My father died three weeks ago. He was 94 years old, and he had lived a good life. He was a good man. I’d like to write something funny for him because he loved a joke better than anyone I’ve ever known. I’d like to make him laugh. But I can’t do that right now.
Because he was 94, I thought, as a grown woman over fifty, I was prepared for his leaving. He had, after all, become less of himself over the past few years. His personality, which was once happy and somewhat mischievous, had dwindled. He’d always been a cheerful and accommodating man; now he could be grumpy. Although he still took enjoyment in things and people, it was on a smaller scale. In earlier days, he had loved to travel to distant places, eat strange new foods; now he was just as satisfied by field trips from his Assisted Living Facility to the local mall with its chain restaurants.
I had actually thought–because he was this diminished version of himself–that I would adjust fairly easily to his death, that I was even ready for it. I had told myself it might make life easier, in some ways. I wouldn’t have to worry about Daddy falling in his bathroom or being bed-ridden in a dreaded nursing home. I wouldn’t have to feel uneasy any more when I went to visit him and tried to think up topics of conversation that he would enjoy. My oldest sister, the manager of his finances, wouldn’t have to worry about him ordering $900 worth of coins from a scam artist on television. Things would be all nice and easy. After all, he was 94 years old!
But when your father dies, your father dies. It doesn’t matter how old he is or how diminished or sick he has been or that he may have had a massive stroke and does not even recognize you when you walk in his hospital room. That person hooked up to wires is still your father, or, in my case, still the person who sang me out-of-tune, homemade lullubies, waited up for me after Saturday night dates in high school, and sent me $25 checks in graduate school with just brief messages like, “A little something to keep the wolves from the door. Love, Daddy.”
So, even if I may not have realized it by the hospital bed, I got it the instant he was gone. After all the wires and machines and nurses had disappeared, that near-stranger became, almost instantly, the father I knew and loved, the man who had raised me.
I wasn’t prepared for that. Any more than I was prepared for these weeks since then.
I miss my father on a gut level. And grief comes in waves. I’ll do fine, until I see something he would have enjoyed–a scratch-off lottery ticket, a comic strip, an amusing and informative obituary–and I’m gone. Or I’ll be at work, trying to be normal and act as if nothing has happened, and someone will ask how I’m doing, and I’m gone again. And, because my mother died five years ago and I am now officially an orphan, I am gone into a deep, dark place of childish fear and overwhelming sadness. (It’s strange how my father’s death has made the wound of my mother’s death fresh again.)
All of this makes me remember a time in Berlin, Germany, when I was almost seven years old. I was walking down a busy street, holding what I thought was my father’s hand, when I looked up to discover a stranger looking down at me. The man was my father’s height, and, like my father, kind enough to let me go chattering along until I discovered my mistake naturally–but he was clearly not my father. In an instant, before I turned and saw my father behind me, waiting patiently, afraid to scare me by interrupting my story, I was completely lost and terrified. My story was gone from my head. Berlin was no longer anything like a city I wanted to visit.
Just like my seven-year old self, I have been stopped, mid-sentence, to discover that my father is gone. And all I want to do is what I did then: plant my feet firmly on the ground, draw in a deep breath, and scream at the top of my lungs, perhaps even loud enough for him to hear me again: “Daddy!”