December 20 will always be one of those uncomfortable anniversaries for me: it’s the anniversary of the day that my father passed away. No matter how many years have passed, I’ll always wish that I could talk to my Dad just one more time today, but even with his absence, every year is an opportunity to take stock of my life and think about whether I’ve become the kind of person he’d want me to be.
When my dad got sick, he left our home in Shelby to get treatment at the VA Hospital in Helena. He came back in November, just in time for the first bumps of chicken pox to appear on my arms. That week he was home, he was my caretaker, putting lotion on my skin, telling me stories, and tying an old pair of boxing gloves on my hands when I wouldn’t stop scratching. The whole time he was dying, consumed by a cancer that gave him unimaginable pain. His last night home we watched football together–just the guys–and he read to me as a I fell asleep. My last memory of him is waking to see him crying quietly in his chair, either from the pain, or from knowing that he wouldn’t be coming back.
The next morning he was gone, back to the hospital, and six weeks later, he was gone forever.
My dad wasn’t a perfect man. He drank too much, and sometimes his ego was more than a match for his ambition, but I always felt that my sister and I were the center of his life. His heart might have been bigger than his head on occasion, but even his mistakes were made out of love. He taught me how to fish, to read, to score a baseball game, and to defend what I believe; he taught me everything I’ve needed to survive. More than anything, he taught me about loving with your whole heart, fiercely. For my dad, it wasn’t worth it to love any other way.
Everything I’ve become and everything I will do is because of my father.
While I won’t torment anyone with what passes for my fiction writing, below the fold I’ve included a short passage from the short story I wrote about our last few days together.
He didn’t have a powerful, commanding voice or bring any of the characters to life with vivid accents, but my father was an excellent storyteller. A life spent in bars—on both sides of the counter—had given him both a rich, tobacco stained voice and unmatched ability to make a story out of anything. I can still hear his patient, soft voice in my ear when I read aloud now.
For most of my life, I’ve wished I could remember what he read that night. I’d like for it to have been a richly symbolic farewell from a father to a beloved son or a lesson that he hoped to impart of me before he left. The English teacher I became because of him wants to believe that it was words from a father to a son or Falstaff advising young Hal, but life is rarely that full of symbolic import. Most of all, I wish I could remember it, so I’d know the last words he said to me. I wish that absence hadn’t haunted me for so many years.
But I fell asleep while he was reading.
When I woke up, my father was still sitting beside me, no longer holding a book, but his head in his hands. I was about to ask him to start reading again, apologize for sleeping through his story, but paused, listening. My father was crying. I wanted to reach out to him, to say anything to make that terrible sound stop.
I wanted to turn my eyes away, but couldn’t help looking at him. He finally saw my eyes, but instead of turning away, he just held me in his gaze, as if trying to store every detail. I’m sure he just saw a sick little boy, wrapped in blankets and the remnants of a fever, but I saw something I had never seen before. In that moment, and perhaps just for that instant, my father, with his comical build, thinning hair, and halo of broken dreams—certainly not all his own, the father that I would never see again,was beautiful.
The next morning he was gone, back to the hospital in Helena. A month later, we buried him, on the morning after Christmas.