Here’s one way to write about the father dying: A woman sits on the edge of an old man’s bed and holds his hand. She stares at his face and waits for him to inhale. He doesn’t. Her face contorts, she convulses with sobs.
This is a true scene. This scene is a cliché. This scene describes exactly how my father died.
The story about my father’s death begins at the end.
My father resides in a nursing facility in Indiana, a ten-minute drive from my home. I pull a chair alongside his bedrail. He is dying. When I cradle my father’s hand in mine, I am surprised—it’s soft, a little puffy, and not much bigger than my own. The thin blanket that covers him rises as he inhales. He exhales in small snores. I smooth my cheek against his. I cry, knowing each breath could be his last. My chest is icy, feels raw like a wound. The nurse walks in, and asks me if I need anything. I tell her no and think that my father and I must look like the cliché.
I wonder if my father deserves to have his hand held while he dies. I like to think I’m sitting with him because it’s the right thing to do, not because I’m still trying to win his approval, but I’m not sure. I wanted to be enough for this man, but I wasn’t. I hate this man. But I can hold his hand while he dies; this is something I can get right. I love this man.
The story about a father’s death requires groundstory.
In the ’60s my father read to me from “365 Bedtime Stories” in our apartment by the San Francisco Bay, the lonely call of the foghorns sounding in the background. Saturdays we walked along 19th Avenue to the synagogue where he chanted kaddish for his father. As we strolled, the morning fog burned off and I cozied my tiny hand in his suit jacket pocket. Impossibly tall with olive skin and thick dark hair, my father looked like Desi Arnaz on I Love Lucy. My father. To me, he was everything. I wished I could shrink myself so I could crawl into his flannel pocket and curl up there like a baby kangaroo in the pouch of its mother.
The story about a father’s death mentions the mother.
Wrapped in a frayed pink bathrobe, the woman who was my mother sat at the kitchen table like a figure in the wax museum. Smoke spiraled from the pyramid of cigarette butts in her ashtray. “Mom?” She looked up at me, her eyes pink and glassy, without answering. In her bedroom amber vials of pills cluttered the top of her dresser. One day the kitchen chair was empty. My father took me to see her, and held my hand as a nurse escorted us behind the locked door of the psych ward at UCSF. When my mother was released she rented a studio apartment in a neighborhood called the Tenderloin. I told myself that I didn’t need a mother. At her funeral two decades ago, the sun shined a relentless blue as a rabbi I didn’t know conducted the service that was attended only by my father, me, and a handful of strangers.
The story about a father’s death deviates from the expected.
Fog rolled in from the Golden Gate Bridge and blanketed our apartment in the Sunset district every evening, but it also came at other times and stole the sun randomly during the day. Once I looked through the window at school and noticed the gauzy sky. It had been sunny that morning, and the mist had crept in so slowly I hadn’t noticed the change. It was just this way with my father. At some point in second grade I realized he had stopped reading me bedtime stories. He had stopped watching Cronkite with me in the living room and spent evenings in his bedroom. At night I heard him sobbing through his bedroom door. What was wrong? I didn’t know. I had to save him. I didn’t know how.
The story about a father’s death pivots around the idea of failure.
In the ’60s, single dads did not raise their children. I’m too much for him, I thought. In the Haight-Ashbury, a neighborhood not far from ours, hippies turned on, tuned in, and dropped out, but for seven-year-old girls the expectations were clear: Be a helper. Share. Be nice. After school I tried to be like the moms on the TV shows I loved, Samantha on Bewitched and Lucy on I Love Lucy. I dusted bookshelves, mopped floors, and rearranged the pantry. My father came home from work and trudged upstairs. “Wait, Dad,” I said, “look.” I pointed to the almost-dry floor. “Later,” he said, “I’m tired. And next time use more cleaner.” I cooked dinner but made too big a mess. I cleaned the kitchen but didn’t wipe the table right. “Leave it here,” said my father as he moved the Cheerios to its original shelf in the pantry.
We ate our Salisbury steak TV dinners in silence, the drone of the refrigerator the only noise. Afterwards, we each went to our own bedroom, to our own television set. The voices of the news anchors, the kids on Zoom, and the sitcom dads filled my room with chatter and laughter. Through my bedroom window the foghorns sounded otherworldly, like winged animals from a book of fairy tales, mourning.
As I watched, the screen of my twelve-inch black and white TV seemed to dissolve. On The Brady Bunch, as Alice served dinner, Mike Brady smiled and asked me about my day. On Bewitched when Darrin Stephens came home he scooped me up in his arms. Maybe if I was blonde and cute like his TV daughter, Tabitha, my life would be different. No one had thought to show me how to wash my brown hair that hung over my forehead in oily ropes. My dry lips cracked and bled. I wet the bed. At night as I tried to fall asleep, I wished for something I couldn’t name—for someone to caress my forehead, to look into my eyes and smile. A prickly sweat coated my skin. Streetlamps outside my window created shadows that crept over my walls. I stared, afraid to move.
The story about a father’s death enters uncharted waters.
My father flew us east every summer to visit his sister and her husband in St. Louis. After dinner we all relaxed in the den and watched the huge console television. My uncle settled into the big recliner, pulled out his manicure kit and filed his nails. Evening darkened into night. My aunt went to bed. When the news anchors appeared on the screen my father turned in. My uncle moved to the couch where I sat. His smooth fingers pushed under my t-shirt and inside my shorts. The voice in my head screamed Stop! but no sound came. The voice silently yelled Get Up! but my muscles deadened, as if filled with cement. In the mornings the sky blazed swimming pool-blue. My aunt made breakfast. I began each new day in St. Louis as if nothing bad had happened the previous night. My uncle never told me not to tell. He didn’t have to.
The story about a father’s death is about what’s unsaid.
I willed myself to forget my uncle’s hands, but my body held the memories. When my uncle’s image flashed on my retinas, my muscles steeled. My legs locked in place. I couldn’t walk. My ribs corseted and I struggled to inhale. Time passed like the slow drip of a faucet. I graduated high school. I graduated college. I nabbed a job. My life unspooled on a sea of silence.
The story about a father’s death becomes unrecognizable.
The moment I heard some cousins mention that my aunt and uncle had started babysitting, time stopped. Just shy of thirty, I pictured a slip of a girl, like the one I used to be, sitting on the couch next to my uncle. I dialed my father. “He abused me,” I said, my voice trembly. Silence. My heart flapped in my chest like a speed bag being pummeled by a boxer. “Dad?” He cleared his throat. “What do you think you’re doing?” he said. “This isn’t a headline. Stop. You’re going to upset the family.” I pulled the receiver away from my ear and stared at the black plastic. Heat rose in my throat and up my cheeks, and I slammed the phone into its cradle, over and over, picturing my father’s face.
The story about a father’s death shatters.
In casual yet strained conversations that took place over the years after my disclosure, my father told me that when he visited St. Louis he stayed at his sister and brother-in-law’s house. As if it didn’t matter. Hate ballooned in my chest.
The story about a father’s death becomes incomprehensible.
Over the years my father left me strange voice mails. “I can’t imagine what you’ve gone through,” he said, gulping between sobs. My heart sprinted. Could it be true that he finally believed me? But the messages made no sense. He never said my uncle did anything wrong. He never said he was sorry for ordering me to be silent. My father, I realized, was trying to get me to comfort him. I lay awake in the dark, crying.
In the story about a father’s death relationships become facades.
Our conversations were all weather and headlines. Once, when he mentioned, again, and casually, that he had visited St. Louis and stayed with his sister and brother-in-law, I broke our unspoken agreement not to talk about the abuse. “Why do you have to stay there?” I asked. “I don’t know what you think he did,” my father said. “You must have misinterpreted.” My heart balled into a fist. I hung up. I vowed, as I had done before, never to speak to him again. But I always did. I couldn’t help myself. I was powerless under the weight of my father-hunger.
When my father came to Indiana, where my husband and I had settled, to visit my kids on their birthdays, he gushed over their art projects, bragged about their report cards, spent long afternoons at the kitchen table with them playing Texas Hold’em. My kids needed their grandfather—that’s what I told myself.
I loved my husband but I pined for my father. TV love scenes showed a field of tall grass, a man and a woman running toward each other. I loved my father with the same fierce, unyielding passion. It was torture.
In the story about a father’s death the daughter becomes unhinged.
During one of his visits my father, who loved dessert, sat at the kitchen table reading the sports page and asked, “Sue, got any of those ice cream bars?” “No,” I said and I quietly walked into the dark, muggy garage. Opening the tall freezer, I reached behind the bags of boneless chicken breasts, and devoured an ice cream bar in the white light of the freezer’s bare bulb.
Moments of fleeting redemption rattle the narrative.
During the months before his death, as my father’s health declined, I began saying, “I love you,” and he actually, for the first time ever in my life said, “I love you, too.” We had a singular, easy conversation during which I told him how deeply he had hurt me over the years. He admitted he failed me and sounded contrite. He never said I’m sorry. I didn’t ask.
In the story about a father’s death the beginning reappears at the end.
When my father’s doctor told me my father was dying, something childlike in me reanimated. As a small girl I cleaned and cooked, but my father never appreciated my efforts. Now I would get this right. He didn’t want to leave the coast, but I insisted he move to Indiana. Once he arrived in the Midwest, his health nosedived. Vulnerable and afraid in the nursing home, he trusted me, no one else. At noon I scooted his wheelchair close to the lunch table, and cajoled him to please, please, eat one more forkful of macaroni and cheese. After lunch I tucked him in for his afternoon nap and left the building, exhausted. I hoped he would die soon. I was prepared.
In the story about a father’s death, the child is never prepared.
The phone rang. Bolt-upright in bed I squinted at the clock, 11:34. How many times had I seen this scene on television, an actor’s eyes snapping open at the call in the wee hours? I reached over my sleeping husband, and fumbled for the receiver, confused. Thoughts spun in my head like the wheel on Wheel of Fortune, but instead of cash prizes the rotating wedges denoted tragedies: Neighbor in ICU. Best friend in car wreck. Oh my God: My father.
The phone rang. The voice at the other end, I knew, would say my father was dying. Schroedinger’s cat darted into my thoughts. I hesitated. “Hello?”
In my closet I surveyed a stack of fleece pullovers. Whenever my friends teased me about always being cold I joked, Bury me in fleece. The red v-neck? No, I thought, your father’s dying! Not the ocean blue either: it was my favorite and after that night I knew I would never wear it again. My teenage daughter called the green a fashion disaster. I picked the green.
The story about a father’s death features Time.
I had to get to the nursing home before he died, hold his palsied hand, inhale his ancient scent, and kiss his forehead, the skin like soft paper. Would Time cheat me out of the chance to tell my father goodbye? Please, I begged Time. Please.
The car fishtailed and I stared through the windshield. My husband motored along the icy streets, the night snow-quiet. My hands tingled, and I was surprised at the slow, rhythmic tide of my breath. The darkness felt charged, as if it wasn’t me who was panicking but the air outside the car. The street was empty. Noiseless. Streetlamp halos made snowflakes look like fireflies. The night was wild with light.
As I pushed into the building I watched myself as I ran through the lobby like I was a bit character on an old crime show like The Mod Squad. My line read, “My father!” I shouted it as I ran past the receptionist.
Death is narrated in the present tense.
Room 210 smells like musty closet and pink soap. It’s nighttime quiet. I take in my father’s heavy eyelids, his beaked nose, his saggy, sallow skin. He looks like he’s sleeping. Golden lamplight illuminates the photos of my kids pinned to his bulletin board. Their smiles, forced, frozen in time, mirror the awkward, polite expressions they wear when they come to visit. So depressed the last few weeks, my father wouldn’t eat the Hershey bars I bought for him the week before at Kroger. They sit unopened on his dresser next to the hearing aid he refused. “I don’t want it,” he said, as if he preferred silence.
The story about a father’s death plunges the child into a unfathomable loss.
Stroking my father’s head, damp with sweat, I move my hand along his chest, inadvertently nudging the hard nub of his nipple. His body, still vital. Could the nurses be wrong? I half-expect him to wake up, complain that the food is too salty, that the staff takes too long to respond to the call button. “Dad!” I say loudly, and in the part between his lips I glimpse his tongue—slack, off center. Turning, I bury my head in my husband’s chest and cry.
The night is passing. My husband leaves to check on the kids. I hold my father’s hand and wait. The nurse comes. The room is quiet.
In the daughter’s imagination, the story draws toward a resolution.
Kissing my father’s hand, I weep, say I forgive you, say I love you. Imagining I’m the teenage daughter of a dying father in one of the ABC After School Specials I watched in the ’70s, I touch my lips to his forehead. If he could speak, he’d say I love you and I’m sorry, of course, I’m so, so sorry, I’m sure of it. My chests feels as though its filled with small, jagged stones.
In the story about a father’s death, Time fucks with the narrative’s pace.
How long will this take, this dying? It’s three a.m. Frustrated and bored, I grab the remote. The room animates with sound. Infomercials. The local pre-morning news. The Today Show. Harsh winter light seeps under the drapes. A nurse carries in a tray of Danish and a pot of black coffee. Momentarily caught off-guard, I realize: this is protocol. How many trays has the nurse delivered to daughters sitting by their dying fathers’ bedsides? Matt Lauer is talking over the soft rustle of my father’s exhalations, and I consider eating, but don’t. My father might die the moment I sink my teeth into a cheese Danish. On TV, daughters of dying fathers do not eat breakfast.
Just past ten a.m. my best friend, the first person outside my family to be in this singular world that smells like old clothes and urine, walks into room 210. “He’s making puffing sounds,” I say to her as I look down at my father. Only, he’s not puffing. A second passes. Another. He sucks in one small breath and exhales. I watch. Nothing.
Time thins and whitens. Hoda and Kathie Lee are laughing. My friend runs for the nurse. I turn off the TV, grip my dead father’s hand. Yesterday I brought him a slice of coffee cake. Hunched in his wheelchair he told me that I had disappointed him. Why had I put him in a nursing home? Why couldn’t I talk with him about things that interested him? I looked in his eyes and saw his despair, but I wanted to slap his cheek. I wanted to say Fuck You. I wanted to say Can’t you see how hard I’m trying to be what you need? Instead, I kissed his waxy, bald head and said, “Sorry you’re so unhappy.” Yesterday I said, “See you tomorrow.”
Grief messes with the story’s linearity.
I sit with my friend in the lounge and sob. I write an obituary. A nurse holds a clip board and states the time of death. My friend drives me to the funeral home. I make calls. Attendants wheel the body past room 210 and I watch my father, slipcovered in brocade, vanish into the elevator. It’s not snowing. I no longer need to cry. I tell the kids.
Later that afternoon, when my husband drives me back to the nursing home, I wait a moment before getting out of the car. How can I go inside? What will room 210 be like without my father? Will someone else’s father be lying in the bed?
The room looks bigger without my father in it. The bed is empty and unmade. In the silence I fold my father’s forty-year-old shirts, trousers, and socks, and place them in a brown grocery bag. I remove my kids’ photos from the wall. The room is almost bare. In the hall a walker clicks and the wheels of a medication cart rumble as they roll on the carpet. I stand in the doorway and take in the room. The only items remaining that belonged to my father are the Hershey bars and hearing aid. Clutching the grocery bag, I turn to leave. I’ll have to walk past the nurses station. How do I thank them? There was a woman who lunched with her mother and kept me company at the cafeteria table. I’ll never get to say goodbye. My father is dead. He has left me. Now I have to leave them.
Slush splashes against the sides of the car as my husband drives us home. My arms tingle and I stare through the windshield at the bright afternoon sun. My heart feels peeled and bruised. I want my father. His hand was in mine that morning. I can still feel its weight.
In the driveway I step out of the car and blink at the bright winter sky. I ponder my father, his small offerings, his colossal betrayals, the fifty years I spent hoping to merit his love. I yearn to fill my lungs with his old man smell. I want to crawl inside his skin so I’ll never be without him. The air around me has a quality I can’t name, as if my history with him is contained in the subatomic particles that are orbiting just above the surface of my skin. I’ll never again hear my father’s gravelly voice. I’ll never be able to run the back of my hand against his stubbly cheek. I breathe oxygen that existed before my father died and I imagine I can hold on to him by inhaling and those molecules seep through my lungs and become part of my body. But my father is only a memory.
My husband is holding open the front door, waiting. The distance between the driveway and the door feels vast. My legs won’t move. I know that once I’m inside our house, I will be a different person. I’m no longer anyone’s daughter. My father is dead. I haven’t yet said kaddish. During the day the sun melted the snow. Lawn that was white shimmers green in the sun, and the driveway is wet and shiny. My children are in the house. It was here that my father played hundreds of games of poker with them. My husband is waiting for me. My father is dead. I will my feet to move. Slowly, one lifts from the wet cement, and I step forward. My father died this morning. At the door my husband reaches for my hand. I step inside, and move around the house like a stranger.
So brave, so poignant, so well done. It’s s great piece Sue!
Susan Lerner says
Thank you so much for reading *and* for taking the time to leave this lovely comment. I really appreciate it!
Pam Parker says
This is a beautifully written piece. It will stay with me for some time! Kudos. Thank you for sharing and bringing us into this difficult loss with all its layers of love, distrust, longing and grief.
Susan Lerner says
Pam, thank you again. Your words mean so much. It’s so lovely to think how we met in Chamonix and the connection is still there. Keep me posted on your work!
This is wonderful, Susan. A deeply moving account that’s wrenching in its simplicity of language. Spare and searing. Bravo!
Susan Lerner says
Thank you, Dawn! I appreciate you taking the time to read the essay, and I appreciate you taking the time to comment. Many thanks!
Elizabeth C. says
You write so beautifully about pain and longing. An entire lifetime in a day. How do you reckon with a losing someone whose affection was so contradictory and amorphous? Really well done and brave.
Susan Lerner says
Thank you, Elizabeth! I appreciate you reading the piece and your thoughtful comments. Life and relationships are complex, aren’t they? Grateful for your kind words.
Angela Belcher Epps says
You truly capture the conflicted devotion of a child who is emotionally abandoned. This is such an important subject that can help parents be more available to their children. It also captures how children were so easily invalidated, and their wounds are often invisible until such stories shed light on their truths.
Alison Ernst says
There are so many things to admire in this strong and thoughtful piece. I particularly appreciate the 1960 and 70s television references: Zoom, afterschool specials, Brady Bunch (when it was still on during Prime Time.) The structure is compelling; the content is wrenching. Well done!