I am not sure when it was exactly that my dad decided his time on earth was up, but long before his body grew tired, and even longer before his mind hinted at exhaustion, he made the decision that he had done enough.
Maybe it was when he turned 55. His own father had died at 54, when my dad was still a young man, just recently married and with two small boys. For many years, my dad viewed 54 as his personal benchmark. If he could just make it there, he would be fine. Something strange and unexpected happened, though. My dad turned 55. To celebrate, my mom took us all on a cruise – it was Disney cruise, an appropriate tribute to life and youth. My brothers and their families, and I with my pregnant belly and husband, all surprised my dad in Orlando, and from there enjoyed a week of sun and fun together alongside Mickey, Goofy, and the rest of the gang. I think Dad enjoyed himself – it’s hard to not smile at your grandchildren seeing their dreams come true as they walk through enchanted castles, and shake hands with their heroes. There were moments of laughter, and lots of good photos commemorating the event, but in a way, it was almost anticlimactic. I’m not sure that reaching 55 was ever my dad’s goal; I think, to be honest, Dad was content having reached 54, and had he gone at that time, he probably would have died a very happy man. After he turned 55, things just kind of fizzled. Life got boring – he didn’t have the energy or the desire to travel or try new things and he grew increasingly attached to his tv and his vices. His grandchildren continued to bring him joy, an appropriate compensation for the fact that his children, albeit unintentionally, sometimes seemed to bring him only sorrow. We all suffered adult-sized growing pains (the kind that come with financial strain, marital distress and emotional trauma) and there were times when he took on that pain as though it were his own. My dad was good at a lot of things, but he was not good at letting our problems be our own (really, what parent is?). My brothers and I continued to bring the family home for holidays, but it became more and more taxing on all of us as my dad stopped finding reasons to be happy.
As adults, happiness is closely connected with our work. As much as we like to complain about our jobs, and we all must admit to doing that now and then, having a job to complain about is a blessing. I can remember when I was still living at home, and my dad, at the end of a long day, would spend hours rehashing the day’s events with my mom. He would make notes, prepare the next day’s meetings, role play situations with people he was managing, and he would vent frustrations. Whatever kind of day it was, the fact remained that my dad’s work was at the center of his life, the core of his being. He would come home sometimes with his blood boiling, but it made him feel alive. When Dad decided to retire early, he began to think through some alternate plans – the possibility of teaching at a Master’s program, or becoming a consultant/lecturer, investing in small businesses. He would have been amazing at any one of those things. But somehow he couldn’t ever take that next step. Many people look forward to retiring, to living the life for which they have been saving their energy (not to mention money). But for Dad, without the routine, the daily troubleshooting, the people to manage, the crises to resolve… life felt empty. The money abounded, but the energy disappeared. As a professional, my dad was a problem-solver. He could take just about any seemingly hopeless situation and turn it around. In retirement, things were too easy, and he began to crave conflict. When he could find some, he intensified it, and if there was none, he would create it. Without work, Dad was simply lost.
Little by little, the candles in my dad’s life that kept him inspired began to burn out. Shortly after retirement, his own mother passed on. Grandmother had been one of those people who could push my dad’s buttons with minimal effort, and much of his life was spent reacting to her. Despite however conflictive their relationship was, Grandmother was the wind beneath my dad’s wings. She chided him, scolded him, challenged him, and he continually strove to rise above. He worked harder than any other person I have ever known because above all else, I think he wanted her to be proud of him. He depended on her even more than he knew, and when things went really wrong, and he needed someone to talk to, it was always Grandmother he would phone in the middle of the night. Their relationship was tumultuous at best, but when she died, he lost his compass.
It wasn’t long after Grandmother died that my dad and brother quarreled; it was a dispute that resulted in years of estrangement. For all that he loved J, his firstborn, and me, his baby girl, all of Dad’s hopes and dreams were poured into Mike. Mike had high ambition, just like our dad; he loved business and was good with people, and he had a need to prove himself. But while Dad and Mike had a lot of things in common, they were not the same person. This created confusion, conflict and resentment in both directions, and in the end, they seldom saw eye to eye. Mike needed to drive his own ambition in his own ways, and it was difficult for our dad to understand that Mike just needed to be Mike. So on the one hand, there was Dad – who, as we know, had a hard time letting us manage our own problems, and who began to seek conflict where there didn’t necessarily have to be any. And on the other hand, there was Mike, who needed to make his own way, but couldn’t for the life of him make Dad see that, regardless of the different ways he tried, and what resulted was almost a decade of silence that spread like an oil spill to the farthest corners of our family causing irreparable damage.
Sometime in there, my marriage fell apart. Dad’s vices had already begun to wreak havoc on his health, and I can remember walking down the street with him to the lawyer’s office, watching him pause in distress as he struggled to catch his breath, the emphysema slowly taking over. Watching your daughter endure the trauma of divorce as she fights to stay afloat emotionally and financially has to be torture, and I am certain that it contributed significantly to my dad’s demise. Remember, though, that Dad took on our problems as though they were his own… and conflict was something he was good at. So strangely, my divorce gave him a renewed focus, and in it all, he seemed to rekindle his fight, his energy. Having a renewed purpose pushed him in a lot of good ways. But at the same time, it wore on him, as it would any parent, and he emerged drained.
By the time we found out that J had cancer, Dad was already tired. He pulled from his reserves to fight for J – but with every battle he had already fought, his energy dwindled. There was nothing anyone could do for J; by the time he was diagnosed, the cancer had already spread too far. Dad offered all kinds of deals with gods and demons alike just to keep J alive, but the decision was already made. It took just over a year, and then J was gone. J predicted that our dad would go, too, shortly after his own death. Dad gave himself over to fate the moment J died, but his destiny would have him go through the motions for another three years before he would finally be allowed to rest.
In the weeks leading up to his death, he deteriorated significantly. My mom and I were in regular contact as he slept longer and longer, ate less and less, and his motor skills began to fail. The day before he died, Mom called me asking Dave and me to come over because she was concerned that he kept dropping things. By the time we got there, he could no longer hold a cup or a handkerchief, and the only way he could smoke a cigarette was for someone to hold it for him. At some point in the early afternoon, my mom left a message for the doctor. Dad became obsessed with the phone – the knowledge that Mom had put in that call made him acutely aware of the fact that his time was approaching. With every sound, he picked up the nearest object and spoke into it, hoping to hear a voice at the other end. It took over an hour for the doctor to call back; we waited, and in between puffs on the cigarette I held for him between my fingers, Dad told me he was done. We talked at his pace, and I followed his lead, realizing that he understood more about what was happening than I did. When the phone finally rang again, Dad, who had been incapable of controlling his muscles for the last several hours, sprang from his chair and went straight to the bathroom. As my mom answered the phone, I raced after my dad, terrified I would find him in a heap on the floor. Yet, there he was, steady on his own two feet, splashing water on his face, preparing to shave. When I asked him what he was doing, he said “I’m getting ready”. I told him he didn’t need to shave, that it wouldn’t matter. So he went back into the other room, sat down, and waited patiently for the ambulance to take him to the hospital. When the EMTs arrived, I frantically ran down the stairs with them so that I could make sure Dad got his oxygen back on once in the ambulance. The EMTs seemed unconcerned. Strangely, he didn’t need the oxygen anymore; it served no purpose. The doctors at the hospital also seemed to understand this well before we did, and they simply gave him something to relax him into sleep. Early the next morning, Dad took his last breath and then quietly went. It didn’t dawn on us until later that, while we were waiting for a call from the doctor, Dad was expecting a very different call. And finally, after years of enduring life, Dad got to move on.