When my children had grown past the ‘distract them in their carseats stage’ I still found myself pointing out firetrucks and ‘cowies’ along the road. When they no longer needed things like dollies or cozy sleepers or Legos or squeaky, rattly, build-y toys I still paused at the ads for Toys R Us or Baby Gap. I linger, now and then, over the glossy pictures of American Dolls and read with interest the reviews of picture books and even middle grade fiction. We all know that I am a hopeless Young Adult fiction reader even now.
It is the same with my father since a massive stroke put him into the hospital, then rehab and now death. As I waited for the end I took breaks in the hospital lobby reading the posters that recommended personal alert buttons and foldable walkers, cautioned about the three signs of a stroke, suggested assisted living arrangements for the ageing parent. Of course, it was too late for any of those considerations. Still, I would have a momentary flash and think, “Right, that might work for Daddy when he’s stronger.” But, he would’t get stronger and even though he was 87, it was hard to squeeze his hand without the answering crush he always gave me. My sister and I sat by him in the last three days of his life. We talked with him though he couldn’t answer, we laughed at our memories and ourselves, we cried a little. Actually, Liza cried and I sat and patted. I am not a cryer, we’ve established that. I’m a doer. As Liza smoothed his covers and caressed his arm, I tidied the cups and water bottles, straightened the stack of our extra underclothes, hand sanitizer, travel-sized toothpaste Daddy would never need. Finally, I crawled up on the bed to put my ear against his chest and listened to his improbably strong heartbeat.
As I observed at least a year ago, it would be sad when Daddy–a man of advanced age and full life–died. Sad but not tragic. That seems harsh, but I was right. What was tragic was his reduction, his failing inch by painful inch over the last six weeks. There was nothing unique or heroic or special about my father’s illness and death. We none of us get out of here alive and we all will, if we are very lucky, escort our parents from one life into another. In fact, as scattered and tired and wrecked as Liza and I were, it was all just as it should be, if not how or when we might have wanted it to be. We were exactly where we should be, doing exactly what we should be doing; making certain the circle was unbroken. All the nights Daddy sat up with us, vaporizers cutting through croup, holding our hands tight so we didn’t scratch our chicken pox, rubbing our backs and playing quiet games to distract us from a fever or soothe us out of a nightmare–that’s what Liza and I were doing in the last days. Cool washcloth on his head, pillows just so, whispering to each other as if we might wake him.
So now, or at least until I need help finding my way, I am no longer someone’s child to be guided carefully along. I am only a parent and a wife and a sister. When my mother died 22 years ago, the overwhelming feeling was of homesickness, all the while knowing I could never go home again, not really. With Daddy’s death there is no longer anyone to help us remember home, our early childhood tales, translate the scars into stories. There is no one to say “When you were three you fell over and got a rock stuck in your forehead,” or “In 1964 Liza was Peter Pan, you were Tinker Bell for Halloween,” or “This is how you make a proper devilled egg.” And that is sad, but it is not tragic because, after all, we have stories to tell, too.