. . .
A few years later my dad died. During the five years of his illness when his vitality faded to confusion, then helplessness, I learned to father myself. In the process I also let him and all the other men in my life off the hook.
His death left me raw and wide open to whatever might come next. I did all the things you do when your dad dies. I acted brave and strong. I felt weak. I got drunk. I started my period.
Back up. I got very drunk. I got drunk on tequila in my living room with the beautiful carpenter and danced half-naked while we played DJ for each other playing songs that we loved and songs that were funny and horrible, like Funky Cold Medina (what does that mean, anyway?), Radar Love, American Pie and Paradise by the Dashboard Light. We played Eminem and Barry Manilow and sang to each other and drank more tequila. We took a midnight hike through the farm fields behind my house, then made drunk love for what seemed like hours. We woke up hung over as hell and made love again before rolling out of bed mid-afternoon and going out for breaded tenderloins and Cokes.
Later, while I ran errands he went back to my house and slept in my bed, texting me, “I smell really interesting. Dirt, sweat, sex, fried pork, French fries, tequila, all rolled into one.”
“Sounds delicious.” I sent back.
Something happened in those hours. I didn’t know tequila and dancing half-naked could lead to such intimacy, but how could I? I’d never trusted anyone enough to sing songs from the 80s with and dance half-naked and not feel judged. But like I said, I was raw and open.
Two days earlier I had I walked in to my dad’s hospice room when my mother looked up and said he was gone. But I already knew that because there was no presence of him in the room. When I leaned over to hug him, he felt like an empty, hollow vessel.
At the time, it didn’t bother me that he was dead in the room while my brothers and sisters came in one-by-one and realized, just as I did, that he was no longer there. It was just a body. But for several months after, I tried not to see again, what I saw when I walked in there. Him lifeless and already stiff-looking with his mouth frozen open and twisted upward, as if with his dying breath, after two days of not saying a word, he said something he wanted someone to hear.
But no one was there. My mother had gone up to her room to change after spending the night with him. The hospice nurse had bathed him and gone on to her next patient and he was alone, like we all are in the end.
Recently, I have allowed myself to see his face again. Really see it and let down my guard and feel things about it. And I’ve wondered often what that thing was he said in the end. “Sorry?” He said that a lot in the last months. No explanation. Nothing else. He just looked up at one or the other of us and said, “Sorry.”
Sometimes we’d ask each other what he meant by that. Depending on who was there I would say different things. If it was Ben, I would say something like, “I think he’s just saying sorry that we are all having to help him out.” And then Ben would reassure him, “It’s okay Papa. We want to be here.”
Sometimes when my dad would say “Sorry,” I wondered if he meant. ‘Sorry, I could be such a dick sometimes.’ or ‘Sorry, I didn’t spend more time with you when you were little.” or ‘Sorry, if I ever hurt you.’
But none of that really matters when you have been a dick to your own kids enough times and are are spoon-feeding soft foods to a dying man. I can’t say what does matter, but it’s none of those things.
It was more about who I was and what I did. What kind of forgiveness and kindness and love could I offer? I saw my siblings struggle with this in different ways. I saw tenderness from my brothers that was often times more than I could extend. Grown men staggering under the weight of their own lives lifting their dying father from chair to bed, patiently walking him down the halls, and fetching bed pans . . .