Walk With Dad

Featured 50 Fiction: Walk With Dad
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Shadow of father and child.
Shadow of father and child.

My father was a German-Ukrainian immigrant, a laborer who had married and in due course produced three daughters. Having weathered wars and oceans like so many of his generation, he had settled into an ordinary life as an ice cream factory worker. But my father could draw and paint with considerable finesse. He had an uncanny ability to craft in wood and metal, and could harness the sun's light with the curved slice of a magnifying glass, burning images into wood like a tattoo artist paints the skin of a client.

It was on a sun-fueled afternoon so many years ago, magnifying glass in one hand and a piece of planking in the other, that my Dad forged a fatherly offering for me that I still carry with me, but only in mind and heart, the piece itself having been long ago weeded out by the zealous, artifact-erasing housekeeper that was my mother. I was the prototypical first-born who missed little to nothing, to whom my father was, I believe, rather recalcitrantly obliged to carry on some token verification of happily ever after, for even as a child I knew things were not right at home.

My parents, dutiful if guileless partners, were to remain trapped by their vows for nearly 30 years, and every last member of the family suffered for it. Such as it is, fairy tales continue to have an effect upon innocents, so in that honorable but simple vein, my father created a gift for me, a board upon which the charred image of a fat mermaid danced, swimming in a sea of quaint debris and stylized, black fish. The mermaid was just for me; that mermaid was me. Leaning against his lawn chair I had watched, mesmerized, as the sun-burnt seascape slowly, slowly had come to life. This he did years -- no, decades -- before Disney ever gave us its mass-marketed, betailled and brash young redhead. Whatever my father did not do, whoever he was not, my dad did beat out Disney. In that respect, my father could invoke alongside Anderson or the brothers Grimm. Such is parent.

But my father also hit me as a child; I was a teenager before he finally did it for the last time. He hit me because, as he would tell me (hand raised in the air, ready to strike), I was the oldest and should know better. He hit me because someone had no doubt hit him when he was a child. He hit me because he didn't know better, because he was not capable of choosing to break the cycle in which he still wallowed. My second sister, the middle child, was also a recipient of our father's stinging blows. Struggling as an adult, she spent years refusing to visit with either one of our parents. Annual letters, a holiday card or two and sporadic phone calls helped her maintain an arm's length relationship with both of them. Despite best efforts, wading knee-deep in old anger rendered her a volatile and fragile personality and her body prematurely and chronically ill.

This sister once asked me how I could tolerate our father's presence, as I continued to
invite and welcome both parents to home and hearth and into the lives of my own three children. Doing so, I told her, gave me the opportunity to allow my children to forge their own memories of their grandparents and it allowed me to practice being the bigger mensch, the evolved daughter. Not easy, ever, but as necessary to me as it was difficult. Additionally, it helped me chip away at whatever dysfunctional remnants I would still find in my own soul. Visits with my parents also created a few critically important opportunities for me to stand my ground as an adult, most especially with my father. I am not a perfect parent by any stretch of the imagination, but I am trying with all my might to not let the cycle of punishment extend to another generation. For one, I do not hit my kids. It was important for me to somehow let him know my intention.

Indeed, there was a definitive scenario that played itself out one afternoon not too many years ago, as my father sat at the kitchen table with his cup of coffee, watching me prepare the evening meal. Of his own accord, he began to muse that his hitting us had been a productive thing. Thus, my dad handed me golden, peace-era opportunity, quietly and without fanfare. My father asked me: Did it not teach me a thing or two? Did it not keep us in line? I paused for only a moment, the perfect response having been offered up to my consciousness in the blink of an eye: No, Dad, hitting me did not teach me anything other than that I would never want my children to feel towards me the way I felt towards you when you hit me. Those were the exact words I said. With that gently put statement, I was able to devalue and diminish the impact of every smack, every Katzenkopf I had ever received, and I could acknowledge the futility of every bitter tear he had ever wrung from me with his ugly, reactionary method. This, dear sister, sole partner in our unfortunate legacy, was one of the reasons why I wanted him around, to stand up to my parent and confirm to our father's face that his abusive modus operandi, though in memory etched, would not be my behavioral imprint.

We make our beds; karma does exist. The Fates do mete out that which has been tallied
and collected and earned along the way. How we interpret what comes back to bite us can be bitter wisdom; what we do in its face can be a final act of grace. That next July, my father lay ignominiously in his hospital bed, plugged into a ventilator and without the ability to speak. Subsisting in abject misery, this was the result of a car crash incurred by a momentary lack of judgment. Distraction of thought, the tiniest of strokes? We'd never know. My father lay there, the damaged product of a faulty perception and aggressive nature that had already reared its unfortunate head a few times before; the dents, the scratches on his car were proof of that. Some proactive, protective measures could have, should have been taken to remove him from behind his beloved but ever-increasingly dangerous wheel, but nothing had come to anyone's active notice. My father lived independently in another city and shared only what he deemed suitable and adequate with his daughters, in part to ensure his continued free access to the evermore confusing world around him.

Now, pain, guilt and sheer embarrassment over his horrific, momentary error had squelched any desire in my bedridden father to fight for some semblance of geriatric wellness. He had lived his eight lives, had carved out time and again niches for himself in various cities, countries and states, first as a child and later with my mother, and after their marriage had come to its dour conclusion, all by himself. Clueless as was typical for his ilk, that my father might have played a key role his marital demise had never, would never occur to him. My father mourned the loss of his wife by proclaiming her deceased. That my mother, too like him in too many ways, had been willing to leave her husband to face her later-life years alone, struggling both financially and emotionally, was forever lost on him as suggestion for some serious room for improvement. My Dad, ego bruised, had carried on with a contrived but effective dignity, as does my mother to this day, bless her heart. They were and are olde worlde, both survivors of war and brutal harshness, of preoccupied and absentee parents, scarred and proud, etiquette bound if duly stunted.

As my parents' respective, single years progressed, they were both able to achieve a more
mellowed general demeanor, though bitter quips at times still slithered from their lips. The intended recipients of my father's latent, projected anger were diverse and multigenerational; I knew well enough to enjoy his company in small, many-peopled doses and to always stand quiet guard on behalf of my children. As I did, I was able to build on the fragile emotional house I shared with my father, in which we resided in tandem, our interactions facilitated by the filtering presence of others we both called our own, commoners in the general, almost comfortable dysfunction that holds so many families together. But now he served as prisoner in a hospital bed, that house closed down and its doors locked, his freedom forever compromised all because of a last minute, errant decision and the subsequent, violent collision, his bones in pieces, lungs failing, bowels twisted. My Father was done with it all, interested only in convalescing enough to take charge of his life one last time, to insist on his right to end his life support.

And this is just what he did, on a hot, bright summer's Saturday morning. My two sisters
and I, their families and a group of close friends surrounded his bed. I stood at my father's right side. Of my three children, only my second son was present. My oldest son was in Virginia and my daughter, too young to participate in this somber celebration, was with friends. My husband, who had been so very there for me from the first, urgent phone call to that final morning in the hospital, stood behind me. My father's unmitigated joy at seeing all the faces surrounding his bed lit his entire being. They had shaved his '80s-holdover mustache off; he looked younger, his face once more that of the man I had looked upon as a child. My youngest sister, who had served as his immediate friend, neighbor and caregiver for the past few years, sat quietly at the foot of the bed, her work done, content to watch her father say good-bye to everyone who had showed up that morning, satisfied to the depths of her temperate soul that she had done the right thing at the right time for her parent, to the best of her capacity. Having never been struck by our father, her regard was less tarnished, but her burden had been to endure being pulled nearly in two at times by a pair of competing non-comrades in marriage who had each wanted to be loved best. This sister had had more than her fair share to process and accept. Middle sis, her defiance temporarily folded and shelved to allow for demonstrations of devotion, stroked our father's left hand -- whether to soothe or to insist soundlessly on some attention, one can only surmise. She chatted at our father, entreating him to come and see them sometime, but just to not say, "Boo." A standup soliloquy, an attempt at moribund comedy? Yes, but mostly a sad example of too little too late. Dad made eye contact with her, but only a couple of times, and he did chuckle silently in response, as much as any obliging, tethered audience member could.

Our father's eyes had instead come to rest on me, on the opposite side of the bed,
entreating me for reassurance, approval and a final go-ahead. "You think too much," he had long ago told me. The accusation is a hard-edged comment over which I have always ruminated. Even back then - and I was so young when he had said it -- I had had an inkling of what this truly meant: What disconcerted Dad back then was his awareness of a window his child was chiselling away at, that would one day grow to be her door and the impetus to exit and exist in an entirely different world from his. Whatever it was about me that had begun to estrange me from my father so early on was, interestingly, what now allowed me to be there for him, so many years later. That autumn, his sister, my elegant, diminutive aunt, would tell me that my father had said to her that I was the daughter who could be counted on, the one who would take care of things.

Compulsively thought-filled and thoughtful I might have been, I as my father's firstborn
daughter, his parental quagmire, was there some forty years after the fact, ready, willing and able to rise above all that had passed between us and all that had not, and to give freely back whatever was needed of me in that moment. I would keep vigil for my father and see that his last wish would come to purposeful, elegant fruition. I would be there for my father just as he had been there for me in all his touching, hurtful parental innocence and ignorance, and I would do it with honor. Though there is never an excuse for hostility towards one's child at any age, I believe the mutual misery that fueled my parents' mistreatment of my sisters and me was the continuation of a legacy of misfortune; neither one of them had been given as children the emotional foundation upon which to rise above their retrogressive ways. Though this understanding doesn't change the memories; it allows me to file them in a less damaging corner of my mind. I too am a failed firstmarriage alumnus, having lifted myself up and out of my downward spiral years before my mother finally packed her bags and moved out. Before even she had come to grips with what she needed to do, I had already decided to try to learn from both my parents' mistakes, and to bypass their stubborn adherence to promises long expired and to change course accordingly. I did not want to be or do like either one of them. I understood this to be a form of insight and wisdom for which I could in all honesty thank them.

When my father desired to pass on and to schedule this event, I understood that, too.
Fully and instantly. I knew Dad well enough to know why he wanted to do it and in that context could not fault him one iota. His plan was a challenge that would catapult me into practicing a much-pondered, progressive mantra on life and death, requiring me to personally make sure a death, his passing, would be handled with grace and dignity and not futilely, selfishly fought against, and this I accepted.

Heart-soaring rounds of tear-filled good-byes, token promises and protestations of love
and remembrance concluded, gingerly placed kisses having found their way past the tubing and the wires, the nurse started the drip, an IV cocktail of two potent drugs. My father held my hand with all the strength he could muster; his grip that of a purposeful child's, one who would not be lost in the crowd. I could sense his eagerness to feel the drugs overtake him; he was willing this thing on. Dad's eyes eventually glazed over and he began to doze off. Whenever my second sister's commentary or a slight jar of the bed roused him, his eyes would pop open and he would look around and then back at me, slightly puzzled. I knew he was wondering, curious without the least bit of dread, if this was the first of an afterlife-awareness. Are we there yet? My Dad was dying to be There, ready to go to this somewhere very, very new. He was ready to discard the tobacco-ravaged, broken body that had kept its wanderlust-imbued host in bed for the course of one pain-wracked, silence-riddled, memory-warping, nondescript summer and fly out, above and beyond.

It was nearly three hours before my Father was pulled down into drug-induced slumber.
He relaxed his grip on my hand as he went under, shifting only to wrap his hand around my wrist. Still, he held on to me. I was his chaperone, his guideline out of the room, there to serve as quietly wakeful human liaison as he in fully cognizant, gracious awareness commenced on his walk into the Unknown. I saw the pale shelf on which we both stood. I saw the immense dark skies that surrounded us on all sides. I saw the ledge from which he stepped forward and out, into a space from which I was barred. This landscape is still clear in my mind. Nearly all in black, even in my living state, it is not a fear-invoking void. I had the honor to hold my father's hand on what would be our last walk together, to go as far as I humanly could with him, on a stroll that would literally take him to the edge of the mortal world we had to that day all shared, and to see him off.

The drugs seeped farther into his person, working hard to completely overtake him. In his last moment of consciousness, my father looked into my eyes and mouthed I Love You. I nodded as I had been nodding from time to time all morning -- Yes, Dad, it's okay, it's okay -- and whispered back I Love You Too. And I meant it. Rather completely. Absolution? Forgiveness? What single word or phrase can best encompass two lives pulled into a denouement that will have to serve as a nutshell summary of their existence? My father held fast to my wrist even in unconsciousness. I slowly extricated my hand after he was finally completely under, for I had to physically let him go. I could see that my Father's eyelids still twitched every so slightly, still registering some of the activity around him; his was a stoic constitution, resistant despite his intention. I quickly found the attending nurse and asked her to administer a second, bolstering dose of the drugs. Borne of an immense feeling of responsibility to help my Father succeed and to make sure he would be left with as little reflexive fight as possible, I wanted him beyond any physical struggle for air once the ventilator was disconnected. The last dose was administered and finally, finally, finally, all eyelid muscle activity ceased. This medically induced shutdown, the cessation of any movement of his eyes, was something I needed to see beyond any shadow of a doubt.

Peace and relief then took me tearlessly beyond all of the past as my Father's body wound down: Past hurt-filled tears, past promises to self of change, evolution and independence, past old, idle wishes for parents to be more than they ever could be, past all discordant views my own reality and maturity afforded me, past whatever I might then need to discard for the sake of my self and those with whom I would still share this world. I had been blessed with an opportunity to help guide my imperfect father past any vestigial, inherent chance of fear, beyond all retribution and on into the immense realm that transforms into the Timelessness the love a parent has for his child. For myself, I was able to find and in finality lay claim to the eternal bond that holds child to his parent and to be completely and utterly content with what I was left. I helped Dad down one last path no differently than how he had from time to time helped me: faces drawn on paper, my name written for the first time, sidewalks and bicycles, chapel aisles, rented trucks filled with old furniture and new hope. On this final walk I was given the gift of a single, great memory that will forever be mine, forever parallel to that which he held for me when he first cradled me in his rough hands, loving me, unsure and in awe of me as I, newly borne, slept.

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