I finish the last chapter, the last page, and close the book. Tears pool in my eyes, cling to the bottom lids until those behind them push them over and out. The contact lens in my right eye swims, fighting against the current, trying to maintain its position.
It’s a dog book. And we all know how dog stories end.
I gaze toward the lake, looking for Jim. He thinks I’m crazy to read books like this. But I like a good cry. I like how you start crying about one thing and end up crying about something else. You never know what will surface. Memories. Fears. It’s always a good cleanse. The lake is calm, though there is a stiff breeze, according to the flags at the state park entrance not too far away. My kayak, nearby, beckons.
I slip my paddling vest on and pull my boat down the grassy knoll to the lake’s edge. I can hear the cries of my dog, tethered to the shade shelter of the campsite. Of course, he wants to go with me. But he can’t. He will not stay in the kayak. He’ll jump out, wanting to swim. And the park rangers would eventually make their way to me.
At the lake’s edge, I look back now to our campsite. There is my dog – perfectly framed beneath the shade shelter, front paws prancing, ears perked to maximum, willing me to take him with. Another surge of tears squeeze from my eyes, the words about the love between a dog and its owner so fresh in my mind.
“Stay,” I say. I can easily relate to the dog owner in the story, for he, too, had to make tough decisions about when it was best to leave his dog behind, even if the dog did not understand.
Next to the shelter is the truck and camper. My camper. I purchased it with a portion of the money my dad left me upon his death.
I step from the bank to my boat, happy, for some reason, to not have to put a foot in the lake, happy to maintain my balance and sit down, totally dry, ready to paddle.
Pull, pull, pull, pull. Right, left, right, left. The image of my dog, pleading with me to go, stays in my mind. I pray that he will stay put, that he won’t find a way to weasel out of his collar, to break free and run along the shoreline of the lake until he catches up with me.
The tears stream. I hate to leave him, especially upon reading that last chapter, knowing how much he loves me and wants to be with me. Knowing that, as always, with every being we love, today could be the last day, the last opportunity to experience something like this together.
Here I am paddling across a lake. Lakes. I love them. It is no surprise that I jumped in my kayak after getting all emotional after finishing the dog book. Going to the lake was a big part of my childhood. It was our family’s thing. My dad bought the boat, cared for the boat, got it ready each weekend, and made sure we had a most excellent, and safe, time every time that we went out.
Jim’s orange kayak gleams in the sunlight, a ways ahead and on the opposite shore. Jim. I need to get to him. I paddle. Hard. Tears pour from my eyes. Was it the dog in the story? His owner? My dog and what he means to me? The fact that I left him behind, without even giving him a chance to stay in my kayak? Was it the lake? The image of my camper and the memory of my father? Could it be the upcoming trip to Kauai for the memorial service?
I paddle fast, as fast as the tears that now roll off my cheeks, down my neck, and into my paddle vest, across the middle of the lake to the man I love. Jim. Lake. Dog. Water. Childhood. My dad. This is a big mountain lake and it’s early June. The water is cold. If I have a mishap, I probably won’t survive before I get to land.
I smile at my naughtiness and think of a conversation I had with my dad a couple years back. I told him I was going camping for an entire week in Utah and that I’d be staying in my tent.
“God damnit, Bubbie,” he’d said. “You can’t stay in a tent by yourself. For a week? Whose kid are you, anyway?”
“Now, as I paddle across the lake, I think, “I’m your kid, God damnit.” My silent tears turn to outright sobbing, my breaths short and loud.
No one hears. Just me.
I’m your kid. That was the answer. I’m not just some tent-camping, lake-paddling crazy hippie. I’m a teacher, 25 years at it. And a mother. A damn good one. An author, a consultant. A lover of the outdoors, of books and photography. Someone who’s taught 700 kids to read. I’m brave and independent and smart and loving and pragmatic. I’m your kid.
And so are my siblings. They’re your kids, too. My sister, Roxy, amazes us all with her beauty, composure, and acumen. The children she has raised, Andy, Christie, and Brady—your grandkids—are adults of whom to admire and be proud. And then there are your great grandkids, Dad. I know you’d be proud of them and love them, just as you loved us.
And Ryan—my brother, your son—what a man he is. He’s intelligent, hard-working, funny as hell (remind you of anyone, dad?), and loving. Loving, dad, just like you were.
Yes, we’re your kids.
And let’s not forget your four young adult grandchildren—Eli, Erik, Addy, and Amy. They are all busy figuring out who they are, where they came from and where they want to go in life. What it is they’re meant to do. And now that I think about it, there have been days when we’ve looked at them and thought, “Whose kid are you, anyway?” They’re ours. But they’re individuals. And we love them for that.
Dad, everyone here today knows you weren’t the conventional father. But one thing you were, for sure, was loving.
My sister, Roxy; my brother, Ryan; me. We’ve all turned out pretty good. We work hard, make a good living, and support our families. We’re good parents. We’re making a difference in this world. We’re loving people. We’re your kids, dad.
I keep paddling. I’m halfway to Jim. Memories of my childhood flood my mind.
I remember when we lived in California and I was, maybe, four, and wanted to leave home. Perhaps it had something to do with you always saying, “Go play on the freeway.” Either way, I was ready to go. You helped me pack my suitcase. You sent me down the street. And, not surprisingly, you stood behind the tree and watched me and were there waiting for me when I got scared, a few houses down the block, and turned around and ran home, crying.
I was your kid.
I remember you singing me to sleep at night. Irene, Good Night, Irene. I don’t know if this is the only song you ever sung to me or if it’s the only one I have memories of, but the words and your voice are clear, poignant. Irene, good night, Irene. Irene, good night. Good night, Irene, good night, Irene, I’ll see you in my dreams. Then a long pause, and the anticipation for what was coming next. Your big, deep baritone. Stop your rambling, stop your gambling, stop staying out late at night…
I had no idea what the song was about. In fact, I remember thinking that “Irene” must be a fancy way of saying, “I dream.” It didn’t matter. What mattered was that you’d tuck me in and sing to me and get pleasure from it.
I was your kid.
Some of my fondest memories are the times we had boating at Boysen Lake in Wyoming. Despite what must have been a hard week of work as the police chief and the hours you put into our farm and remodeling that old farm house into a suitable home for a family of five, you were always ready for a weekend day of boating. I remember you and mom throwing us kids overboard, saying you will swim, you will waterski, no matter what the water temperature was. I remember you circling the boat countless times, bringing the rope by again and again, teaching your kids—and your kids’ friends—how to waterski. You were so patient. I remember double skiing with you, one day in particular. Your back hurt, and you yelled to me that you had to let go. I sensed it was the last time we’d ever do that together. I imprinted the image of you, there, alongside me, on the other side of the wake, your golden hair blowing, the blond fuzzy hair on your tan arms sparkling in the late afternoon sunshine. I was probably 14, you 44.
I was your kid. And you were my dad.
I recall a time when you and Ryan and I went crappie fishing. This was before we had a boat. I guess you must have heard that the crappie were really biting off the Boysen cliffs because this was not something that we did on a regular basis. In fact, I don’t think we’d done it before and I’m not sure we ever did it again. We pulled up to the cliffs in our white, four-door truck and the three of us went to the tailgate. You fixed my pole and Ryan’s—for we were too young and inexperienced to do it ourselves—and then we were off, running to the cliff’s edge and dropping our lines over. Almost immediately, as soon as our lines hit the water, we got bites. Not really knowing what we were doing, we reeled in and up came a crappie on the end of each of our lines. We were back to the tailgate in a matter of minutes. You were incredulous, you with your pole in hand, your pole that wasn’t yet rigged up and ready to use. You set it aside, took the fish off our lines, and prepared our poles for the next go-around. We were off, again, and back, again, before you had a chance to get your own pole ready. “God damnit,” we heard you mutter under your breath as, once more, you set your pole aside to work on ours. The evening of fishing continued in this way until Ryan and I had caught 30 crappies, you never made it to the cliffs with your pole, and darkness swallowed us up.
We were your kids.
I finally reach Jim. He is tucked into his kayak, tucked into the shore, tinkering with his fishing line. My sobbing has subsided, my cheeks tight with dried tears.
“Oh my gosh, I finished the book, had an emotional breakdown, and had a great urge to paddle across the lake.”
“I told you not to read those dog books,” he responded.
“Oh, no, it’s a good thing. It got me thinking about my dad. I’ve come up with all sorts of good memories. I sobbed and sobbed while I paddled. I don’t think I’ve cried really hard for him yet. I must have needed to.”
Jim wasn’t sure what to do with me. “Well, have fun fishing. I’m going to keep going around the lake.”
I didn’t cry anymore, but memories kept surfacing. And I knew that, as I paddled, I was writing my dad’s eulogy. His memorial service was in a month.
I recalled summer days, when I was out of school, and you’d come home from work, dad, for lunch. You in your police uniform, muscular and strong, completely sober and somber this time of day. I remember being most proud of you then. My feelings the least conflicted. You always listened to Paul Harvey while you ate. And I sat there at the table with you. Just listening. And watching you. No talking at all. Maybe a few words were said during the commercials. After The Rest of the Story, you were gone, back to work.
Those were special moments to me. I could feel it then and I can feel it now as I talk about it. I was your kid.
Another “God damnit” story comes to mind. Mom put you to the task of loading up our 4-H pigs in the horse trailer and getting them down to the fairgrounds for the county fair. The pig pen was at the top of the pasture, the muddy mess of a field stretching out down a hill beneath the pen. You had to drive the truck and trailer downhill, into the mud, in order to then back the trailer up to the pigpen gate. As you wrestled the truck through that mess, we three kids bumped around in the back seat, eyed each other, broke into grins, and, as if on cue, whined, “Daaaddddy, do we have to go four-wheeling?”
“God damnit, shut up, I’ll do the driving around here,” you grumbled.
We laughed and laughed, bounced off the seat and almost out the windows, grabbing our stomachs. You were so confused. Why were we all laughing? Why hadn’t your gruff voice silenced us?
We then explained to you that the line—Daaaddddy, do we have to go four-wheeling?—and the whiny voices were straight out of some commercial that we three were familiar with. A little embarrassed, you were quick to laugh and forgive us. You always were.
I’m sure the three of us drove you crazy most of the time. But you always laughed and enjoyed us, too. We were your kids.
Funny memories. Dinner was always a good time, with lots of laughing. You were always funny. One time we were all saying our graduating class mottos. Mine was, “84 is out the door.” When we asked you yours, it was obvious you couldn’t remember, but you made one up right there on the spot: “Hell with the ticket takers; knock ‘em on their ass. We get in free ‘cause we’re the class of ’53.”
Me being 16 and pulling into my parking space at the farm in the green Ford truck. You came over and said, “You ever change the oil in that thing, Bubbie?”
“What oil?” I asked.
“God damnit, Bubbie.” You hadn’t taught me a thing about the engine. You did that day though.
You also taught us how to shoot guns. I remember shooting a shotgun at age seven and the kick knocking me on my butt.
One time Grandpa Fron was at our ranch with us. We kids turned over a hay bale and found pockets and pockets of baby mice, still pink and hairless and translucent. We begged and begged to take some home. After we were back in town, I overheard Grandpa Fron talking to mom, saying, “He could hardly say no to those kids. If I hadn’t have been there, you’d have a house full of baby mice right now.”
You let us have all kinds of animals, Dad—horses, cows, sheep, pigs, cats, dogs, rabbits, mice (domestic, adult, in a cage), geese, a peacock, a mule, goats… You let us try a raccoon in the house, but that only lasted for a couple days. And we got to keep a baby pig in our basement laundry room one cold Wyoming winter. I remember the summer I had 47 pets. I was pretty lucky to be your kid.
I’m back from paddling now, under the shade shelter, laptop on lap. I need to write. It’s either the byproduct or the catalyst of such a good cry. Often both.
But, here in the outdoors, I can’t see my screen. Can’t see what I type. All I can see is my reflection. My thin hair. No gray yet. Maybe never. It’s your hair. My eyes – you’re there. Those barely visible lines from the corners of my mouth to the bottom of my jaw, the ones that define the shape of my chin. They’re yours.
I’m your kid.
Jim’s back. He sets his things down, takes his vest off. “Okay,” he says. “Now, tell me more about that emotional breakdown. Or whatever it was.”
“I already told you. I was bawling. It was the book. Then I saw my camper. Then I started thinking about my dad.”
“Tell me more.”
“I can’t. The moment’s gone. I sure do wish I could write about it. But I can’t see my laptop screen. I already tried.”
Jim goes into the camper, comes back with a pad of paper and a ball point pen. I can’t write like that—the old-fashioned way—but I appreciate how he understands my need to write.
“How about I take a nap and you sit in the camper and type?” he suggests.
The words pour out of me, as readily and cleansing as my tears did just a bit ago. Jim snores lightly on the camper bed, a few feet away. At one point he stirs and asks, “Are you sobbing over there?”
“Yes,” I reply.
A while later and he is awake for good. I decide that I’m at a good stopping point. I thank him for the idea, the support. Somehow, he always knows.
“I got a lot written,” I tell him. It feels good to maybe have a start on this eulogy. Something I can continue with.
“It’s not too long, is it?” he asks. “You know, people won’t want to hear you go on and on.”
I consider that. “It might be too long,” I confess. “But, so be it. You only die once. My dad was a storyteller and I’m sure he won’t mind at all if I take the time to tell a few stories about him.”
It’s my place, my responsibility, I think. I am, after all, his kid.
10 Jul 2015 Leave a comment
I finish the last chapter, the last page, and close the book. Tears pool in my eyes, cling to the bottom lids until those behind them push them over and out. The contact lens in my right eye swims, fighting against the current, trying to maintain its position.
29 Mar 2015 12 Comments
I grew up in the town of Riverton, Wyoming in the 1970s and 1980s. Though not technically on reservation land, the town was surrounded by the Wind River Indian Reservation. My father – Dennis Francis Horyza – was the police chief of this town. And being that it was encompassed by reservation land, he had many dealings with the Arapahoes and Shoshones (the two tribes that share these lands) and their governmental agencies. He was generally well-liked and respected and it wasn’t long before the tribes were referring to him as Chief Yellow Hair. My dad had wispy fine blonde hair at the time and actually never went gray before his death on August 30, 2014 at age 78.
My dad worked hard throughout his life and was always a good provider for our family. Despite a divorce and starting over at age 54, he was able to amass quite a savings before he passed away. It was with some of the money he left me that I was able to justify buying a small camping trailer. Because of this, I thought I might name my camper Chief Yellow Hair.
I remember a few years back when I told my dad I was going tent camping for five days in the Utah desert by myself over my spring break from school. “Jesus Christ, Bubbie,” he growled over the phone, “whose kid are you? You can’t stay in a tent by yourself in the middle of nowhere!” When I told him that that was exactly what I was going to do, that there was a lot of country I needed to see and explore, he said, “You damn well better have a gun and you damn well better know how to use it.” I’d like to think that my dad is happy that I can now lock the door of my camping trailer and keep myself safe.
For its first official outing, Jim and I hustled out of town on a Friday night and drove only about 20 miles to Highline State Park at Highline Lake. It was early March and we were the only ones at the campground. While having a dinner of chips, guacamole, and margaritas and listening to peace and quiet music, I said something to Jim about how relaxing it was here in the “spa chief.” Now, another name my dad had, in addition to Chief Yellow Hair, was Pa Chief. This was his grandpa name that everyone used, starting in 1985 when his first grandchild was born. He never wanted to be called Grandpa and definitely not Grandpa Dennis, so family called him Pa Chief and towns-people called him Chief Yellow Hair or just Chiefy. I always called him dad. Anyway, when “spa chief” came out of my mouth, Jim and I both knew that this would be the official name of the camping trailer. It’s just perfect, and we know there will be much relaxing and healing going on whenever we use it.
Thank you, dad, now and forever. I’m glad you’ll be along in spirit for all of the Spa Chief adventures.
01 Dec 2014 7 Comments
“Mom, mom, I need a picture with GB before we leave.” We were on the porch, saying our goodbyes after a Thanksgiving weekend at my mother’s house in Wyoming. My mom, however, was executing her delay tactics, rattling on about why she named her large, wooden bear St. Hubert, protector of hunters.
“Oh, heavens, I’m still in my pajamas,” she said, as Addy squeezed in close to her and I prepared to take the picture.
I noticed the bag of fresh-baked mincemeat cookies in Addy’s hand that GB had baked for us for our road trip back home. How apropos that it was in the photo.
GB. The replacement name was given her some 25 years ago when the oldest of her seven grandchildren, little then, were confused as to why some of us called her mom and some of us–them, the little ones–called her Grandma Bev. Since then, that is what we’ve all called her, though I do believe I’ve heard the newest generation of great-grandchildren calling her GGB.
In addition to Grandma and Bev, I like to think the G and B stand for generous and beautiful. For that is what she is, to all of us. Not only generous in the typical sense, but generous with her time and energy and love. As a grandma, she has always focused on the grandchild or two that, at any given time, seemed to need a little extra attention or love. These past few months, she’s been in close contact with Addy during her freshman year of college, and also with my other daughter, Amy, who is spending her junior year of high school abroad, in France.
And though physically beautiful, for sure, GB is, more importantly, beautiful in every other sense of the word.
The day after Thanksgiving, my sister and I sifted through three large boxes of papers, personal files, and photos of my recently passed Dad. I had Addy participate in this, wanting her to understand that someday she’ll have to do this for her parents (I made a mental note to start now with the process of ridding my file cabinets of a lot of unnecessary junk) as well as to learn more–in the process of looking at photos and listening to my sister and me–about her grandparents and me and herself.
Though my parents divorced nearly 25 years ago, there were a few photos of my mother in the old albums, some that I had never seen and almost all of them new to Addy.
As we loaded up and got ready to go, with GB still standing there, waving and blowing kisses, Addy said, “Mom, you know, I’ve always just known GB as who she’s been during my lifetime. You know, since I was born, or since I can remember her. I never really thought about her life before that, about who she was and what she did all those years. Seeing those old photos really got me thinking. She’s probably been through so much.”
I didn’t want to interrupt her thoughts or what she was sharing, but I was about to pull away. “Keep talking, Ads, but turn and wave to GB.”
I lowered her window and she hollered, “I love you, Geebs.” Geebs. Recently, that’s what Addy had been calling her. I took the fresh moniker as an indication of their special connection.
“Yep,” Addy said, as she buckled up, “I think she’s probably seen a lot in her life.” She looked back out the window, back toward her grandma standing on the porch. And I heard her say, almost to herself, “Because… people like her don’t just happen.”
30 Nov 2014 2 Comments
Giving thanks at Thanksgiving is customary; giving gifts is not. But a gift is exactly what I got from my daughter.
Addy wrote me a thank you letter and, really, what better gift could anyone ever ask for?
Thank you for giving me the gift of life and exposing me to the most beautiful parts of it. Thank you for protecting me. Thank you for accepting me. Thanks for my perfect little sister. Thank you for the most beautiful, magical childhood I could have ever asked for.
Thank you for being so strong for us when I know it was hard for you. Thank you for showing me how to not only survive excruciating pain, but thrive through it. Thank you for being such a good example.
Thank you for teaching me that nirvana is a twenty-dollar campsite and some breakfast burritos in a beautiful place. Thank you for teaching me how to read and write English and music. Thank you for teaching me how to teach. Thank you for teaching me how to love. Thank you for teaching me how to truly live.
Thanks for singing to me. Thanks for taking me to the beach. Thanks for dinners at your house even though I’m in college. Thanks for the hikes. Thanks for the ukulele. Thanks for finding Jim. Thanks for all the Christmases. Thanks for taking pictures. Thanks for having dogs.
Thanks for being you.
12 Nov 2014 9 Comments
I don’t remember anything about Veterans Day from my childhood. I don’t recall talking about it at school. Don’t remember knowing what a veteran was. Don’t come from a family of many vets. Can’t think of anytime before adulthood when I saw Veterans Day on the calendar or thought twice about it when I did.
And, to be honest, for most of my adulthood I didn’t pay it much attention. I’m sure I had to get beyond early adulthood, beyond those years of finishing college and starting my career, getting married and raising a family, to have the time and energy to focus on what was going on around the world. To weigh what life must be like in other countries compared to what it is like here. And to really appreciate that.
Whenever the opportunity presents itself, I talk to my students about how fortunate they are to live in America. We talk about our freedoms and our quality of life. We read about people who came to America looking for jobs and other opportunities. And, especially, we talk about the free education available to every child in America. I want my students to realize that not all children around the world get to go to school and that the reasons many of them cannot is because their families cannot afford it. Or that not every child has equal opportunity. I want them to treasure and embrace the free education that is available to them and to never, ever take it for granted.
But I don’t talk too much about the price that was paid for our freedom, for our way of life, for our country which much of the world envies. It’s complicated. It’s confusing. It can be too much for seven- and eight-year-olds.
But this year we had an event at our school that provided the opportunity to teach my second grade students about Veterans Day – what it means and why we celebrate it.
A teacher at our school – who is also a mother of a veteran just returned safely from Afghanistan – organized a veterans celebration on our campus. Students and staff invited relatives who currently are, or did, serve in the United States armed services. Students brought in photos of their vets and these were displayed on a big red, white, and blue Wall of Fame. The staff at our school cooked up an impressive breakfast for the 40 veterans who attended that day. Then, the veterans, easily distinguished by their uniforms, the staff, parents, and the entire student body gathered at the flag pole shortly after school started.
We all watched, solemn and serious, as two men in uniform raised the flag against the early morning light. The silence was broken with the singing of the national anthem. I couldn’t see the person who was performing, so I watched my students instead. As they double checked to make sure they had the correct hand across their chest. As they focused on keeping their eyes on the flag, just as we do each morning during the pledge. As they refrained from talking or wiggling or joining in on the singing. As my throat thickened and my left hand moved to cover, in that crucial motion, the emotion building on my countenance. Upon that final note, I let out a loud whoop, as I would at a baseball game or most other gatherings where the national anthem is sang, realizing a second too late my faux pas. Several of my students turned and looked at me, standing behind them, utter shock and disappointment on their faces. How disrespectful, Ms. Bergen.
A few days beforehand the students had carefully penned a Dear Veteran letter and I had them role play going up to a total stranger veteran, with their hand out, ready for shaking, and say, “Thank you for your service to our country.” This opportunity – to shake a veteran’s hand and present the letter they wrote – was what they all were really looking forward to.
As the flagpole ceremony ended, I brought my class around to where the veterans were lined up. They walked down the line, so obedient, so respectful, so in awe. And I watched each and every one of them approach a vet, hand out, letter ready.
And I knew then how important Veterans Day was to me.
As we walked back to our classroom, I heard one student say to her friend, “Man, that made me get tears in my eyes.” Back in class, we had a quick discussion about the emotion we felt during the ceremony. Most students concurred; they had almost teared up.
And I knew then how important Veterans Day was to them, too.
05 Oct 2014 10 Comments
I suppose I knew at the time that my dad would never go home. In order to do so, he had to learn to walk again after having his toes amputated due to infection. He didn’t have the strength or balance to sit up, couldn’t hold the phone or even twist his upper body to answer it, and needed help eating. He hadn’t made much progress at the physical rehab place. Yes, I’m sure I knew he wouldn’t be going home.
Still, when my daughters and I visited him in Bullhead City, Arizona – where he had chosen to move many years earlier, distancing himself some 600 miles from any family – I encouraged him to keep trying. He had been back and forth between the hospital and rehab several times. He had endured three back-to-back surgeries, the doctors trying to save his toes, his feet, his legs from a staph infection. “Work on your upper body strength so you can get yourself in and out of a wheelchair. Then you’ll graduate to a walker and you’ll be able to go home.” I knew this would take months. I was pretty sure he didn’t have months.
During all this time in the hospital, my dad went through major alcohol withdrawal. He was an alcoholic for nearly 60 years. My entire life.
All those years of drinking, the surgeries, the alcohol withdrawal, the various medications – dementia was setting in and he was suddenly looking very old. His face was ashen compared to the usual state of robust red I’d always known him to have, his always broad and muscular shoulders so narrow now beneath the clean navy t-shirt he wore, his legs shrunken with atrophy from being in bed for three months. His left leg was in a brace, his right foot heavily bandaged, the amputation beneath not healing well.
It was his hair though that kept getting my attention. At age 78, it was still blonde, as were his whiskers and the hair on his chest and arms. He hadn’t had a haircut in a while and, at about an inch and a half, the freshly shampooed, fine strands were longer than I had ever seen them. Except for the occasional bed head – and it was a short bed head – my dad’s hair had always been neatly parted on the left side and combed down while wet. I chuckled that day at his longer, slightly unruly hair.
The day we visited, my dad was mostly coherent, mostly making sense. We asked about his care, caught him up on our trip to Arizona, commented repeatedly about his hair, joked around. That’s what he was good at, joking around. He was in a good mood. I asked if I could take some pictures of him and he said, “Oh, yes,” and perked up even more. I took a few shots and then the girls asked if I wanted a picture of him and me together. Of course, I did.
He smiled for that picture. Something he hasn’t done in years.
Yes, I suppose I knew that my dad wasn’t going home. And that this was probably the last time I would see him. Though he was slightly confused and a little paranoid and, I’m sure, albeit being discreet, sad and scared, I was enjoying him in a way I never had before. He was, for the first time in my life, completely sober.
He wanted us to rub his legs. I got on one side, Addy on another, and we massaged his withered thighs. I knew Addy was a little uncomfortable with this. Admittedly, I was, too. I thought back to my girlhood, when my dad was always looking for one of us kids to give him a back rub. I would intentionally do a poor job, hoping he would choose my brother or sister the next time. But this time I gladly did it. And I regretted having not touched this man enough times in my life. In his life.
Amy, my youngest, sneaked away to a chair in the corner of the room. When I looked at her, she gave me a barely noticeable yet loud and clear shake of her head. No. Do not ask me to take a turn rubbing his legs.
I understood. And I didn’t ask her.
As my dad got sleepy and we three began to feel the emotional strain of the day, I started mentioning that we would have to go soon. After a while, the girls said goodbye to their grandpa, a man they hardly knew, and left the room.
Then it was just him and me. And yes, I’m sure I knew that he would not learn to walk again. That he would not be going home. That this would probably be my last trip to Arizona.
“Well, dad, I’ve got to go…,” I said. I wasn’t at all sure how to leave the room.
He immediately started in with some story. I smiled, shaking my head, thinking of all the times over the years when I’d rolled my eyes at this same scenario. It was usually when I was on the phone with him. I’d have to get going and I’d say so and he’d ignore me and just keep talking, not wanting the phone call to end.
I took one backward step toward the door. Then another. I had to get out of there. Why, I’m not sure. Why couldn’t I stay longer? Why didn’t I stay until he fell asleep? Why didn’t I rub his legs some more, his hair? I could have rubbed his hair and put him to sleep, like I had so many times with my children.
Tears pooled. I had to go before he saw them. Had to go while I was thinking positively about his sobriety, his hair, the notion that he might get stronger and go home and I could come back to Arizona and visit him again.
“I love you, Dad,” I said and quickly turned and walked out the door.
“Come back!” he yelled, with more vigor than I expected him to have. Then, a few seconds later, and sounding more resigned, “In here.”
Blurry eyed, I went as fast as I could down the hall, pass the nurses’ station, through the lobby, to my girls.
They looked at me, crying and running to get out of there, and I could see the concern, nearly horror, on their faces.
“Oh, mom,” Addy said, and they each took one of my arms and hustled me outside.
My dad’s health steadily declined and I did not return to Arizona before he passed away. When he was close to going, when he could no longer speak but the nurses were sure he could still hear and understand, I called and said what I needed to say and what I thought he needed to hear.
I’ve looked at the picture of him and me together, several times a day since then, and though it was taken at a sad time during his most unhealthy days, it makes me laugh and feel good. In this photo, he is alive and sober and smiling and I’m clearly enjoying those last minutes with my dad.