Erin Brockovich said that she felt the most powerful when her mother died in her arms, saying “Death is mysterious and frightening, but I had the strength to help my mother through it.”
This hit me like a ton of bricks tonight.
This week has been so introspective for me, with some thoughts from a dear friend that helped me change my perspective and open up to good things, to a conversation with someone who helped me better understand my strengths and how to best use them, and recognize when I’m in a situation where I’m having a hard time drawing upon these strengths.
And like tracers or echoes, my eyes and ears have been assaulted with everything that I’m recognizing. Where I’m successful, where I have difficulty. And the conundrum comes about…like discovering a secret – what do I do with this knowledge? Maybe I’m like Spider Man – with great power comes great responsibility…
Understanding that I may have been a source of comfort in my father’s last days is something that I’ve struggled with. Rushing back to that moment in time, I went into the room and knew that I was not going to be a little girl in there. Why? Because I always took care of him in a way. The balance of power changed that morning in Billings, Montana. When he cried before he took me to the airport.
After that, things changed. He had a daughter. Then he had two more. And ba-da-bing, he had a new family. I started growing up. Questioning. Testing. Defining. Separating myself. I walked along the Sixteenth Street Mall among the mohawks and poets.
He didn’t understand me. He saw my mother’s willful nature and snap responses and must have thought, it’s good I only have to see her once a year. She reminds me of what I left behind that day after Christmas in 1978. She is the apple of my eye and the spot in my heart that is torn. It hurts to love her. So instead I’ll talk to her rationally.
My father often talked to me like a daddy would when I was a girl. It was idyllic – he listened to me, he would shoot the breeze with me, he would teach me things, he would sing out loud on our car rides into the mountains and along dusty roads.
Then there would always be something when I wasn’t around. His heart, his blood pressure, his feet, his legs, his back. As I got older it was greater and greater. Life sucks, he used to say. Most people are assholes, he would say. I don’t want you to die, I’d think. And watched him get bigger.
The man became something that was hard to recognize as the years passed. The only time he came to my house was at nightfall. I opened the door and stared at him for a few seconds before it occurred to me, this is my dad. But I was stupid, and I played it cool, and while my dog was all over him like a lap dog, I made conversation.
The last time we were at my grandmother’s home, the house he grew up in, it was sunny. I think it was summer. We walked down Boston Avenue slowly, talking about whatever and I felt okay.
The last time we had dinner it was at an old Italian place my uncle, his brother, worked at thirty years ago. My step-mother was there and it was a good, easy time in a dimly lit place with bad spaghetti and cheap chianti.
The last time I spent time with him was the morning after the dinner. I had this desperate feeling that I needed to spend time with him, and took the morning to meet him for breakfast at the Italian bakery. Di Prima Dolci for cappuccino and apple crisp. She took a photo of us, one I didn’t see for almost a year, afterwards.
The last time I heard his voice was on the telephone. They had told him my grandfather was close to dying, then forgot to call him to tell him he had passed. I was the one who told him his father was dead, when I called to talk to him about the obituary that I was writing. He was in pain, so I had expected to share this with him the following week at the funeral. I walked through Linens ‘n’ Things with my phone on my ear, and he said he wasn’t coming. And for some reason I stood up to him, perhaps at the most unfortunate time, but I did. I said if not for him, please come for me. I said, I NEED YOU. He didn’t care. I said, I don’t know if I can talk to you right now, it really hurts. He said Fine, Goodbye. That’s the last time I heard his voice.the gravesite…red roses, his favorite, from me at the bottom
So now I have a cassette tape from 1977, talking into a tape recorder with him to my mother, who was away on business. I did my best baa-baa-black-sheep and little miss muffett and georgie porgie, talked about how I loved my mommy, and my sister, and our dog George.
And I have a videotape, made at my high school graduation. The only time we were ever all together as a multigenerational family. Every cousin, every aunt and uncle, even the his best friends and their kids I’d known all my life. My uncle used to own an Italian joint in North Portland and so the back room was all ours to feast on pizza and lasagna and meatballs and the like. Lots and lots of love. And the next day, a long long long table at the family buffet restaurant, kids everywhere, me cutting up my baby sister’s food, circa 1991. Afterwards we stood in the backyard of my grandma and grandpa’s and they are both still active then, my uncle’s Great Dane bounding around, little girls squealing in delight, everyone still all about the love.
It was a frozen moment in time, and it wrecks me to watch.
The anniversary looms. He is becoming a memory.
I fucking hate that.
So I’m thinking about the death. They stood around not knowing what to do, standing near the end of the bed, near his feet. I went in and led the way. I took his hand and rubbed it, kissed his face, stroked his hair. You know, the comforting things I never could have done in consciousness. But that I knew he, like anyone nearing the edge, needed more than anything. The others they stood there like beanpoles, rigid. I tried to clear the air with a joke and they didn’t get it.
But I knew what we were dealing with. I had done my homework for 35 years. Men like him didn’t get old, and someday I’d get this call. They played Johnny Cash in the background and I talked to him about memories. They spoke to him of reality and I brought him back into history. What I remembered about him and I. I got close to him. I smelled his forehead, cold sweat from the morphine but still, he smelled like my papa and I needed that. I wanted the hospital bed bigger so I could crawl next to him. Why do they make hospital beds twin size when the dying need their families as close as possible? But they were still in denial, in their regular lives. I knew where we were. And after I broke down and let him hear every frustration at the most gutteral level, I knew in some sense that then, yes, I had strength in me unimaginable. I told him how unfair this was. They got a life with him, I got scraps. That his actions have so deeply affected who I had become that it was a struggle to believe anyone would truly stick around. But that I was learning, and that I was not going to stay that way. That no matter what he had done, he was not going to be the only version of man that I would know. And that I loved him, I loved him terribly. I loved him so very much that the words coming out of my mouth were in a voice I’ve used but few times in my life. And that’s the reach he gave me and the tear from his eye, and I knew I was his daughter, because for one last moment, it was just he and I in the room. Like we once were.
On his last day I called everyone who they had disregarded to put the phone up to his ear and let them talk to him. I called my brother and my sister and they thanked him for the years he was their dad as well. I called his best friends and heard one of them weep near the end as he thanked him for their years of friendship. They didn’t understand. The rest of the family stayed behind in the city, not coming out for his last moments, leaving him alone rather than take this most important time. (Later, they refused to speak to me at the burial here in town, I’m guessing because I couldn’t be at the actual religious funeral. Why wasn’t I? Because I’d run out of money being there for his end of life, and couldn’t afford a rental car for the 3 hour drive, and none of them could give me a ride. Yep, so you see why I don’t consider them family anymore.). So in his last hours, his other three daughters went home to get sleep. Get sleep? Are you kidding me? No one wanted to believe he was dying even though we took him off of life support. So I brought my pup inside the hospital, and we laid there and listened to him breathe. This time I knew there were only minutes left, and when he took his last breath I laid my head on his chest and held his hand and she did as well. The others had all gone home.
I told him it was okay, to go where the love was.
“There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” ~ Leonard Cohen