The Long Goodbye

My dad lay in the hospital bed in the dim room, breathing in and out rhythmically like a metronome ticking in beat with the oxygen pumping in the background, the suction sounds the chorus in a scene that I had experienced before.  In the shadows, the nurses quietly glide around the room and then his bed, offering gentle touches and whispering tones as they ask him questions or provide instructions. To an outsider, he seems somewhat non-responsive, but these nurses understand Dad’s new way of communicating. 

Dad, 93 years old, has had visitors from near and far since news of his entering hospice went public a month ago. Visiting family and FaceTime calls, even childhood friends of mine have stopped by.  When I first came to see him immediately after the Less Cancer Bike Ride this past June, Dad was clear and so clearly in charge.  Over his lifetime I watched him right many wrongs; quietly helping the little guy or those who may look different. If I made mention of these incidents, he would get mad as hell, and tell me “it’s just not anyone’s business.” In truth, if Dad was on your side, I witnessed many a man run in the opposite direction, tearing out their hair. He was guided by excel sheets and concrete numbers. Dad navigated his life in figures, rows, and measurements. 

Frank Couzens was married to my mother Joan Ulrich until her death, and together they had seven children. Dad frequently would say, “Each of my seven children is different; not one is the same.” Our styles were certainly different, but our cores were the same as we all have shared community values. He was a man of recipes, best practices, and rules. I am like that too, as are all of my siblings. 

My brother Frank shared Dad’s name, along with a deep love for order and precision. They would lunch together, looking like members of the same tribe, discussing things like organizing the garage or the perfect Christmas tree light. They held metaphoric mirrors to each other — the reason they loved and also frustrated each other. They were both so tidy in the way they lived; they even dried out the kitchen sink when they were done with washing up.  As a disruptor, my joy was turning on the sink and leaving the neatly folded towel wet and in a heap near the drain.  He had a work ethic that was unflappable, discipline and structure in his DNA. His advocacy could be misunderstood and seem righteous, accompanied by unsolicited advice or commentary. But it was anything but righteousness. It was always his intention and his drive to help. Dad devoted his life to running like a dependable clock. He always drove the speed limit in a navy blue Ford LTD and wore white shirts and gray suits. The heels of his shoes were never scuffed; never a hair out of place on his balding head. Dad loved having daughters. He took his girls and daughters-in-law to the Detroit Athletic Club, a city business club, for the father and daughter luncheon, a treasured tradition between them for over 60 years.

He howled once, possibly for days, when my younger brother brought home his second-grade assignment with words and pictures. One word was “goddamn,” and John had drawn lightning bolts. Dad was so proud of it he shared it with the bishop. 

Dad was a well-groomed, tucked-in bad ass. At one point these last couple of days, while eager to see three of his grandsons, he had drifted off to a hard sleep and just as I thought possibly he had taken his last breath, he called out, “Does my hair look OK for the boys?” And then dropped instantly into a deep sleep. He wanted to look his best for my brother’s sons soon to visit. I loved that. And yes he looked his best.  I am grateful my mom isn’t here, thankful he’s on his way to her, and appreciative that Linda, my dads second wife, has been in my dad’s life for this final chapter. Mom had her strengths, and Linda has hers. Both brought much to my Dad’s life.

The Detroit Tigers were on the TV with the sound as low background whispers of the game.  As if he were listening, I asked Dad if he remembered when I was in the little league running around the bases the wrong way? Getting hit with the ball was the only way I could make it to a base, but my dad showed up to watch the games and, though wincing. always cheered me on. Any accomplishments on the baseball field were either an accident or a gift from the baseball gods. One time as a ball was hit to the outfield I heard calls of “Bill! Bill!” and all I could think of was, “Oh shit, please don’t make that ball come to me.” As I stared into the sun staggering, zigzagging back and forth, I prayed I would catch the ball. When I heard cheers in the crowd, I assumed the kid made it around the diamond. When I let my gloved hand fall to my side in shame, I realized the ball had in fact been in my glove, and the crowd was cheering for me.

Later in life, Dad and I found our differences to be amusing. He would scratch his head to understand. For me, it was a joy to make him laugh at something inappropriate and irreverent. Another time, he told me how proud he was of the work around Less Cancer. Like him, I could rarely take anything at face value. I even pretended to check his temperature. But on that one, I knew he was sincere.  Deep in sleep, I saw him running through the excel sheets of his brain making sure all was in a row. Dad seemed like he was negotiating in these last days. As with the last 93 years of his life, he was triple checking the details. Should he stay or should he go? Dad drifted farther away from the universe we know. He moved towards the other side, but like tidal waters, he drifted back and forth.  The days are blended into one long roller coaster ride. A couple of days ago, my sisters Carol and Margaret made our way to the outdoors, stumbling Dracula-like in the bright sun. We found cement steps and lowered ourselves in heaps, sunning together in the parking lot like a litter of Labrador puppies being warmed in the cool summer air of northern Michigan.  The minutes, hours and days bring Dad to a deep calm, taking him farther from us, moving closer to my mom, brother Frank, and sister Anne.

I miss each of them. This morning they have been reunited. 

Most people think of Dad as banker, philanthropist, and community leader; but I know his proudest role was as a son, brother, husband, and, to me, an indelible father.

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