Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Saying Good-bye






Dad died in his own bed. A stream of family and friends filtered in and out of his room the last few weeks. Mom was vigilant in seeing to his every need and in following doctors’ instructions on controlling pain. Just days before he died he came out of his coma-like state long enough to greet his first grandson. The doctors had done all there was to do; had prolonged his life longer than anyone had expected or even hoped for.

When dad was diagnosed with Lymphoma cancer, I was attending junior high school. When I was nearly twenty-two and had only been married for a few months, I saw Dad at the University Hospital in Salt Lake. “You and Mick better come down. I don’t think there will be another chance,” Mom had said into the phone.

I’d seen Dad sick before, awfully sick, dizzy and throwing up after his chemotherapy treatment, crawling down the hallway to the bathroom. Then often the next day, he’d seemed perfectly healthy as if the ravaging cancer just an elusive trick on his body. The first time I took Mick home to meet the family Dad was sick in bed. He talked to Mick for a few minutes before I went in. All I heard Dad say was, “Just remember one thing and you’ll get along fine—Carole is always right.”

I was always right and so was my dad, which made congenial conversation difficult. Dad had opinions about everything and so did I—only they were usually on opposite ends of the spectrum. Once at our family cabin in Silver Gate, Montana, we shouted at each other about the direction of the gas station. My friends stared in stunned silence. Later one of my friends whispered, “Why does it matter so much?”

As I walked the long halls of the hospital, I braced myself—what could I possibly say to my dying father. I’d never really been able to express my love to him. Should I now? As I stood outside his room trying to compose myself, I heard laughter in the room. Laughter? Finally I tiptoed in. There Dad was sitting up in bed teasing my cousin, Dinny, and her boyfriend—and they were all laughing. He was surprised to see us. Had we driven all the way down from Tremonton, just to see him?

“I guess I was pretty sick yesterday. I can’t remember a whole lot about it except the pain. But now look at me. I think I’ll see if I can go home in the morning,” he said smiling. He joked with everyone, the nurses, Mick and me, and his visitors. Dad was a bishop for many years and each time he stood at the pulpit, you could feel the anticipation. Everyone in the ward knew he would tell a joke. They were often jokes about himself, his bald head for instance. Once when he was admonishing the congregation to get their food storage, he added, “And I want you to know that I’ve taken the Brethrens’ council to heart and have my two year supply of shampoo. I got it the last time I stayed in a hotel. It’s a little bar of soap.”

Dad didn’t die then. He rallied as he had so many times before. Mick and I celebrated our first Halloween together and I persuaded Mick to dress up like a woman because I’d always wanted to put mascara on his long eyelashes, since mine were so short. We took homemade treats to our neighbors in our costumes. Then on November 2nd, 1979—I’d just gotten home from U.S.U. classes when the phone rang. It was my brother, Brian. “Where have you been all day?”
“School of course.” I should’ve known what he would say next—after all Dad had been in and out of a coma that last week, but somehow I didn’t know.
“Dad died this morning.”
I burst into tears.
“It was for the best—he…”
“I know, I know. I just wanted a chance to say good-bye.”
The truth is I just wanted the chance to say: Even though we argued often, no one could make me laugh the way you did. And no one made me feel like you did when you would tell people that your daughter was deep into “pot,” and then you’d show off one of my handmade pottery pieces. And you’d dig my reject pots out of the garbage can to take to work with you and sell them to your co-workers; then smugly hand me the few bucks you’d made. I liked the way you used to pull me onto your lap and make me give you a kiss on the cheek. And whenever I needed money you’d always say the same thing: “Bring back the change and no sass!” And I liked massaging that bald head that you were so proud of for you, and going out for a malt and pretending to be embarrassed while you explained to the bemused waitress exactly how to make it, with the ice cream two inches above the glass. Even though your cancer had gone into remission and you outlived the doctors’ most optimistic prognosis by four years there still wasn’t a good time to say, I love you.