What a Father Comes to Mean

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Booksie Classic
a memoir of times shared with my father and the final time I said goodbye to him

Submitted: October 08, 2012

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Submitted: October 08, 2012

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If you grew up with a dad like mine, then you know where I'm coming from. From little on he was a man you looked up to, admired, respected, sometimes feared, and always loved. He was fun to be around. He built forts in the winter snow with you, led many snowball fights, played "monster" or other types of wild games with you, and made you laugh like no one else could. Yes, when you were little, this man was your hero. In your eyes, he could do no wrong. You couldn't wait for him to get home from a long day at work to show him the adventures you'd had that day. No matter how tired he was, he'd always take the time to stop and listen or watch and make you feel special. Your stories of your dad when you are little are unique to you. But, if you had a father like mine, you'll be able to feel the sense of relationship you had with your dad in reading mine.

There was the time he came home from the hospital after open heart surgery. I was2 years old then and far too young to really heed the warning, "You need to be careful with Daddy when he gets home. You girls aren't going to be able to climb on him and 'play wild' for quite some time." Wait? What? This was my dad. He ALWAYS 'played wild' with us. He'd lay on his back on the carpet and we'd go running full speed ahead and jump on him, only to have him push us off with his strong arms, tickle us, and have us rolling in laughter, barely able to catch our breaths before running away to do it all over again. This was part of our "Daddy's home" ritual, and now we were being told we couldn't participate. That seemed unfair. As a2 year old, I was selfish. I just wanted him home, back to the same man he was before he left. I remember the disappointment. It was only a short time before he'd sneak and "play wild" with us, even against his doctor's orders, even with my mom worrying in the background, telling him not to play.

He was always there right after work on Halloween to take us trick-or-treating. Mom stayed home and handed out candy to the neighborhood kids. Dad would fight the cold, wind, and rain to see to it that we made it to every house on the block and the next block over. When the weather was particularly awful, he'd drive us from house to house. Surely he could have just waited in the car. Our neighborhood was a safe one, where we personally knew almost everyone, but he didn't. He'd park on the side of the road, get out, and walk up with us. I think maybe he enjoyed it as much as we did.

The day he brought home the new station wagon after work, he couldn't wait to take us out in it. We were driving down the street when all of the sudden the windows kept going up and down again and again. I clearly remember him telling us that the car must be broken and he'd have to take it back. My younger sister and I fell for it. I think we both cried. My older sister happened to be sitting in the front seat and realized that this was our first car with automatic windows and she had controls on her side as well. She played along. He smiled and winked at her, enjoying their little trick for a time, then finally he let out his big laugh and told us what had really happened.

My dad was always a good prankster. He could take as well as he gave though. Every April Fools Day, my mom would help us come up with some silly trick to play on him. We sewed his pant legs together, put a hard boiled egg in his pop, and salt in his coffee, among other pranks. They were always silly. I suspect he knew about most of them before they happened, but he was a good sport and played along, to the point of pop spilling down his face and the front of his shirt one year. He'd always let out a big laugh and say, "I guess you got me again!".

We used to love to play in the snow with my dad. He'd build forts with us, lead snowball fights, and dig tunnels for us in the snow. Growing up in the Chicago suburbs, I think I looked forward to this every single year. We had a blast out there with him, and even though he had shoveling to do, he never seemed to mind taking time out of work to play with us. One year, we built a huge fort in our backyard. The neighbors very unfriendly dog escaped shortly after it was built. I remember my dad rushing us into the fort and standing at the doorway to keep the dog away from us. I was young enough that I should have been afraid. We were warned many times that the dog growled and bit often. Somehow though, with my dad standing there as protector, I knew there was nothing to be afraid of.

As I grew a little older, my dad was not just someone to have fun playing with, but he came to mean something different to me. No matter the situation we were in, I had this calm sense about me that my dad knew what to do. He was there to protect us, keep us safe, and find the best thing to do next. It's a role any good father should take on, to be sure. My dad did it with such a calm manner that I don't remember spending a day of my childhood afraid in any way if he was around.

In my early teen years, my mom became an embarrassment. It's unfortunate, but I think it happens to most moms along the way. If she wanted to take me to the mall and buy me things, it was all I could do to go with her, walking 10-20 steps ahead of her, lest my friends would see me with her. It was nothing she did at all, just a rite of passage for a girl, I think. Never once did I see my dad that way. Sure I'd make fun of him and tell him he was old, or he had grey hair, or he was embarrassing me, but the truth was, I loved it and he knew. He'd try to tell me to take it easy on my mom, but for a time there, I think it's fair to say that I figured most people liked both of my parents, but I'd rather they spent time with my dad than her.

These were the years when a simple "I'm proud of you" meant so much from my dad. Any time he'd take to talk with me one-on-one was valuable beyond measure. I actually listened to his advice and was eager for his approval of the things I did. In a sense, my dad was a quiet man. He loved to laugh and to joke, but when it came to conversation, I noticed that he didn't say a whole lot. He didn't use a bunch of unneccesary words. Mom used to joke that he only had so many he was allowed to use each day and he was saving them. In all actuality, even by my early teen years, I knew that if my dad said something meaningful about anything at all, he meant it, and I should listen.

I'm sure every child has heard sayings like: I'm not paying to air condition or heat the outside. Close the front door. Or, were you kids raised in a barn? Shut the door. As I got older, I remember him saying often that money doesn't grow on trees. My dad was always quick to slip us some money when we were headed out with friends, so I'd say, "You know, money actually does come from the paper that comes from trees" and he'd reach into his pocket and pull out some money and try to make his arms look like tree branches for me to grab it. Before I could even say "Thank you", he'd cheerfully say, "You're welcome" and give me a big smile and a hug.

We had two options for driving around with our friends when we were in high school, the conversion van, or Dad's red z-24. It isn't hard to guess which we'd rather drive. I remember him walking in from work after a long day, holding up his keys, and asking who needed them. Sometimes a sister and I would both be looking to go out. So we'd plead our cases and let him decide. This often ended up with him tossing them into the air between us both and letting us scramble for them. Unless he saw a big reason why one of us should get the car over the other, I think he didn't want to get involved or play favorites.

As I got even older, my dad took on yet a different role in my life. Little by little, he became one of my best friends. He was most certainly the first person that I'd call if I had car trouble. In fact, I remember him driving out to meet me at college to drive my car home because the muffler had fallen off and I was worried. Not only did he make the 20-30 minute drive, he did it during a Monday night Bears game. My dad was an avid Bears fan. There was nothing I can think of that he would miss a Bears game for. In fact, he used to leave church about 10 minutes early so he wouldn't miss kick-off. For him to come during that game to help me was just one of the hundreds of ways my dad showed me how much he loved and cared about me. But, it wasn't just car trouble, or the typical things you think you need a man for. No, my dad became the person I sought all kinds of advice from. From friendships, to education, to life plans, to love, I talked to my dad about almost everything. Somehow, no matter what was going wrong for me, it seemed there was nothing he couldn't fix or help me feel better about or give me sound guidance on, if I just talked with him about it.

These were the years our relationship really changed. I started to see my dad as a real person, not just a parent. He became a genuine person with real thoughts, and real emotions. I learned that there were times he was afraid, but he knew as a dad he needed to put that aside and be strong for his girls. I learned that there were things that made him cry a few times, but he knew as a father, it wasn't his place to cry on our shoulders, but to be a shoulder for our tears. I learned he had dreams he never got to pursue. I learned he had failures along the way. I got to know the real person behind the man, so to speak. I shared far more with him than he did with me, but he did let me see his humanness, and that made a world of difference to me. I learned to be less selfish, and to care about him and what he wanted to say. I learned to put aside my petty problems and listen to him about how work was going, or what the house needed now. Our relationship became far less one-sided. I grew up, and he knew it, and allowed me the privelege of being not only his daughter, but his friend.

Unfortunately for me, at least in my opinion, this time was cut far too short. My dad came to my house on a Thursday evening to leave his car here for the weekend. He and my mom were heading up to Lake Geneva to spend the weekend with my aunt and uncle. They'd done this probably a dozen times or more. He came inside for a little and visited with me. I remember thinking I was glad that he arrived here first and we had some time to talk, just him and I. Not that I didn't want to talk with my mom, but she and I talked far more often. He was so happy, so full of life. He seemed almost giddy, like a little kid, that he had a 3 day weekend ahead of him. Mom came shortly after, came in and talked for a short while, and then it was time for them to leave. I don't remember the order I said them in to be perfectly honest, but the three things I told them as they were headed down my stairs were, "I love you", "be careful", and "have fun". I also remember calling my dad to look back at me, sticking my tongue out at him to be silly, and him returning the same look. I was headed out anyway to girls night dinner. I rushed into my car and waved to them one last time at the corner of my street, turned the other way, and they were out of sight.

I had no reason to suspect that the next day I would receive the phone call that would change my life. My dad was 63 and seemingly in good health. I went to my older sister's house and she mentioned that she'd received a call from a number she didn't recognize and wasn't answering if it called again. I looked at the caller ID and said, "that's up in Lake Geneva" and the phone rang again in my hands. I answered. It was mom. I was nervously babbling about not recognizing the number, but I heard something in her voice and asked if everything was okay. Her reply was a calm but quiet, "um, Dad's had a heart attack". I remember giving the phone to my sister, going in her bathroom to cry, collecting myself, and deciding I was going to drive right up to Lake Geneva so I could be there when he woke up. My sister convinced me not to go. They weren't even at a hospital yet. They were in an urgent care type center. It would be better for me to wait until they knew where he'd be going, and better for me to have someone go with me, since I was give or take 7 weeks pregnant.

I wanted something to do, some way to help, some way to be there at the moment he opened his eyes. My mom called and told me that they expected he'd be okay. He was breathing on his own. His heart was beating. They were just waiting for him to wake up. I waited and waited. Finally during what felt like a forever long drive to get there, I got another call from my mom. The news wasn't what I wanted to hear even though deep down, I truly believe I knew. He'd been without oxygen for too long. They didn't expect him to recover at all. She said there was no rush to get there. If I wanted to wait until tomorrow, I could. I remember thinking to myself "No, this can't be right. I just saw him yesterday. He was fine. He was better than fine. I have to get there and see for myself." I prayed, too. I begged God to leave my dad here and take my unborn baby. What a horrible agonizing request that was to make. I'd wanted to be a mom for a long time, but I didn't know the baby yet, I hadn't even felt it move, and I wanted my daddy.

On the way up in the elevator, I remember meeting a nurse who asked why I was there. I told her. Her reply was a sweet, "I'm so sorry about your father". They hit me like a ton of bricks. This was reality now. Walking to his room, I remember seeing the pity on the faces of nurses who'd been caring for him and helping my mom. I took a deep breath before I went in. I remember thinking to myself that I needed to stay calm for him. I froze when I opened my eyes. I couldn't go in any further for what felt like a very long time. There he was; my dad, my best friend, my protector, my hero; laying there motionless, attached to a few different machines. I don't remember what was said by anybody at all or how long I stayed in there that first time. Sitting in that waiting room was torture. I didn't want anyone to talk. I just wanted to be quiet. I got some "congratulations" on my pregnancy. They just felt so hollow. I wanted to ask people to just stop talking to me. It felt like chatter that I just didn't need to hear.

They set up a room and the waiting room for us to try to get some sleep in. Everyone was begging me to go with my aunt and uncle and get some real sleep at their condo maybe 20 minutes away, but I knew that I could not. I decided I would not leave him there. We were asked if we wanted any life saving measures should my dad code during the night. Because they were unable to register even the most miniscule amount of brain activity, we declined. We were told if we heard a code blue called, it would not be for him. They would just come get us if he passed. I got up a few times throughout the night and visited my dad. I know I talked with him. I know I sang to him. But I don't have a clear recollection of that night at all.

I had hoped Saturday would bring some light. The news was the same. My dad was breathing on his own above the ventilator. It was just there to aid what he was already doing, to make it easier for him. His heart was beating on its own in regular rhythm, too. There just wasn't any sign of any brain activity. I remember going in alone to talk with him and I whisper sang a song into his ear. I looked up at his face and there were tears streaming down his eyes. I jumped up. I ran to tell the nurse. She assured me that this happens often with patients and not to take it as any sign that there was brain function. I believed her. I still do. It was, however, the only time any of us saw any tears in his eyes or streaming down his face. The rest of Saturday was uneventful. The decision was made that after a talk with the neurologist on Sunday to be sure that there weren't any other signs of brain activity, we would shut off any supportive measures. As of Saturday, he didn't need them anyway.

I sat with my dad as much as I could on Sunday. When the time came to unhook the machines and take out the vent, we were asked to leave. We were told we could go right back in and that likely he'd survive maybe 20-30 minutes. That wasn't at all the case. He hung on for hours. His breathing was so labored at times. There were moments I thought to myself, "that was it, that was his last breath", only to hear him breathe again. Little by little other family members came in and out of the room. I stayed. I was frozen there in that spot. I knew they all wanted me to leave, but I couldn't. Finally my brother-in-law came in and said, "your mom thinks we need to leave him alone, that he won't let go with any of us sitting in here, so take a few minutes, say what you want to say, and come out when you're ready." I sat quietly for a couple of minutes, in disbelief that anyone was going to make me leave that room, that anyone thought they had the right to tell me to let my dad pass from this life into the next without someone he loved sitting right next to him. I was hurt. I was angry.

Then a wave of peace washed over me. I can't explain why or where it came from, but I found my resolve to tell him, "I love you, Daddy! More than I ever told you and more than I ever could have showed you. And I will miss you. I want so badly to keep you here with me. But that's completely selfish. I don't want to leave you to do this on your own, but knowing the type of man and father you are, you will not let go while I'm sitting here sobbing. You'll hang on for me. And that's not what you're supposed to be doing right now. You can let go, Daddy. I'm going to be okay. We're all going to be okay. And we'll see you again someday. I kissed his hand and his forehead and whispered, "I love you" one last time, and left the room.

It was less than a minute after I'd left his room that the nurse came to tell us his breathing had slowed way down and his oxygen level was very low. She came back about 20 seconds later and said, "actually, he passed." My mom, younger sister and I braced ourselves to go see him one last time. He looked lifeless, so unlike the father I'd known my whole life. I bent down to kiss him one more time, and pushed the very last breath out of him. It was a sound I will never forget.

So it was that the father who had started out as someone fun and silly to play with became my very loved, very cherished, very sadly missed dad and best friend.


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