Shortly before Christmas 1994, my father died of cancer. Like all men who have what can most kindly be described as “troubled” relationships with their fathers, my feelings after his death were complex and difficult to give form to. A very wise woman I was involved with in 1996 urged me to write about his death, so that I might find a way to deal with my feelings.
Realizing there may be something universal in what I wrote, she urged me to publish it, and so I did that summer.
Journey’s End: Thoughts on the death of my father
One November evening in 1977, just a few short hours after I had entered into a marriage that could only be described as “disastrous,” (and which everyone could see but me) my father sat at the kitchen table and wept.
My father and I never spoke of the incident. I found out only because my mother had related the story to a woman I was living with several years later. Hearing about it both amazed and disconcerted me.
There was much that my father and I never spoke of; like many parents and children, there constantly seemed to be a barrier between us. There were differences and issues between us that we both were aware of but never spoke of. And on the few occasions when one of us would make the attempt to breach the wall, it seemed that the other was not open to the effort.
More often than not, I was the one who rejected the efforts at reconciliation. And yet the bonds that connected us, both genetic and spiritual, could not be broken, despite everything.
Two years ago, in June of 1994, my father was diagnosed with brain cancer. He had celebrated his 61st birthday just days before.
I got the message at around ten o'clock in the evening that my father had had what seemed to be a stroke. Arriving at Washington Regional Medical Center, I was informed that he had collapsed at home and that my sister had driven him to the hospital. Once at the hospital, he had begun having seizures. He also could not remember his own name, nor the name of the family members with him.
As I walked into the emergency room, he was laying atop the bed, nurses hovering around him. He looked up at me and said, “Hello, Richard.”
“Do you know who that is?” someone asked.
“Yes,” he answered,” that’s Richard.”
Why would he recognize me, when there were others gathered around who had been more attentive, more respectful, more loving than me? I have never been able to answer this question: Who was I to you?
I volunteered to watch over my father while the rest of my family went home and got some much-needed rest. That night my father and I had an encounter that would stay with me throughout the course of his illness.
My father was still confused as he was put to rest upstairs in a room. Moreover, he was fitted with a catheter which we were told must stay attached. I settled down to watch over him as he slept.
Every so often he would moan loudly, or ask for his wife (his memory was returning). I managed to calm him and sat with him throughout the night, talking quietly to him when he would awaken.
Close to dawn, my exhaustion and fear for my father combined to bring me to momentary sleep as I sat in the easy chair next to the bed. My eyes snapped open as my father leaped from the bed, attempting to rid himself of the catheter. I rang the bell for the nurse and placed my hands my father's shoulders, trying to calm him.
In his confusion, he fought against me, and to my horror, I found myself struggling with my own father, clad only in a hospital gown in a darkened hospital room, while calling loudly for the nurse. He slipped from my grasp and against a small table, sliding to the floor.
I ran to the door, yelling for the nurse. Within seconds, she was in the room, helping my father back to the bed.
In all, the entire sequence of events must have only lasted perhaps a minute, but it was a minute that has stayed with me since then.
But perhaps what disconcerted me the most during my father's illness was his resultant loss of physical and communication skills. To not be able to read, or speak coherently, or even tell time must have been a living hell for my father.
What terrible frustrations he must have felt, able to communicate with no one, trapped within the prison of a mind which had betrayed him.
My mother and sister took care of my father for the length of his illness, just as they had during his previous bouts with cancer. Though my mother asked me several times to come over and take care of him for a weekend, I almost always found something to do, whether it be work or other obligations.
The memory of grappling with my confused father in a darkened hospital room was never far from my mind.
After several stays in different hospitals, my father spent his last days in Fayetteville’s Veteran’s Hospital. When I went to visit him I was shocked at how terrible he looked. Laying in a bed in a room which almost resembled a storeroom rather than a hospital room, he was shrunken in on himself. “It's time to die,” the thought came unbidden from my mind. “It's time to die.”
We spent a few minutes engaging in meaningless conversation, neither understanding the other. We had spent 40 years engaged in similar conversations, each of us unable (and perhaps at times unwilling) to understand the other. Where before some of our misunderstandings and miscommunications may well have been because our viewpoints were so divergent, now the wall between us was stone solid, thick and cold and dark.
This last wall would not be crossed by hand or voice or prayer. This was Death’s wall, and its gate would only open for a second, and would admit only one.
My father had come to the VA to die, and so he did a few days later, on a cold Saturday, close to midnight. Christmas was a short week later.
Within minutes after he was declared officially dead, I went down to the office and completed the paperwork necessary at times like this, since I was the only family member who still had composure left. But very soon after my mother and sister had left the hospital, the shock hit me, and badly. I looked down and saw my father’s body, stiff under the sheet. Panic and loss began to surge through my bloodstream.
Reaching for the telephone, I began dialing all the numbers I could remember, but almost everyone I tried to reach was asleep or not at home. When I finally made contact with a human being, I found myself unable to speak more than a few stumbling sentences.
On the way out of the hospital, all of the emotion that I had been suppressing surged through me at once, and I hurled my fist straight out at the gleaming wall of the elevator. It did no good at all. Once out of the hospital, I walked for hours before coming home and surrendering to an unsettled sleep.
As in all families, each person in my family traveled the road toward my father’s departure on similar yet very different paths. For the survivors, the hardest path was traveled by my mother, who took care of him over the last months of his life.
Finally, I realized that our paths are continuing, even two years later, and we are still affected by his death. As I walk down the path along other deaths and toward my own, I hope that use the lessons my father’s death taught me, and cross over - however briefly - onto other’s paths, and walk through walls.
Ozark Gazette - June 10, 1996