Sunday, May 16, 2010
May 16, 1996
The phone rang at 2 AM waking me up. It was my mother.
“Something terrible bad has happened to your father,” she said. “The paramedics are here working on him.”
“I’ll be right there,” I told her.
“They’re taking him to the hospital so come there,” she replied.
I hung up the phone and turned to face my husband who was now sitting up in bed.
“I think my dad just died.”
My parents lived on Galveston Island, about an hour’s drive away. My sister and brother both lived out of state so I was the only one close enough to get there quickly. We got dressed and headed down the highway in silence.
When we got to the hospital, I learned that my father, at 72, had, indeed, died. He had had a massive stoke which is exactly the way he had always said he wanted to go, quick and out like a light. My mother was in high form, not a tear shed, waiting for me in the waiting room. The nurse told me when I arrived that they had my father in a room if I wanted to go and be with him for awhile. I declined as had my mother which was why she was waiting in the waiting room. I’m sure the nurse thought I was a terrible person, not wanting to go spend time with the body of my father, but he would not have wanted me, us, to do that. You see, my father hated death and he did not want any of us remembering him dead, the way he remembered his own father.
My father was a pathologist and he spent his days looking at tissue to determine if it was diseased and doing autopsies. He had started out wanting to be a surgeon and until WWII, that was his goal. Unfortunately, he contracted tuberculosis in the army and he spent the rest of the war recovering. We had several strict house rules that stemmed from that time in the hospital. We never ate on paper plates because all his meals were served on paper plates and then they went in the incinerator. And we never had chicken because that was all he was served in the hospital. But I digress.
My father let himself be convinced by his colleagues and instructors that because of his tuberculosis, he would not have the physical stamina to be a surgeon. That’s how he became a pathologist, one of the great disappointments of his life. And that’s how he came to hate death. And by association, the color black.
Black was forbidden in our house. For my mother, myself, my siblings, black clothing was not allowed. Not outright forbidden, but it just wasn’t worth enduring the expression of disapproval that was sure to come. Black = death = work = bitterness.
He himself did not own any black clothing, well, except for his tuxedo which he always wore with a bright red cummerbund, tie and socks. I find it hard to believe, now, as an adult that he didn’t have at least some dark gray suits. He must have, but the ones I remember were the burnt orange, the canary yellow, the peacock blue (my favorite of his suits) and the emerald green. His leisure clothes would put any golfer to shame. He once bought me a pink and orange plaid pants suit (I kid you not) and I was expected to wear it, preferably in public.
My father, my parents, were very image driven and we kids had to measure up. And everything was measured by how it would make them look to the people in the social status they belonged to. And things that didn’t measure up were kept strictly secret. Our needs were second to their image.
Living with my father was not easy. He was very controlling. He didn’t converse, he lectured, pontificated. There was a lot of emotional abuse. We would all listen for the sound of the door, his foot steps when he came home from work to determine if it was safe to stay out or if we should scurry back to our rooms and shut our doors and look busy. All of us left as soon as possible, my sister married young and our brother never returned after he left home for college. My own escape took longer.
There were years when I was not in touch. Then he had a stroke and it changed his personality. He became completely withdrawn. It shattered his image of himself and it was 10 years or more before he began to emerge again and the man who emerged, now that he had lost everything...his profession, friends, financial security, eventually the house; all because it was more important to keep his stroke secret instead of getting medical help...was a kinder, gentler, humbled man.
Those years before he died, well, I didn’t see them a lot because they lived over an hour’s drive away on the west end of Galveston Island, but I mostly enjoyed being with my father when I was with him. He had changed a lot by then.
As it happened, about two weeks before my father stroked out, my parents had made one of their rare forays into town and they came by my house to visit a bit. When they got up to leave I gave my mother the cheek and told her goodbye. I hugged my father and without thought, said ‘I love you’. I can’t tell you how many years it had been since I expressed this sentiment to my father spontaneously. A lot. Most my life at that point probably. It was the last time I ever saw him, the last time I ever spoke to him, the last words I ever said to him.
*a note – As I seem to have given the impression to some of you that this just happened (and I appreciate all the condolences) my father actually died 14 years ago. Sunday was the anniversary of his death.