Losing a Father -- Daughter Reflects on the Death of a Parent

Recalling a Lifetime of Moments in a Father-Daughter Relationship

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, and I thought as a child. But when I became an adult, I grew far beyond my childhood, and now I have put away the childish ways.

- 1 Corinthians 13, 11

This verse keeps running through my mind, the one persistent thought among a kaleidoscope of memories that wash over me like waves against a lone rock on the beach. Each time the passage enters my consciousness I end it with this thought: I was about eight when I put away my childish ways.

When I was brand new at the job I've had for nearly a decade, I called one of my best friends. She's been my friend since grade school.

"I'm the Most Responsible Person." I explain, over the phone, about my new position as head of Regulatory Affairs for a small pharmaceutical company. "Whenever I submit papers to the agency, there's a line that asks for 'the most responsible person.' That's me!"

This woman, who's known me for so long, laughs a deep, from the belly laugh. "You've been the most responsible person since you were born." I can see, in my mind's eye, her head thrown back as she laughs through the phone line.

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"Let me read you the results of the CAT scan," he says. "A distended abdominal cavity due to excessive adipose tissue. A two centimeter growth on a rib extending into the chest cavity. The doctor wants to do a biopsy."

"Sounds like you're fat, Dad." I needle him. "Too much ice cream, I suppose. You know, sometimes cells get senile. They forget what they're doing and go their own way. Kinda like their owners."

"Well, I've never felt better." His voice is overstuffed with optimism. "No need to worry until there's something to worry about." Mom gets on the line and asks me to pray. Just in case.

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I love you. Do you love me? Yes or no. Check one. I pass the crookedly printed note up from where I sit under the dining room table and put it on his knee. The table is filled with men, his brothers, my uncles. They stop their lively conversation while my father reads the note and writes his response. Smiling, he passes the note back under the table to me. Neither box is marked. Instead, there are several lines of heavy script. I can't read cursive yet. I carefully fold the note and put it in my worn jeans pocket.

Forgotten, the note stays there until it's reduced to shreds in Saturday's laundry, causing my mother's dismay to travel up the stairs from the basement laundry room. "How many times do I have to tell you?" she cries.

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"You've been thirty since you were eight years old. You were born grown up," she says in the voice that reminds me of my first grade catechism:

Q: Who made you?
A: God made me.
Q: Why did God make you?
A: God made me to know love Him, to love Him and to serve Him in this world and the next.

Simple answers to seemingly simple questions, no room for discussion. I accept what my mother says without argument. My father remains silent, looking up from his TV show only long enough to increase the volume.

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The doctor's voice is matter-of-fact. But his eyes are big and brown and moist. "Three lesions on the liver. No treatment is certainly a viable option," he says. I think viable is a strange choice of words.

My mother, my father's bride, looks at her steno pad, at the doctor, and at the steno pad again. Her carefully prepared questions, follow-up to a different prognosis, are neatly aligned on the right side of the double line. The left side is blank, waiting for her to jot down the answers. She grips the pad with two hands, then flips a page searching for a question that will have an answer. She comes up empty.

My father's eyes fill with tears and meet mine.

"Well, we've got a lot of work to do, if we're going to finish your book." It comes out of my mouth like it's a fence we have to finish before we can go on our annual camping trip. A natural storyteller, my father wants his life recorded as fiction, in case he needs to hide. I know he'll never write it himself, he's only written three letters in his life: one to me when I was away at college.

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My father has nothing to say to me. Catholics don't divorce. Mom offers her own form of support. She knows I made a bad choice to begin with.

"Go out and talk to Dad," she says, always pushing for harmony.

He is flat on his back, repairing the hay baler. I sit beside the toolbox and hand him wrenches and secure a nut, while he tightens a bolt.

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When we finish, he sits beside me and wipes the grease from his hands. "You know this wouldn't have happened if I'd been a better father." Tears roll down his face.

"And here, I've been thinking it was my fault." I offer him a Kleenex and keep one for myself.

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"You're the stubbornest woman I know," my loved one says to me with a mixture of pride and distress.

I turn my head to deliver my retort. In one of those rare moments of discovery, I realize it's my father's head that turns from the window, slowly, almost lazily; it's my father head that tilts on my shoulders and looks out of my eyes through my brows.

"Just limited to the women you know?" I hear Dad's smart aleck remark through my mouth. I laugh so hard my face is wet with tears. The expression on my husband's face reveals he is puzzling over which direction my mind has turned.

"I actually felt my Dad's expression on my face." I am able to feign a serious expression for a moment.

"Yeah, so what's new?" My husband confesses to seeing it a thousand times, delighting at the obvious connection between my father and me. My husband tells me he's been aware of the similarities from the first day he was in the same room as my father and me. "You don't mean to tell me you just realized?" he asks with true surprise.

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"He's got a cold. He's such a baby when he's sick," she says as she purchases high protein drinks. The three of us are on our way to the University hospital to get him into a clinical trial. I'm there to flex my intellectual muscles regarding 'compassionate care' use of unapproved drugs.

The doctor explains that the disease will continue to progress at least eight more weeks. "Think hard about how you want to spend that time," she says.

Mom is ecstatic. He's accepted into the study. Everything will be all right if he just shakes this cold. She asks everyone to say the rosary. I promise I will and remember doing the same for her during the Bay of Pigs, understanding just enough to be terrified of nuclear fallout, but not enough to understand why Cuba would want to bomb America's pigs.

Dad is exhausted from the two-hour trip to and from the hospital. I scoop him out a small bowl of ice cream. Vanilla, even though we have his favorite, butter pecan with the chocolate topping right there waiting for him. Some things just don't look good to him anymore. He eats about a tablespoon.

"It's the strangest thing," he says. "I get full and I can't eat another bite."

"Yeah," I agree. "You've always been the kind of guy that could put down one more bite." I look at his big belly, one of the few leftovers of the Santa Claus look that remains on his shrunken frame. He searches my face waiting for an explanation. "Do you think your liver is crowding your stomach?" I offer.

"Yes. Yes I do." His sparkling blue eyes look deep into mine and cloud over to a dusty gray. There is dead silence in the room. He breaks it. "Did you know I learned to fly after I came home from the War?" Dad tells me of his flying lessons and his one and only solo flight. I have it all on tape for our book.

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"I won't miss him at all." My husband surprises me with his apparent lack of sensitivity.

"Really?" I say.

"All I have to do is look at you, and I see your Dad," he says.

It occurs to me that I'm not only losing my Dad, I'm losing a touchstone.

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Up until the very end everyone prays for a miracle. The big problem with miracles is, they're best appreciated looking back at them, and we seldom recognize them when they happen. I search for a wise prayer. What miracle do I hope for? I ask and find the answer sorely lacking. So I remind God next to everybody, Dad is really Somebody, he loves a good challenge, and he's too scared to make another solo landing. I swear, when the day comes, I will be there to say goodbye and good luck. I don't break my promises.