I drove to my parents’ house forty miles south on a rainy November day. My mother’s call prompted the trip—one I had anticipated. She said she didn’t think it would be long until my father died. Essentially, if you want to say goodbye, you’d better hurry.
I worried I wouldn’t make it in time, and worried I would.
Heading toward the interstate, the wipers thumped against my windshield in a monotonous rhythm, like a heartbeat. The instrument panel on the dash glowed and my headlights came on. The cloud cover blotted the daylight.
My thoughts were with my parents, who had been together since they wed in 1967. There was a perfect finality that they were alone together at the end of his life. Did they need me, their oldest child, there at what was certainly an intimate moment? What besides entering the world could be as important as exiting? He wouldn’t have wanted an audience.
I was in the den watching television when my dad told me my great-grandmother had died. I was probably in elementary school at the time and felt the appropriate response to such an announcement would be to cry. So, I did, although the tears were completely fabricated. In truth, the woman who had died was old, and had been since I was born. There was no shocking tragedy. We were not close. My fake cry was for the benefit of the person who had delivered the news.
My mother’s grandmother lived in an old white house in Dallas. There was a distinct scent there—it clung to the warm air. It smelled of mothballs mixed with scented dusting powder, the essence of which I’ve continued to associate with elderly ladies. These are the wrinkled women who can be counted on to produce a monogramed handkerchief from a patent leather pocketbook. She was the one who properly taught me to shuffle a deck of cards, always had candied orange gummies and used an ink-pen to work the daily crossword puzzle. These flashes sum up my memories of her, the sticky remembrances of a child. She wasn’t a constant in my life; however, she was my first recollection of death.
The memory of her and her house are vague compared to the crispness of the memory of being told she had died. Maybe I still carry guilt for producing the tears I cried that day, but it stuck with me as much as the pattern of the couch I sat on, the loud print in direct contrast with the heavy mood that hung in the room. I certainly wasn’t surprised by the news, nor was I upset. I don’t remember a funeral.
I’m warm in the car because I didn’t take off my coat before I started the drive. My rising temperature made me reach to adjust the air before I started sweating. A sick feeling grew in my stomach, like dread or the visceral reaction I get when I misplace my wedding ring. I didn’t speed, rationalizing what a tragic day it would be if I died in a car accident the same day my father died from Alzheimer’s.
I hadn’t laid eyes on my father in years, nor had I spoken to him. His brain had been destroyed by disease and hadn’t made proper connections in a long time. His mind failed, then his body; and I never wanted to see him that way. I didn’t want the last memory of my father to be associated with sadness and pity—the man who had been my smart, strong father reduced to a thin pile of bones and rotten teeth. I wanted the opposite—to remember him healthy, laughing and dancing in the kitchen. I still fluctuate between feeling selfish and self-preserving, but don’t regret my choices.
If my great-grandmother’s death lacked heft, my father’s was like an anvil.
In the 80’s, my dad and I bonded over the Lakers/Celtics rivalry. He was a big Larry Bird fan, while I had a poster of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on my wall. I loved the big names on that team, Magic Johnson and James Worthy; dad loved the grit of Kevin McHale and Bird. I think he liked that Larry Bird wasn’t a marquee face guy. “Who gives a shit if he’s funny looking?” This coming from a handsome young Marine, who morphed into a bald, bearded, bespectacled older man. The two teams met in the playoffs often, with both of us trash talking the other team. He taught me how to shoot a basket, throw a football, and is responsible for putting me on skis for the first time as a kid. We fished, played golf, swam and went roller-skating. Dad didn’t sit much.
When my mother called to tell me it was my last chance, I decided I wanted to say goodbye, even though I knew he wouldn’t be able to hear my words. The choice was likely a reaction to my mother’s quivering voice, and knowing she would want me to have that chance. She would have been the only one of my parents who knew if I was there. She was the reason I agreed to go —trying to please her because I could no longer please him.
I didn’t make it. The next time I saw him, it was only his body on a gurney, draped in an American flag.
What would I have said if I’d make it to my dad’s bedside? I love you? Goodbye? Thank you? You were a good dad? What would my eyes have seen? Was being there, at that moment, for him? For me? My mother? I didn’t have any confession or secret to deliver, there was no question unanswered. He knew I loved him. I was as sure of that fact as Larry Bird shooting from the paint.
Later that day I would help my mother and several friends remove the mattress where dad drew his last breath. It was stained and smelled faintly of urine. I tried to block out the sensory details and concentrate on moving the unwieldy old mattress to the garage. It was something useful we could do in that moment; anything was better than sitting at the kitchen table making mindless small talk. My mother had stripped the bed of the sheets and I wondered if she threw them away as well.
From its spot under my thigh, my phone rang again. I was only about halfway there, southbound on I-575 navigating through a storm, when I hear my weeping mother saying, “I think he’s gone.” My tears weren’t fake this time, but hot and real, obscuring the view through my windshield. I don’t remember what I said in response, but it was likely something logistical, like, “I’ll be there as soon as I can.” I can’t remember.
But I let my foot off the gas pedal, no longer in a hurry. It was my first minute as a fatherless child. I didn’t feel an instant, overwhelming sadness, but like I was floating. Unmoored as a fishing boat that hadn’t been secured to a dock.
I know I was lucky. My dad was there for all the big moments. He taught me to ride a bike then drive a stick shift. He was at my high school and college graduations wearing a big smile and offering a proud hug. He walked me down the aisle at my wedding and held his grandchildren in the hospital on the days they were born. He attended every birthday party, recital and game he could get to, even when my mother did all the driving, and he called other children by his grandson’s name.
He was finally free of his failed body, whole again, living happy and hearty in my memory. My tears were born of relief and were for no one but me.