I dreamt about my dad last night.
We were in my childhood home; I was visiting and aggravated he was still using the microwave from when I was a kid. It was, like, 85 watts or something, and I couldn’t cook anything.
“Dad, why are you still using this microwave?” I asked. “I’ll get you another one. We could probably find one at Goodwill.”
That’s all I remember.
My dad died on February 19, 2006–the ten year anniversary is next week. I’ll be in Florida then, visiting with dear friends; a welcome celebration of life and living.
However, the week leading up to the day of dad’s death is also saturated with beautiful and painful memories.
It all started on the 13th, when I took him to a new oncologist for a second opinion.
I could smell sickness on his breath. He had shrunk and his dark circles surrounded his eyes.
I won’t go into all the details, but we left that meeting with a glimmer of hope about the future, though the future was much shorter than we could know.
He wanted to stop to buy his girlfriend flowers for Valentine’s Day. He couldn’t walk far, so I told him I’d go in and pick out things. I bought a bouquet and a stuffed animal, and when I came back, I climbed in and he said, “I should have told you to get something for yourself, kid.”
I’ll never forget that sentence.
He insisted on paying me and wrote me a check that I never cashed. I still have it upstairs in my office. Probably the last time he ever wrote his name.
We surprised his girlfriend completely. I left the flowers in my car until I could sneak them in. When she saw them, there were tears and laughter. She was amazed he’d think of her while feeling so lousy. Six days later, he’d be gone.
I’ve been working on the following essay for quite a while…a few years, I think. I’m trying to strip the language down to make it precise and lyrical. I don’t know if it will ever be “finished,” but on this anniversary, I thought I’d share it:
People were making foolish decisions on The Price Is Right. Underestimating the cost of cough syrup. Overbidding in the Showcase Showdowns. “What are they doing?” I asked dad, who was reclined on the hospital bed Hospice had provided. It took up space next to the woodstove. “Don’t these people have any idea what things cost?”
When he dozed off, I would march out in the frigid, February air to get more wood for the stove. As a teenager, I couldn’t keep a woodstove burning. I would arrive from school to a cold, empty house, and curl up in my heated waterbed until dad returned from work. He’d tease me for my inability to get the fire going, and ignite the woodstove with little effort. Now, throwing wood in the stove and adjusting the air grates, I don’t know why it was so difficult when I was younger. Add oxygen and the fire burns. Deplete oxygen and the fire goes out.
At night, we would watch Becker, his favorite show. I’d fall asleep on the couch, and the days before Hospice had given him his hospital bed—the days when he had to sleep upright in his recliner because he felt like he was drowning when he lay flat on his back—I would wake often to see him staring at the television, blue light dancing across his ghostly face, dark circles ringing his eyes, the volume nearly inaudible so as not to wake me. “Are you alright, dad?” I’d ask. “Yeah, I’m fine, kid.”
On a Monday in February, we went searching for a second opinion. The doctor who had been treating him for colon cancer for the last three years had already said there was nothing more to do. I stood in the new doctor’s office, sick with fear, anticipating this doctor to reiterate the last doctor’s prognosis. Instead, she gave him the gift of hope. She said, all was not lost, all had not been tried. I left there upbeat, because this bit of news made him feel a little better. “Are you afraid to die?” I asked him as I drove us home. “Kid, none of us know when it’s our time,” he said. “I’m not going to go before the Man upstairs calls me, so there’s no reason to dwell on it.” I could sense he didn’t want to discuss it any further.
Six days later his oxygen waned. We had a tank of it in the house and his girlfriend put a mask over his mouth, told him to breathe in. He didn’t feel right. We didn’t know that an artery had given way—that he was quietly bleeding out through his colostomy bag. I couldn’t wait for the Hospice caretaker, so I called the squad. When they arrived, a young woman tried to take his pulse, but couldn’t find it. “How are you feeling?” she asked. “Not too bad. Just having a little trouble breathing,” he said. I rushed to my truck, and watched as they lifted his gurney into the back, his eyes open, alert. I followed the squad. They stopped at a traffic light near the highway, and sat there for several minutes. I could see the top of dad’s head through the windows of the back doors as emergency workers moved around. They switched on the emergency lights and sirens, and the vehicle rocketed down the highway. I watched from my truck, unable to keep up. I called and woke my brother.
When we got to the emergency room, he was behind a curtain. The nurses were talking amongst themselves, and I heard one say she needed a colostomy bag for him. I had one with me—his girlfriend had anticipated this need and gave me one before I left for the hospital. “I have a colostomy bag,” I said, and I moved into the private, curtained area. I handed it over to a nurse and looked at dad. His pupils were fixed; his eyes glided effortlessly back and forth in perfect, mechanical time.
There was oxygen, but the fire had burned out.