I wrote this over the course of an hour the day after my father passed away and posted it on Facebook so my friends could understand. Since some people who aren’t connected to me there might be interested in reading it and because Facebook is not the best place for archiving writing, I thought I would give it a more permanent home here (though with redacted names).
Last Tuesday (1/16) I got a call from S., my dad’s partner of 18 years, that my dad was going back into the hospital for his fourth bout with congestive heart failure. He had been in and out of the hospital with some regularity since I was in my early teens, so I’ve gotten used to the occasional hospital stay: last month he tripped and fell on a marble floor and was hospitalized for internal bleeding; a cancerous tumor was removed from his kidney when I was in middle school; his history of heart issues extends far before my birth. This time, however, things looked grim.
My girlfriend B. and I got plane tickets and flew to Albuquerque two days later. We got to the hospital at about 4:30pm Mountain Time. Dad was lying in his hospital bed watching TV, S. dutifully at his side. He was alert and in good spirits but looked—his own words—”like a concentration camp victim”: all skin and bones, hacking and coughing, arms full of tubes and bruised from countless hypodermic injections. He was really happy to see us, but also incredibly drowsy and dulled from all the pain medication and who-knows-what they were pumping into him to make his condition somewhat more tolerable. We talked for an hour or two before he went in for a procedure and we needed dinner, so the three of us—S., B., and I—stole off to the hospital cafeteria while doctors wheeled him off to run a catheter into his heart.
My relationship with my dad has always been very difficult and complicated. My mom left him when I was about 6, but I didn’t learn any specifics of her grievances until I was a teenager: Constant philandering (one of which produced a child that he kept secret until the government garnered his wages), alcoholism (and, I would learn later, a history of heroin abuse), frequent inexplicable rages, and a weird history of getting arrested for contempt of traffic court while pointlessly fighting speeding tickets were a few of the things I found out. Right after my mom took my sister and me to Florida, he moved in this creepy old guy named Jim who had ties to libertarian militiamen in Missouri—and who would break into my dad’s bedroom when we were gone and eat all the food that was being deliberately hidden from him. My sister and I were introduced to a string of girlfriends of wildly varying degrees of pleasantness, many of whom were groupies from his years in a rock-and-roll cover band and with whom he cheated on my mom. I didn’t talk to him from age 13 to 20 on account of a now-legendary argument that happened on a family vacation, in which then-new-girlfriend S. got frustrated with my carsick teenage sister and my dad joined in to say a bunch of weird and hurtful stuff to me and her. (He seemed to reciprocate the disinterest in communication, as the already low volume of calls and letters from him came to a halt.) Dad had also left S. twice over the past 15-or-so years, both times in wild spectacular form involving rescue by my brother and accusations against her of violence, thievery, and general psychological torment. Both times she took him back and cared for him throughout his many stays in the hospital. One time, after hearing him call her his “tormentor,” I asked him why he stayed with her—to which he replied “I made my bed, and now I have to lie in it.” I was prepared for a few days of gritting my teeth through uncomfortable conversations with a lunatic who nevertheless loves my dad while sitting at the beside of my dying father.
What actually happened, however, I could never have prepared for. Over cheap cafeteria cheeseburgers, S.—whose parents both died within the past 6 months—began to open up to me about how less than one week ago, my dad told her that he was leaving her, and that she needed to give him a car, a television, and a set of pans so he could get back to Memphis. Not only that, but she had to be the one to drive him there. He had never paid for a single thing in the course of their nearly 20-year relationship, not even for thoughtful little gifts or offering to pay for dinner. Between hospital visits, he would be mean, petty, and lazy, spending most of his time watching television or telling her to read conspiracy theory books written by crackpots. He had told her that she was “the only one I never cheated on,” then tenderly kissed a woman on the lips in front of her twice in one evening. She told stories of him insulting her with inexplicable cruelty with absolutely no provocation: the most grievous I can remember involves him turning to her on Christmas day and saying, “You know, your life is never going to get any better. You think it is, but it isn’t.” This was just weeks after her father was cremated, and months after her mother.
At first, nothing she said could clear my impassable wall of skepticism. But when it became clear that I had nothing that she could have possibly wanted, that my dad was utterly penniless and had nothing to exploit, and that so many of her stories sounded *exactly* like the kinds of things my mom said about him—and my mom and S. have never spoken—something cracked. Even if many of these stories were embellished or exaggerated, the general narrative was clear: not only was my dad an asshole, he had always been that way—and I had never really plumbed the depths of his cruelty. This made even more sense when she revealed to me that the US Navy—who had dishonorably discharged him from the service at the age of 16—diagnosed him with schizophrenia; that he spent time in a mental institution at a young age, though he always told interlocutors that he worked there (and at other times, that he was so clever that he tricked the workers in various ways); and that he had driven one girlfriend to suicide, a wife to madness and institutionalization, and my mom to pack my sister and me in a van and drive us into a swamp in rural Florida—all just to escape him. Dad had also been violent, S. said: he choked her on three occasions, hit her in the ear so hard that it bled for days, and threw a conspiratorial book about Obama at her so hard that when it struck her elbow it broke something.
We told stories and wept together. She never had the opportunity to talk about this stuff with anyone before. When he planned to leave her the week before, she said, she was thrilled: “Finally,” she said, “I would be free of him. I was going to dump him off in Memphis and be done. He wouldn’t be my problem anymore.” But then his sickness got too bad to ignore, and instead she hustled him to a hospital where they told him he was dying and there was nothing they could do about it.
We talked for four hours. None of us had any idea what to do. We finally steeled our nerves enough to walk back into the room, where my dad was watching Fox News and didn’t seem to notice how long we were gone. We chatted for another two hours or so before B. and I went back to our hotel, S. went back to her dead father’s house, and we all had our respective psychological breakdowns. My urge to assist and comfort my father qua father and the truth of the man himself were ripping me apart. I called my mom and cried for an hour while thanking her and saying that I finally understood.
The next day we decided that the truth of the man aside, we would see this through and help a dying man exit the world as comfortably and peaceably as possible. We would help each other help him. We sat with him as long as we could, held his hands, helped him drink water, and fed him Jello and applesauce. His breathing grew shallower, his nausea more intense. The doctors told him that his kidneys were shutting down and slowly poisoning him. We arranged for him to be transferred to a hospice facility, and as we waited for them to come we talked about his favorite childhood memories (riding his bike around his neighborhood), the people he idolized in his youth (Uncle Francis), how he’d like to be remembered (“I’d say as a good guy but I really screwed that one up, so I’d like to be remembered as someone who played the horn well”), his favorite places (Herald’s Harbor, Maryland; New Orleans; Memphis, Tennessee). He wanted to ask about my “vagabond trip”—the several years I spent traveling—and about the farm in southern KY. He asked me whether I enjoyed my childhood. An ambulance team arrived to take him to the hospice center across the street—we met him over there about a half hour later. I sat with him and talked for two more hours before I told him goodbye, that I love him, and that I’m proud to be his son. B. and I boarded a plane and flew back to Maryland. I called him the next day before class at St. John’s, asked him if he was comfortable, told him I loved him and that I’m glad that he has S. nearby. I talked to him the next day on break at my new teaching internship, and though he couldn’t form words I could tell he was happy to hear my voice. He was dead that evening.
Showing compassion and love for my dying father while learning more and more about how horrible he is has been the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my entire life. I am nevertheless glad to have done it. But make no mistake: he was a complicated, deceitful, petty, cruel, bizarre, and deeply flawed man (as well as an immensely talented artist). I am going to be okay. It will take me some time to sort things out, but I’m not alone in this: I have my sister, brother, mom, and a whole cast of other characters who have been witness to—and been hurt by—the man who was my father. All of us are at the beginning of something: now we begin to heal. We are free. And he too is now free from his suffering.