It’s been three years since you died, and Father’s Day still seems weird. It was a death you wished for – frequently and vocally – for years prior. After the Alzheimer’s diagnosis, and then the inoperable blood clot in your brain, and the prostate cancer that spread to your spine and bones. It was a death I was grateful for yet still mourn. A death I assisted with morphine from the “comfort care” package delivered to the house by the hospice team.
The last year of your life was everything you’d always said you never wanted. Bedridden, helpless, incapacitated, in certain and relentless pain, though you never, ever complained. Not once. Remarkable, really. Only an occasional wince, witnessed by keen and searching eyes, would belie your constant assertion, “I’ve never felt pain in my life.”
This is an unbelievable statement. Impossible, especially given your many ailments, hospitalizations, and surgeries. Heart attacks, brain hemorrhage, triple bypass surgery, two broken jaws from a fall, cancer…so many pain-causing events. And yet: “I’ve never felt pain in my life.”
There was also your harsh history growing up in the brutal Jim Crow south during America’s ugly 1920s. The grandson of a man who’d been born a slave. The son and youngest of 13 children of a father you watched die at home of a stroke in his 50s because the nearest hospital didn’t accept Black patients. The teenager, drafted into the Navy during World War II, who was denied a public high school education and access to the public library by Jim Crow laws, yet who went on to use the GI Bill to attend the University of Michigan, receiving bachelor’s and master’s degrees in industrial and mechanical engineering.
You told us how the dean at the time wrote you he was accepting you “against my better judgment,” but there was no place for you until second semester. So you applied to and were accepted by the University of Nebraska for the first semester. Nebraska. From Montgomery, Alabama. I keep imagining you saying, “OK, bitches. I’m goin’ to Nebraska, and then I’m comin’ to Michigan. You’re not gonna stop me so don’t even try. I got this!” Of course, you would NEVER speak in this way, but thinking about it makes me smile. Oh how I wish you could see the glowing letter the University of Michigan sent to Mom after you died. Yeah. Now they know. Best judgment ever.
I wonder what that dean thought when you got the highest score in your class on the engineering certification exam. I wonder what the recruiter from The Standard Oil Co. thought after he left you waiting all day in the interview anteroom on campus, thinking that the high-scoring candidate he wanted to interview couldn’t possibly be the Black man he’d left sitting there all day. Little did he know he’d been ignoring the man who’d soon become the first Black engineer hired to work on the executive floor of Standard Oil’s world headquarters building in downtown Cleveland.
If you ever did feel pain you didn’t show or express it. You also didn’t show or express pride, thinking hubris was an ignorant person’s folly. And you didn’t really show or express love – at least not the way we saw it on TV or in the movies. But we knew you loved us. “You’re a good dad, in your own way,” your only son, my younger brother, once told you.
Living with you was not always easy. Sometimes it was scary. You were a refined, brilliant, and quiet man who didn’t swear and rarely drank. Your professorial demeanor made the sudden, violent rages over minuscule infractions all the more incongruous. Anything was fair game as a weapon of punishment. The buckle end of a belt. The wooden leg of a smashed chair. A record album. An ax. I wonder: Did you feel pain then? Was that what you were expressing?
Was it the swallowed rage of decades of discrimination and denied dignity that erupted at home, in the only place it could back then? Or, were the violent outbursts related to the same cerebral issues that led to a ruptured blood vessel in your brain in your 50s, and minor mini-strokes over the decades that followed?
“How about those human people,” you always said, calm and restrained in the face of bad behavior by strangers. A true and wise acknowledgment of human weakness and complexity. I’ve come to appreciate this sentiment even more in my 60s. People are complicated. Families are complicated. Love is complicated. As your children grew into adults and had children of their own, we came to understand this well.
I understand very well that you gave your all to everything you did, without complaint or excuse. You gave your all to being our father and Mom’s husband. You mellowed with age and became a grandfather who was the light of my only child’s life. You two had a special, one-of-a-kind relationship and understanding. Watching him with you created some of my most treasured memories, and you’ve given him a lifetime of beloved memories and experiences he will never forget. At 27, his eyes still light up when he talks about “Grandpa.” I am so grateful to you for that. I wish I’d remembered to tell you.
I don’t do the mushy, emotional stuff very well. Perhaps I get that from you? Mom used to call me “Little Robert.” I am your first-born. I am my father’s daughter. As your time here was coming to an end, I thanked you for all you did for me. I told you that you were a good father, and recounted my happy memories. Did you believe me? Did you hear me? Did you know you are my hero, even though I didn’t tell you?
Did you know I’d forgiven you?
Did you forgive me?
I’m so sorry I fell asleep. I’d been by your side in a chair next to the hospital bed in the living room for two days and two nights. I couldn’t have been asleep for more than mere minutes when I awoke with a start to quiet. It took me a second to register what was different. Then I heard the silence in the room, absent the jarring death rattle of your breathing. It was dark and I was afraid to turn on the light, not wanting to see what I knew was there. Not wanting to confirm death. Did you know you weren’t alone? Did you call out? Were you afraid? Did you know you were dying? Did you feel pain then, as you took your last breath?
It’s been three years and I’ve still not resolved these questions for myself. How could I have fallen asleep? I have not forgiven myself yet. Were you embarrassed or disappointed by my show of emotion when those men callously zipped you into the black body bag right there in the living room? None of us will ever get that image out of our minds. I’m sorry if I let you down.
I wonder if you’d be proud of me now. You would be mortified by this blog, I know, and you’d be disgusted by the whole concept of Instagram. Hubris on steroids. But… I still have the baby grand piano you helped me pick out years ago. I kept it when I purged my belongings two years ago. The appreciation of classical music you instilled since childhood has lasted, even if my seven years of classical piano lessons have not. You placed high value on learning and curiosity and exploration. “For the sake of science,” you’d always say. I’m now learning about how bourbon whiskey is made, “for the sake of science.” I think you’d get a kick out of that.
I’m the only person in the family who is on her own financially – still – yet I managed to retire two years ago, following your rules for saving, financial investing, and frugal living. I think you would be proud of that. I traveled around the world by myself for nearly two-and-a-half months, wearing the jacket I bought you when you were walking every day. The jacket you wore once and then declared it “too noisy” when you moved. I took that jacket with me and made noise all around the world. Did you hear me?
Do you know that every big decision I make I ask myself what you would do…what you would say? Do you know your greatest, most profound gift to me is your lifelong modeling of resilience, grit, and personal responsibility in the face of adversity?
I started this letter to you with something else in mind, but this is where it’s taken me. It’s not enough. It will never be enough. I can’t express it well enough. I am my father’s daughter, after all.
I love you, Dad. I know you loved me. Thank you for everything…there’s so much. Your legacy is lasting.
I miss you.
Happy Father’s Day
All images from thehotgoddess.com retired_rewired_inspired.
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