It seemed to be an ancestral struggle between us, unfinished issues of our forebears that had been passed down to us, through his DNA to mine, as tangible as the blue eyes we both possessed along with all the males on his side of the family. But something had gone askew in my gene mix, some mercurial imprint that had skipped over me or perhaps was nullified by the chromosomal pool of my mother’s family. Somewhere in there the love of creativity had been implanted, and whatever legacy of a business mind that existed was constantly overshadowed by my preference for art and literature, for indulging in all that was beautiful and intangible.
It was the source of all the great tension between us — my father the pragmatist, me the idealist — a high-tension-wire relationship always on the verge of snapping saved only by an underlying span of love.
Then two years ago the time came when, out of this love for him, out of the necessity of securing my mother’s future, I had given in. And now, after countless weekend lessons, after years of allowing myself to be pulled into his world leaving little time for mine, after years of confronting the greatest differences between us … he was proud of me.
I didn’t know what to say. His words described all that love that was between us … and all those differences.
How did one phrase contain so much? I realize now that the pride I felt in hearing it — and he in saying it — was the bridge that had all along connected us.
“Thanks, Dad,” I finally whispered.
He was silent so I added: “And listen, I want you to know, in every way possible you’re leaving mom and me secure. Jeez, with THE 9 INSIGHTS OF THE WEALTHY SOUL as a guide, how can I go wrong? A school kid could follow your system.”
Through a haze of pain and drugs, he had summoned every bit of his remaining strength to type out this outline for me approximately a month earlier, not letting anyone enter the room for hours at a time over the course of a week to interrupt the fevered pitch of this last outpouring of love, strength and knowledge. And though one can actually see the pain of his struggle etched in each keystroke of the original paper — the multiple typos attesting to the degree to which his normal perfectionism was compromised — the genius of his thinking still shines through with supreme clarity.
“Anyway,” I continued, “if you consider the 40, 50 years I have ahead of me, along with the lives of your future grandchildren and their children, your system will eventually bring the family more than any inheritance you could have left. What’s that favorite expression of yours?”
He weakly smiled. I waited, then repeated it for him. “Give me fish, I have fish for a day. Teach me to fish, I have fish for a lifetime.” He nodded, drifting off.
“I love you, dad.” I kissed his forehead, gently placing his hand back on his abdomen. “Rest now.”
Eyes closed, he nodded again, barely perceptibly this time.
In the dark, I backed out of his room. I stood by the doorway several minutes, unsure of myself, unsure about leaving him. I finally returned to the spare room, sat on the foam, The Caine Mutiny at my side, staring at nothing for a long time.
How does one act after speaking what may be last words to one’s father?
The sun woke me, as it always does. For a few moments I lay still, enjoying the peace of early morning. I listened to the birdsong, enjoying the serenade. Through the closed window I could even hear the slight slap of surf a block away. I slowly focused my attention to the noises in our house. Complete silence.
I bolted upright, suddenly back in the drama I had left less than four hours earlier. I listened carefully and instantaneously knew two things:
My mother was still asleep — highly unusual, she normally waking at 5:30 every morning; but maybe not unusual now knowing the depth of her exhaustion.
And from the adjacent room, where my father slept, also complete silence.
I was on my feet and into his room within seconds. His body was unmoving, unbreathing. A sense of disbelief took hold of me. After two years of illness and the last five months of going to bed, not knowing if it would be his last night — he praying it would be so, to be spared further agony — was this finally it?
I stared and stared for what seemed liked minutes. The full-time nurses that came the following days would tell me it was, in fact, about 45 seconds between his breaths. They would say it was phenomenal that anyone could survive in such a suspended state for as long as my father had; even more phenomenal that each morning for weeks ahead he would wake up from this state. And most amazing of all, that he would wake up and with what little life force he had left, watch the Financial News Network, call up Fidelity’s Touch Tone Trader to check on the stocks — both the ones we owned and the ones he still yet had the presence of mind to consider buying — and counsel me further in taking over as family financial manager once he was finally gone.
But this morning, this first occurrence of such long periods between breaths, this day after I thought I had said goodbye for the last time the night before, the sudden wheeze that emitted from his lungs caught me by surprise.
And several hours later, waking with the same gasp, it caught him equally by surprise to suddenly arise and find himself still alive, his hand being taken by the hospice nurse; his wife and son standing in the doorway, silent, helpless spectators.
And then the question, the beautiful, bewildering transformation of a lifetime’s worth of fears and ponderings about mankind’s greatest mystery into a single statement that materialized one man’s near-death into a sudden acknowledged reality.
“You almost went last night, didn’t you?”
And finally, the incredible, uncontrollable tears from my father, those from the nurse and my mother, and the silent ones … those yet still partially locked within me.
Henri, the nurse, at last smiled. “Where’s Kevorkian when you need him?”
“Give him my regards,” my father answered, amazing me … amazing us all … with his clarity.
And from there, the almost script-like precision of repartee between nurse and patient, the humor, the strength and honesty of an experienced flight-controller guiding a heroic pilot in from stormy clouds for his final landing.
“You brought your magic wand again,” my father smiled, exhausted but comforted at the end of their communion.
“Right beside my stethoscope.” She patted his hand, rising to let him rest. With a glance behind us, my mother and I followed the nurse from the room to let my father return to his quiet journey.
It was many years since I’d had to face the journey of another loved one. Now, through fire, with my father, those deepest lessons I had learned were being rekindled again.
And it is only because those lessons lay at the most central core of all that I became, and that that journey was one I — that we all — will one day have to face with our parents, possibly with other loved ones, and with our own lives, that I sift through the pain and try to crystallize what I have learned.
Copyrighted by Dr. Michael Norwood
all rights reserved