(Guest post by Jenny Mashak)
A few years ago, a friend lost his father, somewhat unexpectedly. The father was elderly, his health had been in decline for awhile but he had been more or less fine one day and then the next, he was not. He was gone within three days, barely enough time for my friend's brothers to travel and say goodbye to their father. We attended the funeral and my friend spoke about his dad. He told stories and related memories of his father, and talked about how much his father influenced his own parenting. It was a very typical funeral, I imagine, but it stuck with me because it was a friend who had lost his parent and because my own father had had a major health issue very recently.
In July of 2013, my dad nearly died from an aortic dissection. By all accounts, he is one of the luckiest people alive right now. The typical lifespan for someone who suffers what he did is twelve seconds. He was incredibly lucky in that the aneurysm did not fully rupture but started leaking into the layers of his aorta. It was painful and required a life flight and emergency surgery, but he lived. The doctors who performed the surgery told us initially the best case scenario they could foresee was paralysis from the waist down. Not only did my dad live, he walks and lives normally. About two years ago, he also had a bout of lung cancer. His tumor was discovered in the course of looking for other issues and so was caught long before he had any symptoms. He received a partial lung resection from a world class surgeon and did not have to undergo radiation or chemotherapy. While speaking with his surgeon, his aortic dissection came up and the surgeon was amazed at my dad's story. Weeks before, the surgeon had performed a double lung transplant but he said my dad's survival was miraculous.
I have a lot of memories surrounding Dad’s triple A, from the white-knuckle, completely silent drive to Rapid City, to the sudden realization, after two days of staring at them, that there were posters on the walls of the ICU waiting room. Most of it has faded to the point that I no longer get panic attacks watching medical shows on tv. But what has stuck with me is how completely unprepared I was for the thought that my father might die. From the moment I finally heard the phone ringing at 3am, to the moment the phone rang in the waiting room to tell us Dad had made it through surgery, I did not believe he could actually die, even though the various doctors and surgeons tried to make it clear that his death was not only possible but probable. During the long night after his surgery, we took turns keeping vigil, monitoring the beeping from the twelve machines and thirty two different tubes keeping him alive. We all spoke of what we would need to do to accommodate possible disabilities, preparing ourselves for my dad not being able to care for himself. We did nothing to prepare ourselves for the possibility that he would die.
In the immediacy of his medical emergency, there were things to be done, things to be researched, things to take care of. But none of us ever brought up the things that needed to be said. And in the years since, I don't think any of us have really taken the steps we need to deal with our emotions for and about each other.
When Dad got his cancer diagnosis, he initially misunderstood his diagnosis and spent an entire day convinced he had mere weeks to live. He was preparing himself to do the paperwork necessary to take care of my mom and then off himself. In a strange way, it gave my sister, who has always had a somewhat fraught relationship with our father, an opening to talk about the things he needed to talk about and give her an insight into what kind of man he is. She spent several hours with him, listening to him and actually hearing him, for the first time perhaps. A lot of the things she had believed about our dad weren't necessarily wrong or false, but skewed and colored by her own life.
Here's the thing about my dad: he doesn't talk about himself much. He has a big personality and lots of opinions but he loves to argue enough that you can never really know which opinion is his truest. He is also often overshadowed by the personalities of his wife and three daughters. The four of us are border collies, constantly in motion, herding everything and everyone towards a destination. My dad is a Great Pyrenees, blending in, looking like he's sleeping but aware of everything around him, ready to roar into action if something threatens his charges.
A few months ago, my sister, who is a counselor, was messing around with the Meyers-Briggs personality evaluation. She asked me to take the evaluation- my type has been pretty consistent for over 20 years. Hers was predictable as well and for kicks, she asked our parents to take it. We were able to predict my mother's type pretty well but neither of us had the slightest idea of what my dad would be. He still hasn't taken it, or at least, hasn't told us that he's taken it. I think the fact that I can't predict if my father would be an introvert or extrovert probably indicates that he tends toward introverted, but it also says something that I don't know for sure.
All of this comes together in my head in a morbid way- what would I say about my dad at his funeral? There are things I know about my dad, like how old he is, or that he tells everyone he is 5'10" when he is most definitely not. There are things I think about my dad, like that he is incredibly stubborn and I get my tendency towards clutter from him. There are also things I remember about my dad, like how he used to climb trees when we played hide-and-seek with him so he was impossible for us to find. Or how he told us his blue eyes would turn brown if we forgot to kiss him goodnight. And then there are things that were filtered through my mother, like how he could barely handle when each of us started dating. He never said a word to any of us about what he was thinking or feeling but according to my mother, he hated it and would have kept us penned up at home until we were 30.
For Father's Day, my sister purchased tickets to take my father to a Beach Boys concert. She invited me to go with so it would be just the three of us. The only other memory I have of just the three of us was in our old green Córdoba, on the way to pick my mom and new baby sister up from the hospital. I was two, my older sister was five and my dad was 29. That was 37 years ago.
The concert was fun and we had a great time. I had always known my dad liked The Beach Boys but listening to them and watching the videos they play as accompaniment to the music seemed to awaken memories and feelings Dad hadn't thought about in years. He told us about his first car, a 1936 Ford he'd picked up somewhere when he was twelve. It didn't have a title and he drove it around the farm where he worked. Now he wishes he hadn't been so rough on it and had kept it. At intermission and any breaks in the music, Dad talked about listening to The Beach Boys as a kid and in high school- he liked that they sang about cars, even if the hot rods they sang about weren't as popular in rural Wisconsin as they were on the West Coast. He told us stories of driving around with his brothers and friends, usually doing something legally dubious, but they were just kids having fun.
I haven't yet found the words to articulate the emotions that night brought out in me. Part of it was watching The Beach Boys, live and the memorialized versions in the photos and videos playing on the large screen behind them as they sang. They are clearly old men now, with a career starting in 1961. It was somewhat heartbreaking to see the photos and videos from 57 years ago, peopled with the old men on stage and their friends who didn't make it to old age. The larger part of it was seeing and listening to my dad, and thinking about all of what he's been through in the past six or seven years, realizing that at one point, he was one of those vital young men who has now aged into an old man.
On the drive home, Dad said that he could check seeing The Beach Boys off of his bucket list. Until he said that, I had no idea that seeing The Beach Boys with my father was on my bucket list but it turns out it was and I am grateful that I was able to check it off.
As I grow older, and my dad older still, I realize there is so much I don’t know about him. I don’t know that we can learn to communicate at this stage of either of our lives, through the membranes of long history and our own reticent personalities and emotional repression, but I do know that I want to at least push the barriers a little. Because one day, I will stand at his funeral. I will shake hands with people who knew him, hug those who loved him and hear unfamiliar stories about him. I will also have a chance to share my stories about my dad and I want to have more than just enough to say. Because he deserves it. Because he’s my dad. And because his eyes never turned brown.
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For more on . . .
-N- Stuff : Fatherhood : On Parenting
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