The Long Goodbye to a Father I Never Really Knew
The other night as I lit a memorial candle for my dad, I reflected not on his life, but on his death. Here is the tale of that sad time.
My father was dying. Again. He’d pulled this dying stunt a year or two previously, and had us all rush out to the States to be with him in his hour of need. He didn’t die then. In some ways it was a wasted journey, and in others, the start of the journey that would be my adult life.
My brother had just married his sweetheart in Israel. We celebrated the wedding with everyone important in our lives. Dad missed it, just as he had every other celebration and commemoration over the years. I guess this time it wasn’t really his fault, what with him being comatose and all. He wasn’t missed. I think it would have been strange to have him there.
After the week-long marriage celebrations were over, I packed my bags and headed on over to New York to watch my father leave this earth. It was a five week vigil, one that harmed me and helped me and left me permanently scarred. My father had not been a permanent part of my life from the time I was three. My mother and maternal grandmother raised us. I lived in Wales for the first eight years of my life, a life that holds only one or two distant memories of life with my father. Thus at the age of 19, I was sure I was invincible, that the finality of his death would just be a relief. I could close the book on him and his lack of parenting and move on with my life.
He lingered. While five weeks doesn’t seem like much, when you are waiting for someone to die, it feels like an eternity. There was never any hope of a cure, or a chance that he would somehow wake up and be well again.
As I sat by his side at the hospital, I met all kinds of people. People who had touched my father’s life, or been touched by him in ways that I never had. It was strange to feel jealous of people I’d barely met. I wanted their memories to be mine. So many stories were told, stories exalting my father to greatness. Stories at which I scoffed. Stories in which I wanted to star.
As I sat by his bed, marriage prospects were suggested for me -- the nerve! My father was dying and they wanted me to think about getting married? Who knew a 19-year-old with a dying father was a prime catch? I should’ve felt honored but I just felt nauseated.
I tried desperately to recall some happy memories. My first memory -- my first ever memory -- was of my three-year-old self crying because the arm had come off my doll. I remember going into my parents’ room to get my father to fix it. I remember the tears, hot and wet on my face. I can still feel them to this day.
I tried desperately to recall playing a game with him, spending time with him, doing father-daughter things. NOTHING came to mind, except him sucking the marrow out of a huge marrow bone during one Shabbat meal when I was three. For those to be my only memories? It’s just so sad and pathetic.
I lost my father years ago -- and here I was losing him again.
The nurses told me that I should talk to him. While he was alive and vibrant, I didn’t talk to him. We had nothing to say to each other. I cannot recall even ONE conversation. He had no clue how to deal with a daughter, this father to my four brothers. Especially a daughter he had made no effort to see or spend time with as she was growing up. Phone calls? Letters? Nothing. Even when I spent time in America every summer, he was scarce.
The nurses were amazed that I schlepped over from London to spend time with him. I don’t think they realized how shocked I was that I was there. I owed him nothing. I jumped from partying with the family, to discussing DNRs. I leaped from being a child, to becoming an adult overnight. A strange sense of duty had compelled me to be there. To this day I fail to understand it.
On a cold rainy night we received word that my father was actually in his death throes. All his systems were failing. We rushed against the clock to say goodbye to him, a man who’d been dying for so long that there had been a thousand and one goodbyes.
When we arrived, we were met with the news that my father had died while we were on the way. That sense of relief that I had been expecting never happened. There was an immediate red-hot anger -- why the hell couldn’t he have waited until we got there? Not only had he not been present in my life, he had to cheat me out of being present at his death too? He had been dying for weeks, but that reality hadn’t actually set in until he was dead. Too late for intervention, too late for healing, too late for life.
I stood in the doorway, not sure what I was supposed to do. Was I supposed to fall on his body crying and wailing and beating my chest? Were there some ceremonial words I was supposed to say? Where was the guidebook? For the first time in my life I was experiencing major loss and I did not know how to act. I needed someone to hold me, to tell me it was okay to cry. My stepmother and my grandmother were in a hell of their own; there was no room for me.
I made my way to the family room at the hospital, which was full of my stepmother’s friends, supporting her and helping her make funeral arrangements. They were warm toward my grandmother too, but me? I was left out in the cold, the daughter that no one knew, whom they barely knew existed. Rejection at such a moment was devastating to me.
It was obvious to me that being in my father’s world, whether he was living or dead, meant that I didn’t exist. It meant that I now had to grieve for a life I had never known, for a man who in meaning so little to me meant so much.
Originally posted on the Times of Israel.