What it Really Meant to Grow Up
The terrible beauty of losing my dad
When I was born, it was about ten years after my parents had been in a house fire that very nearly destroyed my entire family. My parents, who had both come from large families, had envisioned having five or six children themselves, but until this point, had the one-- my older brother. I can’t imagine it was easy for him, nearly 12 years old, to suddenly go from hitting all his developmental milestones as an only child, but, there you go, it was September, 1984, and I made my debut, into a weird little family that had been waiting for another baby for a long, long time.
After the fire, my mom had been told she wouldn’t be able to have any more children. So due to the unlikeliness of my existence, I was dubbed the “miracle baby.” I guess it sounds nicer than “mistake” and more significant than “surprise.”
And I was kind of the spoiled little princess that you might expect from a situation like that. Well, first, I was an atrocious infant-- I mean, really tortured everyone with hysterical wailing for what must have felt like a lifetime. But eventually I became a cute little kid, pretty agreeable, smart, independent, got along with other kids easily. My brother and I were so far apart in age, in such vastly different stages of life, we didn’t really compete with or annoy each other. I idolized him and he either tolerated me because I was small, or was actually very sweet to me. My parents would go out to dinner and leave me with him as a babysitter. They’d come home to find us snuggled on the couch together, fast asleep under a big quilt.
In school I was well-liked by teachers, because I was a huge nerd for learning from day one, made plenty of friends, and with my dad’s guidance, joined the little league baseball team in third grade. I was a petite nine-year-old girl, on the team with mostly boys, but my dad had made a habit of throwing a baseball as hard as he could at my head in the front yard on a regular basis, so I wasn’t scared. I had been taught that if you’re scared of the ball, you keep your eyes on it, don’t close them. The only other girl on the team was the coach’s daughter, so it was just me and her, our dads, and a bunch of little boys. I’ll tell ya what, though, Lauren’s dad didn’t make her use a wooden bat. This was 1994-- and even though the other kids got feather-light aluminum bats that transformed their puny little bunts into outfield flies, my dad and I were part-season-ticket-holders who regularly went down to Fenway to watch Mo Vaughn and Jon Valentin crush homers, so I had to do it right. So, my little arms learned to swing a Louisville Slugger like the big guys, 60-pound little girl or not. And I was all right. I mean, for little league, which I imagine must be painful for adults to watch. But my dad took on, or rather, created for himself, the role of assistant coach, and he would yell at me through every practice, chuck balls at me without mercy, and remind me without irony, “there’s no crying in baseball!”
It wasn’t just baseball that bound us-- I went everywhere with my dad. I spent a questionable amount of time perusing aisles of wine with him, learned to hunt for interesting finds in antique shops, played mini golf, and just generally rode around with him wherever he was going. He had cute little nicknames for me like “angel” or “Ms. American Pie,” which became “Ms. Pie” and then eventually just “pie.”
And I kind of grew up in this bubble of being the little baby-- I wasn’t always sheltered from every difficult thing that went down around me, but even growing up with an entire family who were definitely suffering post-traumatic stress from that fire, my childhood memories are dominated by images of birthday parties, climbing trees, and my dad doing all the different voices of the characters in the Hobbit as he read to me.
Even as an adult, both of my parents were still protective of me. When they separated after forty difficult years of marriage, even though her world had irrevocably changed and she was on her own for the first time since about 1970, my mom waited three weeks to tell me anything was going on, because I was in finals for my first semester of graduate school. I thought of all the phone calls we’d had over the past weeks and how even though the situation was completely surreal and heartbreaking, my mom still didn’t think she could tell me what was going on.
The following year, master’s degree earned, my dad drove me, more than once, from Boston to New York City to go on job interviews. I’d try to hide the fact that as a 28-year-old woman, my dad had just dropped me off outside a school for a demo lesson. And every time I got close to landing a job, he knew which precinct that school was in and what the crime stats were for the past ten years. “Oh, that’s the 76th precinct,” he’d say, “not too bad. Only one murder in the past year, and not a lot of muggings reported.” After I moved to Brooklyn, he would come down and visit, always driving me all the way across the city to drop me back off after dinner, despite the fact that we were right next to the subway.
“You’re still my little girl,” he’d say, despite me being in my early thirties.
So it really tore the rug out from under me when I sat down at my desk one morning after teaching my first class of the day, and read a text from my uncle: “it looks like your father had a stroke. He’s in the hospital stable. Call me.”
Of course I was shocked by the news about my dad, but what was really jarring to me was how straightforward the message was. My uncle didn’t worry about upsetting me or if I was in the middle of a work day. He just went for it because this was critical information-- and I was oddly grateful.
I remember that before that, I always took the bus from New York to Boston, because I felt I couldn’t justify the price of the train. But in this instance, it was an emergency and I wanted to get there as fast as possible, so I splurged on an Acela ticket which was more than $200 one way. This felt like a very grown-up move-- the kind of thing someone with a real job, money to spend, and important places to be would do.
I had to go to the hospital alone, because, again, my parents had already divorced, and were not on speaking terms. I entered the hospital where I had been born and got directions to my dad’s room. When I got there, all I saw were taut white sheets spread across an empty bed frame. I stood in the doorway, bewildered and unprepared.
Then a nurse informed me they had taken my dad for some testing and he’d be back soon.
And, yes, it was absolutely shocking to see my father with a muscle paralysis of a stroke victim, to see his graying hair looking wild and the same body that used to huck fast balls at me lying helplessly, but that wasn’t quite what made me realize we were in over our heads.
That same evening, one of my father’s oldest friends, who happened to be a doctor in town, came to visit too. And he directed his comments to me when he said things like, “John’s going to have to find somewhere else to stay now-- he won’t be able to do the stairs,” or “he’ll need help relearning a lot of basic tasks.”
See, the other thing about my parents separation was that it wasn’t just due to irreconcilable emotional differences. It was also because my dad had run his business into the ground, taken out multiple mortgages on the house, and eventually stopped paying bills. When my mom went to pick up the prescription she took for her debilitating arthritis and discovered she no longer had health insurance (and therefore no longer had that medication which runs into the thousands out of pocket), that was the final straw. My dad had been living in his office, showering at a gym, and sleeping on a couch he bought at Ikea. Eventually he graduated to renting a single bedroom in the home of a family friend. He shouldn’t have been driving his car because he’d let the insurance and registration lapse and couldn’t afford to get it up and running again, but one of the reasons he did drive it back to the house the night he had the stroke, instead of calling 911, was because he didn’t have health insurance. He was alone, completely broke, uninsured, and incapacitated.
And even though I lived by myself in Brooklyn, had a masters degree and a good job, and I spent all day being the authority figure in a room full of children, I didn’t, in that moment, feel like an adult at all.
I knew I had been ignoring the warning signs about how bad my dad’s situation has gotten for the past few years, and I knew I did it because I didn’t feel equipped to help to even handle it. My mom was totally out of his picture, just trying to figure out how to survive on her own, and had no desire or really means to be of assistance here. And my older brother was also thrown into turmoil by this situation: the garage at which he’d worked for years had closed and he’d been planning on starting his own business, but then this happened.
After a few days, my dad was transferred to a rehab facility to recover. And thank God for my uncles, my dad’s brothers, who swept in and, with the help of hospital social workers, started getting him signed up for medicaid. My brother and I went to his room to pack up some clothes for him. What we found was horrifying.
In this rickety old house, my dad was renting a single room, with sloping wood floors and some tatty plastic blinds. In one corner was the simplest bed frame Ikea sells, not stained or painted, and in the other was a pile of pieces of an Ikea dresser. Ikea and furniture assembly, or lack thereof, obviously figured prominently in my father’s new, single life. There was an old quilt I recognized from my childhood, a few books, a half-eaten chocolate bar, and a bottle of whiskey. At the house where I grew up, my father had a cedar walk-in closet, with two rows of hanging space, and a large dresser. Here, he had a small closet and there was barely anything in it. The few items he had left were worn-out and full of holes, cast about the room or on the wire hangers you get from the cleaners. But we folded them up neatly and placed them inside a suitcase. I had been in denial about how bad things were, how desperate and lonely his situation was, for years, but that phase had come to a breathless halt.
I had the impulse to do what my mom would do: Clean up, make everything look nice, literally sew up the holes in the old turtlenecks and khakis, buy dad some new things to make this look like a home. At that point, we didn’t understand that he would never be going back to that room again, so it’s good I didn’t bother. We brought the suitcase to the rehab center, along with some books; my cousin brought flowers to brighten things up. I have a vague memory of reading to my dad from some book I’d brought, in a reversed echo of my childhood.
Thanks to my brother and uncles, a plan materialized. When he was stable enough to leave the rehab facility, they would move my father down to my uncle’s farm in New Jersey. They have a large farmhouse and several other buildings on the property, including a couple of cottages, so there was space for him to live and recover there. They would pack up his office, his inventory of Oriental rugs, end the lease on that space, and bring him down to New Jersey, from whence he came.
It seemed like a joyful occasion at the time, the brothers reunited to bring my dad to his brother’s, where he would continue his recovery. My brother, a selfless and moving gesture, was going with them, so that he could stay on and care for our dad. He literally learned how to guide our father through his physical therapy to help him regain muscle control on the paralyzed side, and was there to help him to the bathroom or help him bathe.
So there we were. Father’s Day, 2017. We celebrated with oysters and a nice dinner at my aunt and uncle’s house. Dad was allowed to have a small glass of champagne. At this point, we knew he had diabetes. We thought the stroke he’d suffered was a result of undiagnosed and untreated diabetes. We thought this could all be managed with the proper diet.
But if you look back at pictures of that day, they don’t look right. We’re all smiling, except my dad; he looks haunted and gray. I remember feeling frustrated that he would do things like put his head down on his hands when we were visiting, trying to talk to him. Now that seems like the most ridiculous thing in the world, but I lacked perspective at the time and, I guess maybe, I was stubbornly trying to believe things were going back to normal.
I had been shutting out how incredibly abnormal and unstable things were for years. A year after my parents’ separation, I moved from Massachusetts to New York and from that distance, I felt safe to focus on my own new life. This incredibly selfish move at once preserved me and my sanity and made it possible for me to ignore my family’s immense suffering. I could have helped my father in so many ways, but I simply didn’t. I found out later that after they legally divorced, my father was obligated to pay my mother some type of alimony. But he was insolvent, so she was entitled to his Social Security benefits. Between the unprofitable business and his everyday expenses, without this meager income, my father literally didn’t have money to buy food. My aunt and uncle once found him listless when they went to visit him, and discovered he had not eaten in four days. They started bringing him food on a regular basis. All of this was happening while I was in Brooklyn, where my father was born, doing things like enjoying two-for-one happy hour drinks and sunbathing in Brooklyn Bridge Park. I wish I had realized, but for one thing, I could’ve seen if I had paid more attention, and for another, I was shielded from the worst things, because I was the baby. No one would tell me something like that; they would actively hide it from me. My aunt only mentioned it years later, and as soon as it slipped out she immediately stopped herself, apologized, and said no one was supposed to tell me that.
So for a few weeks he seemed to be getting better, but then one day I was driving out to visit, in a borrowed car, and called to say I was on my way, but my brother told me they’d taken him to the hospital in Morristown. I diverted my route and went there instead. He’d taken a downturn, the pain increasing when it should’ve alleviated. He was hurting so much and felt so constricted, he couldn’t eat. Finally, terrified by his impending starvation, they took him to the ER. Nothing was revealed immediately and I think it was later that day, or maybe the next, when I went back to Brooklyn.
I had gone back into the city to make an appointment. Every Tuesday evening for years while I lived in Brooklyn, I saw a therapist who was an older Jewish woman who lived and worked out of a beautiful old brownstone in Park Slope. I thought her curly white hair swept back with old-fashioned combs and her stylish outfits were very cool and elegant. At one such appointment, she asked for an updated emergency contact. I started to give her my mother’s number and she said, “it would be better to have someone local.” So I gave her the number of my best friend, who I had grown up with and who lived near me in Brooklyn.
It was stunning when I opened the door to leave her brownstone, and saw the very same friend right there on the street in front of the house. At the sound of the opening door, she abruptly stopped walking and turned towards me with an implacable expression. Was I imagining her because I was just talking about her? Had I somehow conjured her?
“What are you doing here?” I said from the top of the stoop and descended to meet her.
“Hey,” she said, “I--your brother called me.” Immediate tension in the abdomen, chest pain, shortness of breath. “He said we should call him.”
My brother had something to tell me but he didn’t want me to hear it alone.
“How did you find me?” I asked. “How did you know where I was?”
She’d known I was at therapy because we were texting earlier, and we’d also sometimes met in this neighborhood after my appointments for dinner. So she knew the general vicinity and she knew my therapist’s first name-- so she’d googled it and made her best guess, and somehow been incredibly accurate about the exact location and time.
The situation was so overwhelming and urgent, I recall sitting down right there on the bottom step of not my stoop and taking out my phone, drawing a trembling breath.
I dialed my brother and he explained that my father’s symptoms had prompted the doctors to explore his abdomen with a scope, which uncovered a vast network of tumors, far beyond the point of treatment or hope of survival. Time was limited.
“We have less than a year for sure, maybe a couple of good months, then probably a few bad ones. There’s really no point in trying to treat it. It wouldn’t be effective, just miserable.”
It started with pancreatic cancer, which is often not discovered, as in this case, until it’s way too late to intervene. It’s pretty much always stage 4, because one is rarely aware of it during earlier stages. Pancreatic cancer, while extremely vague in its origins, is not something from which people usually recover.
I was too stunned at first to react.
I’m not sure it really truly sunk in until the next day when I reached the hospital and saw my father, so stooped, his head hanging, looking so ashen and withered. I was crying before I entered the room and when he saw me and I began gingerly hugging him, he remarked about my tears, “people seem to keep doing that every time they see me.”
For the next week, I lived at my aunt and uncle’s farm in New Jersey and we acted as a unit. Every morning, we got up and went right away to the hospital. We tried to make my dad eat something, sat with him while he slept, held his hand, and talked to tons of doctors, nurses, and social workers. We learned more about the functions of the pancreas than I think any of us ever expected to know.
Surreal things happened, like, one afternoon we’d be at the hospital, and my brother, the one who used to be constantly at war with our dad, would be in the bathroom helping him bathe on one of those shower chairs while our dad was simultaneously out of his mind on opioid painkillers. He would ask, “you feeling good, dad? You wanna listen to Dark Star?” and suddenly they were jamming to the Grateful Dead, dad high as a kite like the good old days.
Then we would go to the grocery store on the way home and I’d sort of wonder about and then choose to pay for some groceries I’ve picked out on my own, like a big girl, because, you know, I’m like 32 years old. It was a weird time.
Then he came home, which was a relief because, like most people, my dad hated being in the hospital and was desperate to get more privacy and comfort. But of course it also wasn’t the great homecoming it would’ve been for someone who was home because they were well enough to be discharged. In this case, it was more like, go home and get comfortable because nothing matters anymore, or, palliative care, if you want to be official about it.
We got a hospice nurse who was a literal living angel, and an upsetting hospital bed that was installed in the guest room. My aunt, uncle, and brother took turns administering syringes full of liquid morphine to the side of my dad’s mouth every few hours, waking up and creeping in in the middle of the night to the sound of crickets outside the window. Often they’d find me still up, reading in a chair in the corner of the room, because I found it hard to leave him alone. I was afraid he would die and no one would be there. But even though I was up and around a lot, it was deemed inappropriate for me to administer the medications. Like a child, this was something from which I should be spared.
However, after a while, that stuff stopped mattering. During the part of this time when he was lucid, my dad started assigning us people he wanted contacted. He would remember someone he hadn’t talked to in a while and say, “honey, I thought of something. Can you call Frank and tell him what’s going on? I want to say goodbye.”
So that was how I came to call a man I hadn’t seen in many years, and tell him the news. He’s a very successful painter, and he and my family were close for a long time. When I was about ten, my parents commissioned him to paint a portrait of me. I still remember sitting for the photograph in the woods in my favorite yellow dress. That painting hung in my parents’ room, little innocent, youthful me sitting on a tree branch, my blond hair tucked behind one ear, smiling a sort of mischievous, beguiling little smirk, for years until they divorced and sold that house.
I called Frank, the portrait painter, and I’m sure he was stunned and confused to hear from me, and I told him what was going on. We went through that awkward dance that became so familiar to me, in which I tell someone the most horrible thing that’s ever happened to me and they feel awful and they want to comfort me but they know that’s futile but they also have to be polite and say things like, “oh my God, I’m so sorry.” To which, I decided early on, one should never say, “it’s okay,” like the person is apologizing for stepping on your foot. You don’t have to say it’s okay when it’s not-- you just say thank you. I hung up and texted my friend, “I’ve started having to call old family friends I haven’t seen since childhood and tell them my dad is dying. My innocence is officially lost.”
My mom came to see my dad before he died. He found the euphemistic nature of the phrase “pass away” intolerable, and asked me never to use it. “When I go,” he said, “don’t tell people I passed away. Just tell them I died.” I get that, so I honor his request. They hadn’t spoken or seen each other in the past few years, because their divorce was pure torture that involved behaviors like the aforementioned Ikea shopping spree and jumping in the Massachusetts ocean with all of one’s clothes on, not in the summer. It was scary and raw and so messy, so they avoided each other. But this was the last chance, so mom showed up.
I helped my dad get into a shirt he wanted to wear, and with a comb dipped in water, combed his graying hair back from his face neatly. When she arrived, he greeted her in his old way, “hiya, sweetie, you look like a million bucks!” and we gave them privacy to talk.
After that, as if released, like a buoy detached from its anchor, dad spent less and less time lucid. He needed more medication to manage the excruciating pain, but it was also the end. I was allowed to give him the morphine.
At the end, I read the binder from the hospice about the end of life, and the nurse informed me he was what they call, “actively dying.” I now know what people experience physically when their bodies are shutting down. He hadn’t been conscious for days. It was clear that his body was a hollow shell devoid of any spirit or identity, so I became less obsessed with being at his side at all hours of the night. Also, it was getting really hard to be around him, hard to see. I think on the last night, I was the last person to see him alive. I remember filling the syringe and tapping out the air bubbles to get the measurement right, pushing the plunger to release the liquid into the side of his cheek, and dabbing his mouth with a paper towel. He had a wild-eyed look that people take on at the end of life.
I went upstairs and it wasn’t too long after, when my brother came up and told me, “it’s over.” He explained he had heard the noise from the room stop and he knew. He went to check and dad was gone. He had to come tell me before I went down there and found him myself. It had been two weeks since the cancer diagnosis.
And I get what my brother was saying. Because it’s a horrible thing, to discover that someone you love has died, and to be witness to it. But when I look back on that whole time period, I’m glad I wasn’t shielded from it all. I’m glad I was right there changing the sheets, combing dad’s hair, feeding him with a little spoon. I remember the reconciliatory conversation he had with my mother and how unburdened both of them felt after that. I remember his estranged sister coming to visit with some of her family, a grand gesture given how strained that relationship had been for decades. They shared memories from childhood and the whole interaction was peaceful. I remember my brother doing exercises with dad, helping him bathe, joking with him and even being affectionate, when they used to struggle to coexist. I remember getting to tell my dad how much I love him and hold his hand. I remember the many nights I sat up with my brother, aunts, uncles, and cousins sharing comfort, memories, and even laughs. I knew I was supported by a great root system that stretched across geography and generations. I remember that my dad died surrounded by family and friends in a place he loved where he felt comfortable.
And maybe that’s what growing up is really all about, for me at least. Not just doing things that make you feel independent or important, or amassing more suffering that makes you feel experienced, but being able to look at a bad situation and not just feel sorry for yourself, but be able to see the heartrending way it restores love, repairs relationships, and makes you feel Goddamned lucky-- the terrible beauty that is born of death.