You know you are fully grown when you hold your parent’s hand as they lay dying. It doesn’t matter if you are eighteen or fifty-eight. You come to a place of understanding, realizing that your story, too, will end. This is true even if you believe in a hereafter because that is another story.
The room was dark except for a sliver of light coming from where I’d pulled the drape, just enough to open the slider. I thought puffs of spring might relax him and clear the stale accumulation of days and months of illness. I’d come to check on him and saw that his eyes were open, but he did not speak. He simply gestured with his hand, and I went to him and took it. He closed his fingers around mine in an arm-wrestle hold; and I noticed, not for the first time, how his skin was like mine, and his nails grew in the similar block style as mine. Then he pulled our hands to his chest and held them adamantly there. What passed between us, our skin touching, our fingers clinched, was something I’d never experienced with my father.

He was only days from his 90th birthday, and in that room he had nursed himself more than a few times, in one ailment or another, from minor to what befell him now. After 25 years he had settled into the sanctum of those walls and refused to change anything, not the carpet or the bed or the piles of magazines, bills and papers, or the bottles of ointments and pills tucked in every corner. Even in good days, he would retreat there early after dinner. It was a room he shared with his wife, who was not my mother; but whom he’d found, with a stroke of good luck, many years ago. It was so long ago that it was only his marriage to her, a beautiful Mexican woman, that I could clearly remember.

Dark was how he always liked that room, though, in any season or any time of day, to watch his Patriots, or his cooking shows or right-leaning cable news. But especially now, in this season, he wanted it dark.
I’d planned my visit to celebrate his milestone. But two days before my flight, after a frantic undecipherable call from my step-mother to the EMS, he was taken to the hospital. He’d been dehydrated and couldn’t move. At the hospital they gave him fluids and nutrition but even though he’d been stabilized, it was only after promising doctors that I’d be there when he got home that they released him. I thought it was a small battle I’d fought for him, and it hadn’t sunk in, in the way that those things don’t, that I’d arranged this for him, to be brought back to his dimly lit solace for the purpose of leaving it one last time.

When I pulled my rental car into the drive, we practically arrived together, and my father’s small stuccoed home on that saguaro lined street was suddenly full of people, transport attendants, hospice nurses and health care aids. I walked in and put my bag in the bedroom that waited for me as it always did, with its forty year old fruitwood dresser and the twin beds pushed together, covered in pink gingham sheets. Then I went to him.

Although I’d realized a while ago that he could no longer defy age or illness, it still pulled me up, like being caught by a quick lasso, to see him. His hazel eyes, that were so much like mine, were pleading as he looked at me. He seemed to be saying, “Look how they’ve tied and gagged me here,” as if all the helpers in the room were no more than thieves and vandals. He finally did speak, “Gina, everything’s gone wrong.”

I knew even then that words would be rationed, so while I didn’t understand, I didn’t ask him to explain. Later, when I thought about the past months, and even the two years since his diagnosis, I realized that maybe my father had had a plan, but what I really wondered was how he thought things would go any other way.

“I’m here, Dad,” I told him. He looked at me and nodded, as if he understood the full truth of it.

Then, like it had all been rehearsed, like there had never been any talk of parties and dinners, and cake, I settled in and moved from his bedside to the kitchen, to sit-downs with nurses and desolate moments alone with my step-mother, who was riddled with dementia and fear, “Esta muriendo?” she asked me that first night. Several years back, she’d abandoned English, even though she could speak it fluently after sixty years as a citizen. Maybe she thought that in old age she would do as she pleased, or maybe it was just easier for her growingly confused mind. “No me recuerdo, Gina,” she would say many times, admitting she couldn’t remember and also telling me she understood what was happening to her. During my regular visits, after my father went to bed, we sat in their Queen Ann chairs, where I used my beginner’s Spanish, but where words were not enough, as I scanned her face and her eyes and listened to her laughter or recognized the emphatic finger pointing to piece together what she was telling me. She would talk about family, weddings and quinceaneras, and over and again of how she met my father. She didn’t seem to mind or, as time went on, to even realize that I could understand or speak very little. She would go on with her stories late into the night until I would finally announce, “Estoy cansado,” telling her I was tired, and going to bed.

But that night I realized she understood more than I thought, when she asked if he was dying. “Esta muy enfermo. He is very sick,” I told her, putting off the full truth, waiting for the backup of her many family and friends, and her friends who were family. It was always so confusing to me. But the close extended crowd would arrive soon and help explain. Within that grand family tree, though, on our side, on my father’s side, there was only me.

So it was to me that my father made his requests. For a while, he could tell me what he wanted, the lights off, the doors closed, the covers on, the covers off, a glass of ice. And in the last hours of the last days he found some lingering taste, some remaining yearning to be filled. He asked for ice cream, “You know what I want, Gina? Ice cream. Ice cream sounds so good.”

He hadn’t eaten in days, and I stupidly thought this was part of the problem. The mind, it seems, just can’t let go. So I left his side, excited, frantic, even, to fill his order, fooled that I could somehow reverse this steady march. If he just eats some ice cream he will be better. But the freezer didn’t hold its usual bounty. My dad had stopped driving a few weeks before, when the things he had planned, whatever they were, began to unravel. He, more than anyone, knew where he was on the thin line the doctors had drawn for him. He wouldn’t discuss it, stopped even going to discuss it with them, “Dad, I’m going to the store. What kind do you want?”

“It doesn’t matter; any kind.” His answer was taken from the ration, and of course he was right, anything would taste good.

But I was not happy with that. At the store, looking at the walls of frozen confections—that was what the sign said—I felt the weight of the decision. I walked up and down the aisle, evaluated every flavor, before I landed on the indisputable choice—Neapolitan. I was surprised they still made it, but it was all the foundational flavors, the most loved flavors together, for him. And how can I tell you? As I spooned the first bite into his mouth, his eyes lit up and he blinked, and he looked at me with what I knew was gratitude, then shut his eyes tight, and it was long and drawn out, as if he was picturing a pleasant dream, “Oh, that tastes so good, Gina. I want more! Get me more ice cream.”

I gave him as much as I thought his depleted body could hold. Then he closed his eyes again and his breath was steady, so I left him for a while.

I lay down for a few minutes to rest myself. As my body sought relief, my mind took the impact. I lived hundreds of miles away, and it had been months since I’d last seen him. For our night out then he’d put on a collared shirt and a tie and wanted dinner at the country club fifteen miles away. I’d taken his picture with my stepmother and gone home content that he was doing the best that could be expected, even better. Every week when I called he would have an energetic greeting, “Hellloo Gina!” because he was trying hard to keep me also in the dark. I should have suspected something, though, been even fully alarmed, when not too long before my scheduled trip he blurted, “You’ve always been a wonderful daughter, Gina.”

Over the years I’d written so many versions of the story of my father and me. In the beginning, there was the one where he and my mother had never divorced, which I threw out right away because, even at my young age, I knew she was miserable in the marriage. In the midst of it, I’d heard the loud voices through closed doors and wondered only vaguely, as a very young child, why they didn’t sleep together. But I’d also wondered when it came to me, would he have treated me differently had they not divorced?
I could liken my father to the licorice flavored drink from the country of his Italian ancestry, that is biting and potent with an underlying sweetness, that’s taken only in small amounts, and with an acquired taste at that. And forever, I’d felt that he’d also found me hard to take, and that he did not love me in the way I wanted or imagined he should, although I know that wasn’t always true.

There are movies that play in my head, snippets of time, that roll out in grainy fitful frames that tell another story. In one, he’s just come home from work, from his job at the Standard Brands Paint Company, and I’m running to him, ecstatic as a five year old can be to see her daddy. In another, I’m flailing and crying and cannot be consoled as they have just told me of the divorce. I was so small, but I knew it meant something forever broken.

Over time, the scenes that defined our relationship, though, could be traced back to a memory that has remained in clear focus as so many others have faded. I’m waiting on the porch of the small bungalow I shared with my mother, and my father’s shiny Pontiac station wagon pulls up. He doesn’t get out, but motions to me from the driver’s seat. I walk myself to the car, put my bag in the back and get in, “Hello Daddy,” I say.

“Buckle your seat belt, Gina.” His new car was outfitted with them and he made sure they were used, he wanted me safe. Then he turns to me, “I see you’ve still got those bangs. When are you going to get rid of them? They look terrible.”

Somewhere around that time there began these assessments from him, and with them, a dread in the deepest part of my young soul. There had to have been times when he told me he loved me and that he was happy to see me; but that is not what I remember. Sometimes I wondered if looking at me he could only see his failed marriage, or if looking at him, I could only see a harsh critic. But watching him with others, I could see that he had it in him to admire and even adore, as he did with my step-mother. I concluded that he and I were simply star-crossed, thrown together and destined to suffer our underlying discord.

The natural consequence of this was, at the earliest age I could, I tried to avoid him. The divorce made that easier, but there was still some commitment to our blood that wouldn’t let either of us go. He tried hard to do what was expected. My father was one of the original Disney Dads. Disneyland opened the year I was born, and we lived close. So, as soon as it made sense, he took me along with trips to Knox Berry Farm and Big Bear Lake. In true Disney Dad fashion he did these things that my mother did not, could not, do on her income. But Disneyland was not the happiest place on earth when we were there together, and while there was some place inside me that was grateful for these things he tried to give, it felt more like work than play. He would coax me to play tennis, and I would consent and disappoint. He arranged horseback riding lessons that I tried and gave up. Then there was the momentous deep sea fishing trip where I became seasick and he returned the boat early and in anger.

When we discovered I’d inherited his love of food and cooking, I thought surely it would bring us together. But when I became old enough to prepare a meal for him, hungering for the approval he might offer up, he would say things like, “You made this?” His utter disbelief in my mastery his greatest compliment.

All this made my heart stingy. There was even a time in my teens when I turned down his invitation to a European vacation, knowing what an affront that was to him, but caring more of my own selfish desires, which was summer with my new boyfriend.

When I became an adult, I tried to view my father as someone only human, and in a way that couldn’t be denied, my human. When I married and had my first child, I became sentimental and began to have an inkling of what the other side felt like. But when I invited him to visit his first grandchild he demurred, “I don’t like babies Gina; I’ll come later.”

As time went on, dread was mixed with taunting, and when we were together, I couldn’t help myself. I would talk back and debate his immovable opinions, oblivious to the fact that I might do well to quell my own passions. This continued into both of our old ages. The most recent a discussion months before the presidential election, “Dad, your parents were immigrants. You’re married to an immigrant! How can you vote for him?”

“We’ve got to protect our borders Gina!”

There was common ground, such as our shared love of music and theatre, but even it was contested, “Dad, there are other good musicals besides Phantom of the Opera.”

“Not for me Gina.”

Through it all, I never broke off from him, but gave only the minimum. In the end, it only made things worse because beneath what my father did or did not do, what he did or did not say, I understood that he did love me. Love is such a simple word, but carries so much heft. Why was it sometimes so easy and glorious, and other times so difficult and painful, but all still called love? Whatever the case, I knew I had hurt him. So among the stories I told myself was the one where I was nicer to him, where I was the daughter he wanted me to be. And the truth of it was that as the years went by I never let go of that story. Even through my hurt at what I felt were his insensitivities, I still tried to conjure some way to please him.

One of my last attempts was to share my writing with him. My father was an avid reader of books, magazines, newspapers, everything. He also loved to talk about the accomplishments of this person’s daughter or son or niece or nephew, how very amazing or beautiful or handsome or brave they were. So, I thought, I will show him that I, too, am wonderful. That I can do something well, if not amazing. This was a mistake, and I should have known, as a grown woman, not to do it. I should have known that this gesture was not about giving something to him, but asking for something from him. I should have reminded myself that it would only reinforce the sad story I’d been working on for so long. But, again, I couldn’t help myself, and one day I shared an essay I’d written about him and my stepmother. It was an ode to their love and the debt I felt to the woman he’d married because she’d become my ally, and she’d softened everything between him and me. She was always saying things, in her thick accented English, like, “Bill, doesn’t Gina look pretty tonight?” And he would answer, again, with a measure of surprise, “Yeah, you do look sharp in that dress, Gina.” Or she would inject herself into our terrible twosome at just the right minute to save us and usher me into her kitchen to help with one of her meals I’d grown to crave in her years of feeding me.

But as I watched him in his chair as he read, I clung to hope that wasn’t warranted. I knew he hadn’t finished it when he put it down, “I’ll read it later Gina,” he said as he left the room and retreated again to his haven. I took the breath I’d been holding, knowing this was a small untruth. Then I felt the hollowed-out ache. I was a compulsive gambler when it came to my father, and I kept going back even in the repeated loss of it.
I was with him the day the doctors told him his cancer had reached his bones. His response to them was nothing more than a knowing nod. One of them pulled me aside outside the exam room to ask if I thought he understood what they’d told him. On the ride home I told him what the doctor had said, “I’ve had a good life, Gina. I had my shot. I’ve been married to a wonderful woman for over 40 years. I can’t ask for anything more.”

Hearing him, of course, it registered, and it stung in a familiar way, that he did not mention being a father, being my father. But I put that aside, somehow detached from it because what moved me more was the man I saw before me, someone new I was meeting in my father, but maybe a person I should have known all along. It was impressive how he took this trial, probably the last that life was giving him; and I realized that all that life had given him I could never know. He’d been a person before I was a person, been other things besides my father. I wondered if, of the many ways I was reluctant to admit we were alike, his quiet assent of reality would be one of them, that he would bequeath that valor to me.
Now as he lay in the darkness of his room, with the drone of the oxygen machine ticking off the seconds, I thought about how, in my story teller’s brain, I could have never imagined this. That I would be with him in those moments. Nothing in our history assumed we would share that eminent conclusion of the life he’d lived for nearly a century. Neither of us had seemed to have earned it. I went to him again and crawled up gently on the bed by his side. I took his hand and held it. I listened to his breaths, hard and steady. He seemed to be breathing out, out, out, instead of in.

I thought of the breaths he had given me, and the breaths we all take, most with no thought for them. After a few moments I felt his fingers tighten around mine, and again he pulled me close. It was as if my father were holding me for the first time. There were no words. But there was a gentle fullness that covered us, like a comfort being offered us, and with our hands clenched together, he and I, we took it.

Gina Harlow has written professionally for business for several years. She has co-authored a food and gardening column distributed through Hearst King Features. Her essays are published by the Austin American Statesman, and The Alamo Bay Writers’ Workshop Anthology. She is writing a memoir of her unlikely relationship with a young untrained horse.