I have no one to buy a Father’s Day card for this year. Last year, on the Saturday before Father’s Day, my dad went to the hospital and never came home again. He died on August 26.
My dad was not my natural father. He married my mother when I was 10 years old, and adopted me when I was 15. When I was younger, I always told him “I’m glad we married you.” He loved me from day one. He was the guy who taught me how to ride a bike, throw a ball, and play chess and checkers. He found the special picnic spots on the river and brought the first dog home.
When he moved to Virginia from California 5 years ago, when he was 84, I was terribly pleased but amazed that he would leave the State where he had been born and lived for over 80 years. Then he got here, and I discovered that I did not really know the quiet man who had always been overshadowed, as was I, by my mother’s domineering personality. He was almost a stranger to me. It was hard to talk to him, and made even more difficult by his severe hearing loss. He was good one-on-one and face to face, but the subtleties that we all depend on—the comments tossed over the shoulder and the quick one-twos, were lost on him. When I picked him up for a visit to our house, our drives were silent. That was his “bad” side; and the good side did not hear well at all.
In his younger years, and even when he had just turned 80 and my mother was still alive, he was always the person who could fix anything and do anything. At 80, he was still going up on their roof to sweep off the pine needles and clean out the gutters, and chopping wood. It was hard to reconcile that person with the man who had given up his driver’s license before he moved out here and had trouble seeing to unlock his apartment door. I was always tired from long days at work, and I was impatient with all kinds of things. He was simply lonely, trying hard not to be a burden and not succeeding in a number of small ways. He complained a lot. I didn’t smile very much. We forged ahead, trying to be good to one another. He tried harder than I did. He blew up at me once; then called to apologize.
After his unexpectedly gangrenous, septic gallbladder was removed on Father’s Day weekend, he went into a decline that very quickly escalated into dementia. We know now that it was caused by the overwhelming infection from which he never recovered. Every night he was at an Air Force base or on the train to one. “Which city are we in now?” he’d say. “Maybe I’ll stay here at this base for awhile.” He dodged imaginary cars and other flying objects, and plucked imaginary bugs from his food tray. His hospital roommate was trying to kill him. The Hallmark channel on the TV was showing porn. And yet he always knew my name and who I was. “I’m sorry to be dying and leaving you behind,” he noted one day. “You love me, and you’ve always loved me,” he said on another It broke my heart. And then, at the end of the summer, he died.
The other day, I saw the bus from the independent living apartment complex where he lived, parked outside my grocery store. It was senior discount day. When I went in the store, it was like I saw him in every other aisle. “Did you know my father?” I wanted to ask an old man looking at soup. He wore a baseball cap, like my dad always did. What I really wanted was for that strange man to turn into my father, and I would throw my arms around his neck there in the canned soup aisle and sob and say that I was sorry for being so impatient and not spending more time with him and not being a much, much better daughter, and could I please have another chance? Because now that it’s forever too late, of course I know exactly what to do.
Driving home with the groceries, I thought about how I had wanted him to change: to not be old, not be deaf, not be antisocial, not be slow, not be stubborn. And it struck me hard that as far as I know, he had never wanted me to change in over half a century. He said once about a not-so-bright dog that he had owned, “She did the best she could.” He believed the same of me. He had only wanted me to be happy, always. He was quite a dad. I miss him so.