tree. Just a moment before the air had been still, but suddenly it kicked up, swirling around me and rattling the leaves on the tree. My dad was everywhere, flowing into and out of my heart, suffusing every molecule, spreading out across the landscape and over the horizon. Then the wind stopped. I knew a threshold had been crossed.
Grief at my father’s passing was a consistent river threading through my life for a year after he died. Yet it was his birthday, not the anniversary of his death, that I found the most difficult, the realization of gone a stark pain. After a year had been marked, I felt an unanticipated sense of completion. What I thought would be a lifetime of mourning suddenly closed its briefcase with a snap and a hearty handshake Good doing business with you, thank you for your time. Not that the grief ever truly goes away, but instead of a daily reality it arises acutely in moments, mostly as tenderness, as missing. Occasionally I feel him near, or he visits in dreams. Mostly I feel his encouragement in rough times, a hand on my shoulder, raised eyebrows, eyes twinkling, his assurance that I am full of surprises. He whispers in my ear.
“Don’t let the bastards get you down.”
*One of my dad's favorite jokes.