Dad had every intention of making it to 300 like the maharishi he’d read about in a magazine. He’d outlive me if it could be done by the sheer force of his will. At 82 Dad was Mr. Carrot Juice, poster boy of healthy living.
Dad hopped a plane to Guatemala—a penny pincher’s paradise, he called it—as he had several times before. On his last trip he’d grabbed hold of the back end of a truck for a tow up a mountain on his bicycle. Dad hadn’t worked since he was forty, unless you counted charting his stocks, so this trip was less a vacation and more a wandering.
Imagine our surprise when Dad’s expatriate friends tattled he’d been sick in bed. A heartbeat later they hot-potatoed him back to me.
Dad was peeved. The weakness would pass with an extra dose of self-doctoring, he claimed.
I was peeved. In top form Dad proved a pain in the seat of the pants as a house guest. Sick, he’d be unbearable.
Annie, 17, was peeved when Dad recovered enough to proclaim Guatemalan children better behaved than American kids.
Soon, he pronounced himself fit and ready to collect his camper from Agua Caliente, Arizona.
Jim and I drove Dad to a gnarled date farm run by a few octogenarian remnants of the Children of Light, a celibate religious cult. Though not an official member, Dad loved these people and felt accepted by them. Dad gave us a tour of the rambling white house and outbuildings, shaded by ancient date palms. An aging Olympic-sized swimming pool rippled in the February desert sun.
We said our good-byes, thinking the gentle, crepe-skinned Children and their compound would be a good place for Dad to continue curing himself.
A couple weeks later Dad boomeranged back to us, with an intestinal bug he’d picked up in Guatemala.
Mom was the nurse in the family, the one with a gift for dealing with eew. Not me. Why hadn’t I shared my brother’s good sense to settle on Maui in the furthest corner of the United States?
By the time we deposited Dad in our guest room, his dysentery had blessedly run its course. If I believed in Karma, I would have racked my brain for some past act of valor—casting off the lifeguard stand to save a coed in the college pool, shaving my head to comfort a cancer patient. But I hadn’t done anything worthy of the pass I’d been dealt from Dad’s diarrhea.
Now that the scourge had departed, Dad perked up and headed for Quartzite, Arizona, another of his favorite haunts where he hunted shiny stones at the flea market to give my mostly grown kids.
Worry niggled us. Other than a couple head colds a decade, Dad never got sick. He loathed doctors. If something dire were going on, he’d never know, much less buck up to treatment.
A month later I got a call from the Isaiah 58 Project in Quartzite who said Dad’s skin and the whites of his eyes had turned yellow. The fact that Dad, who had a thick investment portfolio, was hanging out at a homeless ministry was so perfectly Dad that it didn’t even register. What did concern me was the color yellow. I could picture Dad oranging on carrot juice. But yellow?
We collected Dad and the family caucused. Even with the boys and I carrying Dad’s color-blind gene, we agreed he’d gone yellow.
I sat across from his bed, Jim beside me for moral support. “What if you’re really ill?”
Dad shook his head. “Haven’t I devoted my life to healing myself?
I glanced at the misshapen ankle he’d splinted himself and hobbled on for twenty years. How’s that working for you?
“I’m not going to a doctor.” Dad’s final answer.
I sighed. “Okay. Fine. But what if, heaven forbid, you die at my house? I read about a guy who died at home, then the police investigated his relatives. Let me call hospice—just for my protection. Hopefully, you’ll rest and get better. But, just in case…”
After much debate and countless reassurances that Uncle Sam and hospice, wouldn’t shanghai his savings, Dad said yes.
The hospice nurse rode up in her white Dodge Charger, commandeered Dad into signing on the dotted line, and promised more help than I could comprehend.
Dad called her bossy.
I wanted to kiss her on the lips.
After a string of middle-aged nurses marched into his room in the following days—commiserating over his complaints, smiling, holding his hand—he grumbled more quietly.
A roundup of geriatric items that seemed wrong for my age-resistant father flowed into our house—a hospital bed, adult potty chair, morphine, Depends.
Mom, her sensibilities on a long, slow slide toward senility and newly separated from her check book and car keys, sat by Dad’s bedside, ministering to her last patient. I don’t know what they talked about as I escaped to the grocery store to buy some normalcy. But it had to be poignant—a love powerful enough to persevere divorce, remarriage, and a lifetime apart.
By two weeks after Quartzite, Dad had deteriorated drastically. The hospice doctor’s supposition, unconfirmed by tests—liver cancer—hung in the house.
Jim and I migrated from thinking Dad might recover to believing the disease would play itself out in the coming weeks or months.
Dad didn’t believe he was dying. According to his calculations he had a good 200 years left. He decided to submit to tests.
Dad lay between antiseptic sheets, a grown-up version of Charlie Brown’s Pig Pen, in a pristine room in Gilbert Mercy Hospital—without his packrat collection of notebooks and magazines and tools. Without a single piece of rotting fruit.
He begged us to take him home.
Nine hours after he arrived, Dad signed himself out of the hospital against the doctors’ recommendation—with a diagnosis.
Liver and pancreatic cancer.
A thousand pounds of despair descended.
Dad said little. He’d devoted his life to health and failed—not so different from failing to win a berth as a backstroker on the 1948 Olympic team. Dad wouldn’t see 82 years as a full life just as he didn’t count the Olympic trials an impressive coup.
Jim talked to him about Jesus. I talked about heaven.
When Dad’s sister, Gloria, arrived just in time to wield the Bible and Depends, I did kiss her.
I fed Dad his last apple sauce, dropped water into his mouth with a straw. He slipped into a coma. Jim later called my kindness to Dad in the last three weeks of his life an act of love and valor.
I woke early on Saturday morning, March 8, 2008, and found Dad thrashing, but not coherent. I prayed loud prayers, invoking Jesus, ushering Him into the room—whether for Dad or for me, I wasn’t sure. Did Dad fight death or God?
The familiarity of my voice calmed him.
I prayed softer, then sunk into a chair while he slept. At 7 a.m. I got up and went about my day—garage saling with Carol Rivers.
An hour later Jim called to say Dad died.
I didn’t cry. I haven’t cried in the seven years he’s been gone.
When I was a little girl he’d stop up my tears with, “I’ll give you something to cry about.”
He finally had.
But I didn’t feel like crying.
Though the last three weeks of Dad’s life brought us closer than we’d ever been—I felt only relief. Relief that his suffering was over. And relief that the suffering that permeated us was over.
A friend said recently she hoped when her hyper-critical parent died, she would finally feel like she measured up in life. I hope it happens that way for her.
But Dad’s death didn’t free me from the disappointment he’d etched it into my cells in childhood. I believe I would have worn my father’s stamp of failure the rest of my life.
Except for Luke.
My third-born son harps on the fact that God is a good daddy who loves us utterly. In high school Luke practiced rhythms on a drum pad till our brains rattled in our heads. For the last several years, he’s beat on this one idea. And he’s rattling me down to my cells.
I’m seeing God as a Daddy who claps when I twirl, who wakes me up on my birthday with balloons, who delights in me just because I’m me. He sees my flaws, and loves me anyway. He celebrates my successes. And when I screw up, He holds out a hand to help me up.
Dad played my temporary father. He loved me, maybe as well as he could have. But I have another Father, the One who created me. He knows me to my core and loves every cell from a good and perfect heart. God is my forever Daddy.