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Watching Daddy Die

The email from my father’s wife said that he had fallen and broken several ribs. After a horrific night in the emergency room he was, for reasons unfathomable, sent home. But the next day the pain was so much and his condition so worsened that he was checked into the hospital. Further, the email said, his doctor offered the probability that he might never get out. But knowing that my father had explicitly told his wife (and everyone else) that he would not die in a hospital, there was every effort being made to get him well enough to go home.

My father and I do not get along. I do not know him and understand him less. Sometimes I wonder what there is to know. He does not talk much and when he does he talks of nothing serious or important. This has been going on for years; it is our dance. He will ask: How is your marriage? I lie and say fine. He will say: How are you fixed for money? I will tell him I do not want to talk about it. This is because my father is not offering me anything; he just wishes to let me know that I am not taking good enough care with what I have.

With my mother’s Alzheimer’s and my father’s myriad of illnesses, my sisters and I have decided that the answer to every question will now be Fine. There is no need to burden my mother with bad news that will upset her briefly and she will then almost immediately forget, and no need to talk things over with Daddy. Mother does not know how ill Daddy is. They have been divorced for more than twenty-five years, but she still cares deeply for him and asks frequently about him. The last time they saw each other she was shocked at his condition; he feels bad about hers, he says.

I planned a trip as soon as I could go and one of my sisters decided to go with me. My youngest sister, who had just seen him two weeks earlier, said she would wait until we got there to report. “If we all show up,” she said, “he’ll know for sure that he’s going to die.”

This is my father’s fourth hospitalization since March– two of those were for a urinary track infection that turned systemic and could not be gotten rid of. I had visited him in between two of his hospitalizations. He was back home and exhausted.

I love my father. But.

Turns out he had also had a heart attack, either when he fell, or it was the cause of the fall. His heart, severely compromised already, was not pumping hard enough to keep him going. We sat, my sister and I, in his tiny dark hospital room, and watched Daddy watch television. The US Open golf match was on all the days. My father tried to teach all his girls to play golf for a brief moment in our youth, but it never stuck. I now know more about golf and golfers than I ever want to know.

Is it selfish of me to want those hours back?

In the past ten years my father has had at least three other heart attacks, for strokes that I can remember as well as numerous other “incidents.” He has had wounds that would not heal. He has emphysema from a lifetime of smoking but also, I believer, from forty years owning and managing a cotton batting factory. He has congenital heart failure. He is on fulltime oxygen and he can barely walk, even with a walker. His body is a mess.

Each time he seems like he is on death’s door, he walks away from it unopened. It would be interesting to know what keeps him alive. What strength of will, what desire. He does not read, does not use the internet, does not have a hobby. He sees old friends and goes to dinner. Occasionally he will see a movie. He has not been able to play golf, his one love outside of work, in many years. He sold his business, wisely, well before the crash and has been retired for more than ten years. For the first several, before he got so sick he and his wife traveled. He always liked that. For the past several summers save one, he has been able to go to his island house for several months. There he spends a lot of time in front of the television. Just like at home. But in a different room and in a different chair.

I said to my sister: Obviously Daddy is staying alive to watch another golf match. She said to me: It’s a good thing there is one on next week. Does this conversation sound terrible? Perhaps it is terrible. Perhaps I just can’t get my mind around what it is that he keeps rallying for. I don’t believe it is my sisters and me. Or our children. Perhaps it is his wife. But she must be weary, too, of the ups and downs, the scares, the emergency room visits, the years of taking care of an invalid.He did tell me once, in a very rare moment of candor a couple of years ago, that she is the one who has kept him alive. But he added, “I am not sure if that is a good thing or a bad thing.” He did not elaborate. I did not ask him to.

When I visited him three weeks ago, it was the first time I had seen him since late summer. I had tried to arrange visits but weekends were either full for Daddy and his wife, or complicated by events having to do with my very busy high school-aged daughter. Visits were planned and then not carried out. I began to feel guilty. It was hard to visit him and I had to acknowledge that.

But when Daddy came out of the hospital between the second and third visits (he would go back in two days after I left), it was spring and my daughter and I just got in the car and drove the five and a half hours to see him for a few days.

We spent most of the weekend watching television. I do not remember what was on. My father sat in his special room, in his special chair, with the television on. My daughter and I wandered in and out, trying to make conversation. She was lively and talked a lot about what she had been doing. We went out for breakfast once and dinner once. It was, as always, a bit of a struggle with Daddy’s oxygen and walker, but he seemed to enjoy himself. It is always difficult to tell.

I told my father that my children send their love and best wishes, which they do, sincerely. They love their grandpa and remember him as he used to be. He was not good with them when they were babies but later he amused them with his jokes and silliness; his girlfriend, and then, later, his wife, made sure the kids visited and were entertained and looked after. They have good memories of those days. I did not tell him of the hand grenade my son handed me a few weeks ago. I did not talk about the fact that an agent wishes to see my entire new manuscript and that it still needs work. The fact remains that while he is still alive that I will never have the kind of success that means success to him. I have brought the manuscript with me but I cannot do much on it: I am too distracted and the tiny room affords no place to get comfortable.

My sister and I relieve my father’s wife and sit and sit for hours watching Daddy watch television. We make sporadic conversation. Daddy asks me if I made any money on the essay I had published in an anthology which I showed him on my last visit. I say yes. He wants to know if I will get royalties from the book. I say no. My sister and I leave each day after seven. We go out to dinner with my father’s wife and then we fall into bed. I do not sleep well.

My sister has told me more than once, more than several times, that I need to resolve my issues with my father. I tell her I have. She looks at me askance. She’s right. I wish I had, I would have liked to, I think I have. But I haven’t. And there will be no death bed confession from him, no apology. Why should there be? According to him, he has done nothing wrong. According to me? That’s another story.

The passive aggressive Father’s Day card I sent him sits, opened early, on the windowsill of the hospital room. It says things about fathers who believe in their daughters making them strong. He does not mention it. Nor do it. I wonder what his reaction was when he opened it. Did he think it sincere or a message? Did he think about it at all?

My sisters have long agreed that Daddy does not like me. Once, I even got him to admit it, but if I had thought that would begin a breakthrough in our relationship, I had been sorely wrong. I am, he continues to think, too much like my mother, his ex-wife. Too extravagant with emotion, too heady, too serious. I am those things but I am much much more. He stopped seeing me when I was a self-absorbed teenager and nothing I have done has ever changed that.

Nonetheless I have honored him, like the commandment instructs. He is my father.

When my sister and I arrived, Daddy lay dozing in his hosptial bed. He looked pale and fragile and very sick. Each time he coughed, he winced in pain and grabbed his side. It broke my heart to look at him, small and thin and so deeply unhappy even though we had prepared ourselves for the worst. But then we had been doing that for years and every time the phone rang late at night each of us was sure it would be The Call.

Yet, when my sister and I left four days later, Daddy was sitting up in a chair, looking almost chipper. He gave the woman who took his lunch order a hard time; he teased the nurses. The next day he was moved to a transition unit to undergo physical therapy in preparation for his return home.

Once again, Daddy has rallied, risen like a phoenix from the ashes.