Today marks the day that, in 1995, my dad died. I had just turned 23 a few weeks earlier and was really naive enough to think he was going to get better. I was so confident, I moved 892 miles away a few months before his death. Since I only lived 3 hours away, we stayed overnight at his house before setting out the next morning. As we hugged goodbye, the thought "this is the last time you'll see him" ran through my head. As usual, I second guessed myself and drove off into the wild blue yonder to "start over" in Mobile, AL.
He had been diagnosed with cancer in 1992, while I was pregnant with my first child and when he said he was going to get better, I believed him. I was a Navy brat and I hadn't grown up around elderly of chronically ill people. I was completely ignorant. My husband, who grew up in a small town with extended family all around him, couldn't fathom that for a long time. I think he just gave up and said, "I get it." so I would stop trying to explain. It didn't occur to me to take time off from my crappy waitressing job in Maryland to help take care of him in Norfolk, Virginia. I didn't know you were supposed to do these things. It didn't help that I was getting divorced at the time and, rather than spend her entire childhood in court, I gave in and let my ex-husband have primary care of our daughter. My world was literally falling apart. I feel guilty to this day that people I had only met a few times drove him to doctor's appointments and checked on him when his girlfriend was at work. I have to remind myself that I was "just a kid" at the time and just didn't know.
About a month before he died, he told his brother in Oregon that he wanted to go home. So, my aunt bought them some airline tickets and my uncle went to get my dad. The doctors said he couldn't make the trip so my uncle helped him into a wheelchair and told the staff they were going for a walk. It was, from all accounts, a miserable flight for my dad, my uncle and the guy sitting behind them who got mooned every time my uncle had to get behind the seat and pull dad up when he slid down in his seat. (ok. now I'm laughing thinking about the fact that "crack" seems to be a problem for the men in my family. My dad was always doing something around the house or on a vehicle and his crack was always there to help him and one of my cousins has the same "problem"- any time, anywhere) A few days later, one of the nurses from the hospice called my aunt to see if he had made the trip alright. She and my aunt laughed about the fact that the staff suspected my uncle and dad were making a run for it, but just let them go. He was in a hospice and even then, I believed he was going to get better.
The day before he died, my aunt helped him call me. We talked for a few minutes and I don't even remember what about. I remember he sounded sleepy. I had written him a letter and my aunt encouraged me to send it and write to him often. I promised I would and we hung up. I cried because he sounded so weak.
The next day, my aunt called to tell me he had died. She had gone in to sit with him and she suggested he take a walk on the beach, using guided imagery to aid in the pain management. He grew up on the Oregon coast, which is often covered in thick fog. I like to think he walked into that dense fog and kept going.
As I get older, the thing that hurts the most is that, in my selfish youthfulness (or is it youthful selfishness?), all I cared about was getting the world to listen to ME and to look at ME and tell ME I was wonderful. I didn't ask questions about where he came from and what his thoughts and opinions were about much of anything. I didn't take the time to really get to know him.
On top of my lack of curiosity, another reason I didn't ask questions was that our family instituted "Don't ask, Don't tell" long before Clinton exhaled that phrase. My dad had fought in Viet Nam but he didn't talk about it. I'm glad he didn't burden me with the reality of war as a child but as an adult, I would like to know about his experience since it shaped so much of my childhood. He didn't talk about it with my mom, either and I think that was because he just didn't want to relive the loss of shipmates and friends and the gruesome events he lived through. Back then, you came home and went back to your normal life. You just carried on as though you'd been out on an extended business trip. To open that up may have made all those emotions unmanageable.
But it's not as though we lived in a vacuum, just existing side by side and never connecting. Dad loved the outdoors and there was lots of quality family time camping, boating, hiking in the woods or puttering in a garden. And we talked. A lot. My dad loved to read and was always excited about a new book- usually in the sciences or philosophy. He and my mom instilled a love of reading, and books in general, in me when I was very young.
Everything I have tried to write from this point on sounds like a syrupy obituary. You know the one where they take half a page trying to convince the world that Charlie was a great guy who loved everyone and everyone loved him right back. So I'm going to wrap this up with a list of things I have come to realize I have learned from my dad.
1) self reliance- My dad was big on this. He didn't ask for help nor did he accept offers of help. I've come to realize this was a foolish policy. Which leads me to my next lesson-
2) learn from your mistakes- Dad used to say that the only stupid mistake is one you don't learn from. (I've learned a lot in 40 years)
3) high standards- he held them for me but also for himself because...
4) if it's worth doing, it's worth doing right.-and....
5) failure is not an option- And you've only failed if you stopped trying. So...
6) Keep a positive outlook
7) "Put yourself in their shoes"- This used to drive me crazy! When I would complain about someone or disparage anything they did, this was his usual response. But it has served me well over the years. I feel like it has helped me to be a better nurse, parent, and friend. An added bonus is that I get to drive my husband and kids nuts with it!
8) A good leader doesn't ask his/her people to do anything he/she wouldn't do.Dad was a Senior Chief in the Navy so he tried to teach me about leadership and this is one thing that has stood out for me over the years.
And finally, this is not anything he ever said but definitely something that he lived-
9) stay curious!