Friday, April 9, 2010

In which Primo meets my father

My dad died in 1997. August 27, 1997 at about 6:00 a.m. The nurse woke me up (my mom, my sister, my brother and I were staying at the hospice with him) and told me to come, it was time, but I lingered because I didn't want to see the life leaving my father, who had already been what they call "non-responsive" and what looked like comatose to me for two days. I lingered because I didn't want him to die and as soon as I entered his room and saw him dead, it was real. I lingered in my simple dormitory room with the four twin beds so that for a little while, he could still be alive to me.

But we can't stop death, can we? And when it happens, it changes everything and you wonder how the world goes on as if nothing happened. Princess Diana died a week after my dad did. Somebody asked me if I had watched her funeral and I answered no. Why did I care about the funeral of someone unknown to me when it had been only a few days since my father's funeral?

Primo never met my dad. My dad would have liked him, I know. Partly because my dad liked all of my friends and partly because Primo is a really likeable guy. I used to take my college boyfriend, R.M., home - the one to whom I was engaged and had the church and the dress and then changed my mind and yes I returned the ring I am not tacky - and would lose him almost immediately to my father, who would corral R.M. and ask him to play chess or help him with something in the garage. My female friends were put to work in the yard. My dad was an equal opportunity employer in that way.

My mom liked my boyfriends, too, so much that after I broke up with the second boyfriend they met, my mom asked me not to bring home any more until I was sure I was going to get married because she was tired of getting to know these guys and then never getting to see them again.

My mom and I tell Primo about my dad but it's not the same as meeting in person. But Primo does get a chance to see what my dad is like. We made a video of my dad when he was dying. Slightly macabre, maybe, but better than nothing at all. Someone lent us a video camera and we kept it in his room and filmed him talking and telling stories. My mom made me a copy of the tape after my dad died but I couldn't bear to watch it.

Finally, almost 13 years after his death, I decide it's time. I want Primo to see my dad. We put in the video and there he is. He's so thin. So pale. Eight months of cancer, chemo and metastisis will do that. Make you lose half your body weight. All your hair. The irony of it all is that if my dad had not been so healthy, the chemo would have killed him way before the cancer (non-Hodgkin's lymphoma) did. He thought he'd pulled a muscle running a 10K. Nope. It was cancer growing in his abdomen. Who knew?

But at this moment, he is cheerful. Even though he is dying. The cancer has spread to his spine, paralyzing him from the waist down (I am not even going to go into the indignities that implies but just think about it), and somehow affecting his nerve endings such that even the weight of the sheet on his skin is painful. Fortunately, the doctor will give my dad as much morphine as he wants, so we can keep him as pain free as is possible.

I wonder how he can be so cheerful and I ask Sister Jovita, the nun who runs the ward, about it. She is careful, but tells me after my dad dies that he would confide his fears in her. He didn't want to worry us, she says.

To us, he says, "Why not me?" when we rage about the injustice of his cancer and ask, "Why him?"

"Why am I so special that I shouldn't get sick?" he asks.

It's as if the cancer strips him of all the externalities and reduces his personality to its bare essence: a good-natured, happy man who loved his family. He did not whine when bad things happened. He took what life gave him and tried to make the best of it. He never got bitter, but maybe that's because he was never a bitter man to begin with.

In the video that Primo and I watch, my dad tells stories about bike riding in Panama, where we lived when I was in high school. He tells stories from his childhood - about the time that he and his brothers and cousins tipped over an outhouse and when they dragged the gate from the cattle-hauling truck to the sidewalk, where it rested, full of calf poop, until my grandmother, in her new fur coat, walked. And slipped. And let loose words that my dad claims he had never heard before. He tells the story of blowing up the basement when he was in high school and trying to make rocket fuel.

The video doesn't show the going-away party we held for him with his mom and brothers and sisters in law and our other relatives who could come. We had champagne and my aunt Pat made a pitcher of Old Fashioneds. We talked about who he was going to see in heaven: his father, who died in 1967, his best friend Harry S., who died in a ship's fire, our cat O'Malley. Yes, your pets go to heaven. I don't care what the theologians say. How can it be heaven if your pets aren't there?

The video does show the two-pound bag of M&Ms sitting on the nightstand next to my father. It remained untouched for the week he was in that hospice bed. A miracle, but not the one we wanted.

"I would have liked your dad," Primo says.

"I know," I tell him.


  1. I lost my father to an aortal aneurysm when I was in my late 20's. He was dead a few hours after it burst so I never had the chance to say goodbye or capture those final memories.

    We always had a great relationship so I don't regret that part. I do regret that my wife and kids never had a chance to meet him. We named my son after him, and as a toddler he started making this one unconscious gesture my father always used to make. When he's concentrating really hard on something, he sticks the tip of his tongue out of the corner of his mouth, which I've never done. It's a little eerie.

  2. This is beautiful and incredibly touching. I'm sorry you all had to lose such an amazing man long before anyone would have wanted.