I am not much of a drinker/carouser/party girl, so until nine years ago St. Patrick’s Day passed me by without fanfare. I don’t drink green beer (gluten sensitivity prevents it) or have much of a hankering for corn beef and cabbage.
Nine years ago my relationship to this day shifted.
It turned out to be the final day and the final few hours I would spend with my father.
It was two days before spring break. I got home from teaching and found his car parked in front of my mother’s house. He’d been coming in every day for the prior four weeks, spending hours with my mom while I taught my classes, regaling her with stories about his recent trip to the Philippines. At that point in time my parents had been divorced for twenty-five years, longer than they were actually married. My dad had a series of four additional wives after my mom, but I think he knew she was the “real deal” for him — the one that he shouldn’t have walked away from. Despite that fact, it is also clear that their divorce probably saved my mom’s life. My dad was a child his whole life in a lot of ways, so when they parted when I was eighteen, she eventually got to a place of peace with the whole mess. As I walked in, they were in deep conversation. My mom was cooking BLTs and my father greeted me with a smile. He looked tired, but I didn’t really mark the day as any different than the ones preceding it. We settled around the table and chatted over our sandwiches and mugs of hot coffee. Outside the weather was damp. The sky grew overcast as the afternoon wore on, but no rain fell.
I can’t say that I remember much of what we talked about that day prior to the phone ringing. It jangled and my mom got up to answer it. I could tell from her demeanor that something was off. She started to cry. “No, I understand. Yes, I will. I will call Geneva. Yes. I will call you back tomorrow once we have reservations.” She hung up. “I can’t believe it,” she said, slumping down into her chair. “Patty has cancer.”
Her older sister, my aunt, had terminal cancer.
Both my father and I were stunned.
“She wants me to come see her. I am going to contact Geneva, so we can book a berth on the train to Chicago.”
She called my younger brother and set the trip in motion. She was inconsolable and distracted by what was, on all accounts, truly awful news. My father and I finished our coffee mostly in silence. As it got dark, he realized he should head home. At 76, his eyesight was not good at night. He seemed to be feeling pensive as we walked out to his car. He’d grown more crippled in recent weeks and he relied on me to steady himself, holding onto my arm and gripping my hand tightly. I worried about him driving, but I told myself that he’d be OK.
As we got to the car, he looked at me, his dark eyes intent. “You’ve been such a good daughter. You’ve always taken such good care of me.” His candor was unexpected and I teared up.
“I love you, Daddy,” I said, hugging him tight.
“I love you, too,” he said holding me for just a moment longer.
He settled into the car and I closed his door. As he turned the ignition, he winked at me one last time. He backed the car out, and as he drove away, he tapped the horn twice.
I watched the car until he reached the end of our street. I watched his blinker flashing and the color of the car as it turned.
Then he was gone.
That next day was a whirlwind of activity. My aunt Geneva arrived from San Juan Island. My younger brother booked seats on the Amtrak to Seattle for the two of them. Once in Seattle, they’d catch the eastbound train to Chicago. Patty lived in a small town several hours drive from there. All day, the house was a flurry of activity. Bags were packed, snacks bought and packed, clothes ironed. We didn’t hear from my father. It was unusual because we’d seen him virtually every day since the end of February, but we didn’t think much about it. Too much was happening.
He did drive into town that day, March 18, 2003. He went to see a woman about his assisted living situation in Seattle. He was scheduled to move there in three days’ time.
That night I couldn’t sleep. I could hear my mom and Geneva talking, trying to unwind for their departure the next morning. Around 1 AM, someone knocked on our front door. It was the county sheriff. I got up to see what was going on. My mom was shutting the front door as I walked into the room. Her face was gray. She looked straight at me.
“Your father died tonight.”
I remember feeling like those words hung in the air; like I could literally see them falling from her mouth. For a moment, she held me, but I couldn’t stand the feeling of being contained. I walked away and paced through the house, numb with shock. I didn’t know what else to do.
The next morning my mom and my aunt left on their trip as planned. There was no talk of canceling it. Her sister’s time left was finite, and if my mom was going to see her, it needed to happen then.
After they left I sat in the silence of the house and watched deer munching on clover and fruit in the lot across the street. Then, I called my father’s sister and broke the news. I called his best friend. I called the funeral home and made arrangements to ship his body to Seattle for cremation. I sat in that empty house and delivered the news until everyone who should know, did know.
I think that we get through those first few hours/days/weeks in a state of unconscious stasis. I know I did. I made calls but I don’t remember the conversations. I culled his papers and sorted his belongings. I ordered death certificates and had his mail forwarded to me. I sent an email out to all my friends saying he’d died.
We didn’t have a memorial for him until his birthday, that June. I went back to teaching the next week, thankful for the distraction, thankful that my students needed me to function, answer questions, stay planted here on earth. At night, sometimes, I woke up crying. When I did, I found my little cat curled up next me on the pillow, doing her best to comfort me. Mostly though, I stoically soldiered on, as we all have to do.
From time to time, I see him in my dreams, his blurry figure reminding me of how much he believed in me, and in the woman I’ve become.
It’s been nine years, tomorrow.
The rawness of the loss never softens up or closes. You just get on with it.
For additional writing about my father, see my essay, “Feast of Losses” in my writing portfolio.
© 2012 Shavawn M. Berry All rights reserved
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