The last time I saw my dad was Sunday, Oct. 19, exactly a month ago today. I had no way of knowing that when I said goodbye to him that afternoon, it would be the last time I saw him. He died in his sleep Monday night, and we found out Tuesday morning.
That afternoon, as I drove us to the diner, I told him that Mike and I set our wedding date and location. It would be Saturday, Sept. 12, 2015 — my dad’s 86th birthday — at Philadelphia Magic Gardens. Mike and I wanted to pick a date in September or October, and I chose my dad’s birthday because I thought he could share the spotlight. I was (and still am) afraid of people paying so much attention to me. Having it on my dad’s birthday, by my reasoning, meant he’d be a focus, too. We could get a birthday cake, sing “Happy Birthday,” and so on. I thought it would be fun, and it just felt right.
He laughed when I told him.
“Birthdays don’t really mean that much to me anymore,” he said. “But it’ll be good.”
At Friendly’s, he had the “Fishamajig” sandwich with fries and I had a grilled cheese. Over lunch I told him that my nephew (his grandson) just got his first post-college job and was starting the next day, Monday. His face lit up and he said, “Oh, that’s great!” As our conversation went to different places, he kept going back to it, as he did. “Alex got a job, huh,” while smiling to himself. I could tell he was proud.
When the server brought the check I grabbed it, saying I’d pay. He protested and pulled out this little red plastic holder where he kept his cards.
“No, you’re not paying,” he said. “I’m paying.”
I told him I’d pay next time.
The bill came to about $17, and I suggested he leave a $2 or $3 tip, but he gave her $5 “because she was good,” he said.
When we got back to the house, I showed him some stuff on the computer. Despite being an electrical engineer and techie forever, Windows was confounding him. He often said his tech knowledge was only current as of 1990.
I had brought him a box of Scottish shortbread cookies, which he loved. He lived with my oldest sister and she didn’t like when he ate snacks in his bedroom, so he’d often sneak stuff and hide it. He told me he was going to hide the cookies in his sock drawer. His “summer sock drawer,” to be exact, because no one would think to look there.
As I was leaving that day, I hugged him and we both said I love you. I stepped outside, then poked my head back in.
“Make sure to hide the cookies!” I said, and he laughed and said okay. That was the last thing I said to him.
He had said at lunch that he was feeling good and that for once, he didn’t have any pending doctor’s appointments. The only thing he had scheduled was an appointment to get his hearing aid serviced Nov. 5. So when my eldest sister texted me less than 48 hours later and asked me to call her, and she told me, I didn’t believe it.
“Are you sure? Maybe he’s tired and doesn’t want to get up,” I said.
When I saw him he was perfectly fine. There was nothing wrong with him at all. But, she said the paramedics had already been there.
I hung up with her, called another sister, but she was already on the phone with the one I was just speaking to. I called Mike, then called my boss and said I’d probably need a day or two off to go to the funeral. I emailed my volunteer group to say I wouldn’t be in to care for the shelter cats that night.
Feeling numb and not really knowing what else to do, I sat back down at my desk — I work from home — and continued to work even though I couldn’t get my hands to stop shaking.
After my mom died, it felt like everything had imploded. It wasn’t sudden, really, although we knew it was coming. She was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor, glioblastoma multiforme, in September 2006. She was gone before Christmas. I think it hit everyone pretty hard.
I was born when my parents were older, so to me, they’ve always been old. I always assumed my dad would go first, though. When he turned 50, I remember bracing myself for his death, which would surely come in a year or two because 50 is ancient to a little kid. With every diagnosis over the years, every hospital stay, every mishap, I’d ask myself if this is “it.”
And time and time again, I was amazed at how he rebounded. He healed from every health issue he experienced in his life. He relied on a wheelchair most of the time after his stroke two years ago, but he exercised every day and practiced walking with a walker. He was determined to walk again, and I have no doubt he would’ve achieved that if he had more time.
So I became convinced that he was pretty much invincible. Not literally, but that he wouldn’t go without a fight.
Now, with him gone, it’s like, okay, now that question of “Is this it?” has been answered. The thing I’d been anticipating since forever has occurred.
He just slipped away in his sleep. It wasn’t cancer or any of the other bullshit he dealt with throughout his life. It was just time for him to close up shop.
It’s hard to believe it happened nearly a month ago.
And it’s hard to believe both my parents are gone now.
I read this essay after my dad died, the results of Googling, “both of my parents are dead” in an attempt to make sense of this.
“The death of the last of one’s parents is one of life’s great divides,” wrote the late Willie Morris after he’d gone home to Yazoo, Miss. to bury his mother. He stood in his childhood home one last time, sure that he could hear his mother playing the piano, his father’s footsteps on the porch and the barking of all the family dogs.
“It brings back one’s past in a rush of tenderness, guilt, regret and old forgotten moments,” he said.
The loss of parents also intensifies memories of that primary family and our place in it. Old scenes flash before us. Willie Morris asked himself, “What did all those moments mean? Was there any meaning to them at all?”
Unfortunately, unless we die before our parents, it’s something we all have to endure. I don’t know when grieving is supposed to end — or if it ever will — when a parent, or both parents, are gone. But I do know that for the loved ones they leave behind, the world is never the same.