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.


  1. So sorry to hear of your loss Ellen. How comforting it must be to know you told him how you felt the last time you saw him. Take good care of yourself.

  2. Ellen: It sounds to me as though you knew who your father was before and after his stroke. The blessing is in the knowing, not necessarily the accepting. I think you are fortunate to have been able to voice your feelings to your Dad before he passed. I am so sorry. I will be thinking of you and your family. (((hugs))) until next time

  3. It's like I hung up on myself. Sorry. I have had dreams lately of my mother's passing and sometimes it's as though it is now. I didn't mean to imply by my last message that I thought it was now. I do understand relective thinking and I am still sorry for your loss.

  4. This is so incredibly beautiful, Ellen, and compelling. A perfect, revealing portrait of this man. Wow.

    I love the everyday miracle that made it possible for you to tell him you loved him when you had the chance. That is a mysterious gift, isn't it?

    People are so complicated. When they're family, we see all the little quirks and bits. Thank you so much for sharing this story with your readers.

    All I can say is: wow.

  5. Excuse me Ellen - my eyes just swept past the date of the events you describe.

    This was a very nice tribute to your father - a complex and 'difficult' man, but your father nonetheless. How comforting that you were able to tell him he was loved.

  6. People are so complicated. At least you knew both sides of him. And, the last thing you remember is that you remember was a nice encounter with him.

    In the end, we are all just trying to find our way. Maybe he did after all ...

  7. Your father and your way of life are a part of what made you. You had the wonderful gift of saying what was in your heart at just the right time. These are gifts.

    Along with the understanding of him, you also achieved a great independence from your parents that has served you well.

    A loss, even one in the far past, is never easy to visit again. You have done it beautifully and with respect and love. Your father would be proud.

  8. I'm very sorry to hear of this sudden loss. I'm glad that the last years gave your dad an opportunity to become more human and connect more with those around him. I hope that your mother comes through this with some doors opening for her life as a single person - a hard challenge late in life, but sometimes rewarding too. All the best for all of you.

  9. I, too, didn't see the date until I went back and read the other comments. A loving portrait of your dad in few words.

  10. Ellen, such a lovely tribute to your father. I'm sorry for your loss. It's it a wonder though, how your instincts said "good-bye" for you in the best way possible all those years ago. Hugs to you, Ellen.

  11. It's touching, the way we seem to know certain things, on some level. Your connection must have run very deep with your father, through all the ups and downs, the good and the bad, the changes. What a complicated and intricate life we lead.

  12. Oh this is so telling of how most of us live. Glad to know you got the chance to tell him you loved him.

  13. What a wonderful, honest post. I love the image in the tux in the matching red flourishes. I'm so happy for you that you followed your instinct and shared your feelings with your dad before he died.

  14. Aren't you glad those were the last words? I will never forget my last words to my father either.

  15. A truly beautiful post, Ellen, for a difficult anniversary. Sometimes much time has come to pass before we can paint a full portrait of the ones we love. I am sure much self-knowledge has come with the entire process of remembering, appreciating, forgiving ...

  16. ellen your dad reads so much like my own dad before buddhism came into his life and then he became a good man. he too flew out of here through a massive stroke. the memories i treasure most of him are the hugs he gave in the last few years of his life and the ease with which he and i shared our love. it's cool, unexpected, and good. steven

  17. How precious that you said those words on that day. A touching tribute.

  18. My thoughts are with you. At least he got to go quickly, the way he wished, although the hole left behind by his departure will take a long time to heal.

    I wish I had the words to make it better. I'm glad you got to tell him you love him.

  19. Thanks for sharing this memorial to your father. Families are SO complicated! There are all these people & their personalities & needs & it's so rare for everything to mesh just right. Glad your last memory of him is a good one.

    I last saw my mom about a week before she died. She was sitting in her hospice bed putting on makeup - trying to be normal for me before I left.

  20. Such a moving memorial. My father was very much the same way. Controlling and angry and bitter. He is gone now and in a happier place I am sure. The scars healed well after he had gone. I can think of him and smile now.

  21. This was very sweet.

    And I would love to see pictures of that pink and orange plaid pantsuit. "He expected me to wear it. Preferably in public." Ha!

  22. My mother still lives by that code; it's all about how a thing reflects on HER and how it will make others view her. All must be perfect and nice and successful. *barf*

    When my father died, in 1998, I was unable to be there because I was terribly ill myself. I'm glad you had that final moment with yours, while he was alive. :-)

  23. Wow! Quite a fascinating portrait! Your father sounds a bit like mine--quirky, to put it mildly. As a biochemist, he was nutty about possible pathogens. Everything had to be very sterile. We weren't allowed to eat fries with our fingers. And I had to introduce him to my friends as Dr (b/c he worked so hard to get his PhD!)

  24. Even if it was 14 years ago, I understand why it is written as if it just happened. I don't know if you just did it as a way to celebrate his life or because the shock of knowing that his physical way is gone still touches you like the day it happened.

    I still tremble when I think about the day my grandma died. It was in the summer, more than a decade ago, but I still remember the way the moon and the stars looked, the smell of charcoal from my neighbor's grill, my brother's face when he tried to pretend that he hadn't cry. I didn't cry. I lit some candles and thought about the good days. I still do sometimes.

    Your father sounds like an extraordinary person. I like how you described all his idiosyncratic ways, how the war changed him and how it changed his children and wife. I would think he would feel honored by this post; by knowing that he affected his little girl in such a way.

    I'm a few days late (after the anniversary of his death) but I still hope that the smoke of my yellow rose incense reach his soul and he knows that someone who never knew him is remembering because of you.

  25. Hi Ellen,

    It's complicated isn't it. My father was similarly controlling from that same time period. Then something happens and they come to understand, that they weren't really in control after all. And that's hard to watch too.


  26. A very nice tribute to your father! Mine was very similar, when he was younger, but now at 88 years, he is more relaxed and a joy to be around. Glad that you had that chance to express your love for him.


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