My Other Father

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I sit at my father’s bedside listening to his breathing. The rhythmic gasps of the ventilator disrupt the stillness of his coma. A monitor glowing lime green displays his blood pressure, screaming when the numbers drop below safe levels. His pulse flashes blip, blip, blip across the screen. Wires of blue, white, and yellow disappear under the edge of his hospital gown.

My father has a hole in his neck. I can’t stop looking at it.

A bandaged incision runs the length of his chest. A nurse tells me the surgeon sawed through my father’s breastbone to reach his heart. I knew him so little before his surgery; now I must know everything, every detail of the violations to his body and wholeness.

Each day I sit by my father’s side, talking to him, hoping my familiar voice will call him back to waking. I tell him about the February sunshine, the Chinese restaurant down the block—anything just to keep talking. He gives no hint that he hears me, no sign that he will wake up.

My father looks peaceful, free of the pain he suffered before surgery when he grimaced and stiffened, alerting me that something was gravely wrong. Tests revealed a mushrooming staph infection on a heart valve.

He contracted the infection from an unclean IV needle inserted by an ungloved ambulance medic. During the week before surgery, the infection mimicked stroke symptoms. My father could not read a newspaper or absorb words read to him, could not walk steadily, sometimes could not control his elimination. What he could do was cry. I wasn’t used to seeing him cry. I thought it meant he was terrified to be so ill. My mother later told me he cried in realization that I loved him enough to travel three thousand miles to be at his side.

We aren’t good friends, my father and I. I can’t say he doesn’t love me, but he’s never known how to be with me, nor I with him. He didn’t want a sensitive child, one who reminded him of his own fragile self. He wanted a child with skin as thick as an alligator’s.

At age eleven, I awakened him gently from a nap and he kicked me. Hard. I never forgot, even though he said he was half asleep. I also never forgot the fury in his eyes or the times when he whipped me or slapped me across the living room with his huge hands. I learned to curl up and protect myself. Not only from him—from the world.

As an adult, I struggled to find common ground with him. Through periods of conflict, silence, avoidance, and rough efforts to connect, we barely maintained a state of peace. He yelled when I didn’t wash dishes the instant a meal was finished and when I left my jacket hanging over a chair for even two minutes. He didn’t like my boyfriends, my clothes, my vagabond ways. I’d been on my own for twenty years, and still he treated me like a teenager.

Before surgery, I sat at his bedside for fourteen-hour stretches. I smuggled frozen yogurt from the cafeteria when he refused to eat the bland hospital food he called garbage. I played tapes of Mozart, Dvorak, Brahms—his favorites—and felt a rush of love as he conducted along with the music. He grew weary and asked to rest his head in my lap. He lost his hardness, dropped his authoritarian mask.

Now, after surgery, my father is comatose in the intensive-care ward. I am soft in the safety his softness has created. I relax, relieved that he is no longer spilling his anger. Never mind that he can’t—we are peaceful together.

I am fascinated with his body. He has lost weight since entering the hospital but still looks handsome, like Gregory Peck. I’m closer to him physically than I’ve been in decades for more than a guarded hug or to work alongside him stacking logs onto a winter woodpile. I massage the soles of his feet and touch his ankles, hairless and soft as the skin of a newborn. I marvel that no flash of lightning strikes me as if to proclaim that one can never, ever get this close to one’s father.

When I reached my teens, he stopped touching me, holding me close, sharing his comforting body-presence with me. Now he cannot avoid the contact. I stroke his arms, round my hand over the warm top of his head. I place my hand on his heart and feel the steady beat. I touch his chest as though breaking a taboo, sharing tenderness that he could not tolerate when conscious.

The day comes when his neurologist tells us that my father will not recover. When they opened his heart, pieces of the infection traveled through his bloodstream to his brain, causing a series of strokes. He will never regain consciousness, feed himself, understand speech.

After we discontinue life support, I sit with him again, day after day, waiting. He speaks to me in images that come when I still myself. I see him flying away, far off in space, tethered to this realm by a thin cord that stretches into minuscule fineness. The cord cannot keep him with us, cannot bring him back to health. I release him in my heart, grateful beyond measure that I met my soft father before he died.

*  *  *

To quote Mary Oliver, “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.”

What gifts have the dark times in your life bestowed upon you?

9 thoughts on “My Other Father”

  1. Father is someone a daughter looks up for strength many times in her life! A well written heart warming life incident!

  2. Kira, this was such a beautiful piece to read. Thank you for sharing your story, your raw emotion.

    My darkest days came in the form of 3.5 years of chronic depression. I couldn’t help but spread my emotional well-being across the lived experiences of those around me. From my best friend who went into a fit of rage one Friday evening, drove drunk to remove himself from an unbearable circumstance, and struck a pedestrian (thankfully only injuring the man’s leg); to another who attempted to handle life’s stressors by turning to alcohol and medication and forever hating a mutual friend for taking her to the hospital. And finally, my friend’s dad who turned a gun on himself and as it turned out had isolated himself from the rest of his family for years.

    In all of these moments and less significant ones, I embodied the pain to the fullest degree, and found myself in bad places. Once I was able to do a bit of honest reflection and assessment, I finally could point to where my pain was coming from. Then, I sought drastic change.

    I began, as any Millennial might, in one way or another, by searching for inspiration on YouTube. I came across motivational speaker, Eric Thomas, and the rest was history. His message, and how he delivered it, resonates so deeply, I had no choice but to seek positive change.

    I changed my sleep schedule, waking up at 6 (2-3 hours earlier than normal), immediately rolling onto the floor to perform relaxed, long duration stretches. I committed to making a hot breakfast every morning because it’s one of those things that has always brought me happiness. After those two hours, I saw my day in a whole new light. I felt accomplished before the day even began and as a result committed to a new life of saying yes to opportunities I would have never pursued in the past.

    From my darkness has come unbelievable opportunity and steadfastness. Of course, the depression bug comes around every now and again, but rarely does it last beyond a day. I have the tools to rid myself of it as soon as my head hits the pillow for the evening.

    When the going gets tough, I always reflect on my ability to get myself out of this mental hellscape and use it as fuel for my state of resilience.

  3. Paul, thank you so much for your inspiring comment. It’s amazing to me how we can come across something that makes a real difference when we actively look for it and take action in pursuit of it. It reminds me of a story I once heard about a woman who got lost while hiking alone in a wilderness area. She wandered around for a few days scared out of her wits and terrified that she would die out there. Then she started calling out for help and was found almost immediately.

  4. The story can bring tears easily, especially when you think about your own dad while reading, especially if you lost one. But the thing is though for me that I could not have coped such an end being on his bed side. When my dad past away I was so far, that I could not make even for his funeral, but it helps me to remember him being alive, healthy and strong.

    1. Paulla, thanks so much for your comment. I really understand what you’re saying about it being a gift to remember your father alive, healthy and strong. It was hard to see my father suffering, and it still brings me to tears sometimes — like today, in fact, and it’s been 26 years since he died. But the painful memories have mostly receded. When they come up, I try to bring extra compassion to my father’s suffering as well as my own. Blessings to you.

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