A friend and academic colleague named Lydia gently encouraged me to share more of my writing. After dispensing with the excuses of why I haven't posted more here, being as overextended as I am, I decided to share an excerpt from my next book, The Exile, currently in its final stages. The following is a narrative of one of the last times I saw my father in August, 2012, just prior to his ultimate hospitalization and death. [Re-edited May 23, 2015]
Saying Goodbye to Dad
In August, 2012, while I was in New York visiting my aging parents, we had to hospitalize my dad, when his progressing dementia caused him to become violent with Mom. He no longer recognized her, often thinking she was a mean intruder named Ruth. One night, as she tried to guide him to the bathroom in his stupor, he struck her. I had to call 911—for the safety of both of them. After the next couple of months of inpatient observation at the VA, we were forced to finally settle him into a small, modest nursing home that Mom had described as Little House on the Prairie meets retirement home.
The final night I was in New York for that trip, Mom and I went to the Woodbridge Home to see Dad. He was a bit tired and didn’t socialize with us very long. He sat in the chair in his room, mostly. We talked with him for a bit after getting him to the bathroom, which was always an endeavor. We had arrived fairly late, having to handle chores during the day, and so it was already about 8:30 PM when Dad started to fall asleep in his chair. I coaxed him to let me move him to the bed. He did so with relatively little resistance, but the five to six foot distance was still difficult on his legs.
Mom and I got him under the covers, his shoes off but his daytime clothing still on. We fixed the pillows behind his head; he needed two, with that ever present forward tilt to his neck. He was asleep in nearly no time at all, like a tired little boy. As Mom slumped in a chair behind me, struck with exhaustion from the day’s chores including her cancer treatments, I stood over Dad and watched him for a long time. Imagining myself laying on hands, as many spiritual communities do, I stood over him, sharing my energy with him, optimistically wishing that it would somehow contribute to his healing, a complete recovery of his body and mind. And soon, I could no longer stand above him like that, so I got down on my knees and gave him numerous kisses on the top of his head, where his bald pate had shown through hair that was still largely dark, raven colored. I stroked the top of his head as he slept soundly, rarely stirring except for a smile to acknowledge that I was there. He breathed gently.
I stared at every feature of his face, still so very young, like a man still in his sixties, ten or more years his junior. I studied the features that he had inherited from his mother, and those from his father. I noticed those that he shared with me, his son. I noticed how his face had become a little bit fatter from the antipsychotic medications the doctors now had him on, causing his girth to increase over the last month. I thought about how much I loved him, how much he meant to me; that even though there were times when we did not really connect in my youth, he was always there for me, ready to listen. He was ever my father, one of the gentlest people I had ever met, which made it so shocking when his delirium caused him to attack my mother, or continue to express himself through violent episodes while hospitalized.
I watched every breath and I considered what it would be like to lose him. I knew that at some point in my life, I would have to deal with that, but I prayed vehemently that it would not be soon. I was grateful that I had been there during the episode in which he had to be hospitalized; that I was not in California to receive the call from a stranger, or even a family friend; that I was there to witness it and help ameliorate it myself. I was grateful that nothing tragic had happened while I was not present. I had always prayed that I would never have to receive another phone call informing me of a tragedy. I always prayed that my parents would leave this world with me in the same room; that I would be there to hold their hands during the moment that each of them passed. And then a sudden wave of fear came over me, musing that if he were to pass, that now might be the time—while I was still in NY. I watched his breathing. It was steady. A few times it slowed or became imperceptible to me, and I became terrified. Seeing him continue to breathe, the emotion passed and I considered myself silly to have such thoughts. Hoping to effect good fortune, through the oft-cited “law of attraction”, I mustered up all my gratitude that I had him in my life for as long as I did, knowing that others did not have fathers for very long at all. I whispered to him, while he slept, how much I loved him; that I was so grateful he was my daddy. And I begged him to stay and not to leave us yet, telling him that I wanted more years with him, that I still needed to give him grandchildren. That it would be a shame for a man people were already calling “Pops” to have no grandchildren to justify that moniker.
I keenly felt the potential for loss, what I was every moment on the verge of losing. In some ways, I had already lost him, his mind no longer the same, and he no longer the same daddy that I knew. Welling up with tears, I wept by his bedside, pleading silently for him to return to us, speaking these words with all the love that had ever been held by a son for his father, like Aeneas carrying his elderly father Anchises on his shoulder, while fleeing from the burning city of Troy. Like some Greek hero readying himself to descend into the depths of Hades to retrieve the soul of his father, I pleaded with silent screams, just barely audible as whimpering sniffles and whispers. And I prayed silently, “Please God, bring him back to us. I don’t want to lose him just yet.”
And at that moment, I began to connect with all the pain and loss of every son (or daughter) that had lost their daddy at war, or at sea, or in a collapsed mineshaft. Every child that had lost their daddy to disease or to forced labor, or to the bullet of an invading army. Singing in my heart, “Daddy, I hardly knew ye”, substituting “Johnny” in my variation of the 19th century song, I was reaching out across time to those whose losses of a father paralleled mine. I felt a scream well up in me, first silently, and then begging, straining to get out my throat and into my mouth and on my tongue, jaws wide open, sound reverberating off buildings, echoing the loss that was felt throughout the ages by all of these children, my siblings in loss. And it seemed funny, almost embarrassing, to me that I was already 41 at the time (and he 77), decades older than these children of the ages, and that I still felt the keen sense of loss—or the potential thereof—by one so young.
And I felt unable—much more than unwilling—to leave his bedside. Like the night in 2003 when I finally moved out of my grad student apartment where I had been for several years, where I had survived a nearly fatal bout of meningitis, and my parents had come out to California on the spur of the moment to nurse me back to health and then spent two months there, sleeping in my living room on a fold out bed. At the end of my time in that apartment, I clung to the wall, as if hugging an old friend, and stayed there alone well into the night, sitting on the floor of an empty, swept and mopped apartment, not yet ready to let go. Just like that night, I knelt by my father’s bedside, showering him with all the love I had to give for this man that sired and raised me. And I wished I could do more for him. But I knew that at some point I would have to go, since I still had to pack for the next day’s trip. Knowing that there would never be a good time to leave, I just forced myself, duty bound, to get up and, with my mother in tow, to head toward the door. We said our goodbyes to the nurses’ aides, thanking them profusely, with heartfelt gratitude, and we left.
Just over a month later, Dad suffered a heart attack. I urgently flew back to New York again to be at his bedside, thinking that I might not even arrive to see him alive. But he did survive it and I stayed just under two weeks before I began to fear that if I missed any more work, my job would be in jeopardy. So when he showed slight improvement, I fooled myself into thinking that it would be safe to go back to Los Angeles, just briefly, promising him that I would return again as soon as possible. Still unable to speak, having just been taken off a ventilator, he nodded his assent. And so I returned to L.A. Within a few days, on the eve of Hurricane Sandy, he was dead. I had missed my chance to hold his hand as he died. Only a few weeks later, I returned to say the Kaddish at his memorial.