I feel honored to have a father like him: a gifted intellect, a talented scientist of world renown, a man with humor, compassion, kindness, a down to earth sensibility that made him always available, always ready with a helping hand, a listening ear. He's the man who held my tiny hands and "flew" me around on his feet, one of my earliest memories; he's the one who snatched me out of bed at 3 a.m., dashing outside to lift me up so I could suck the cool night air into my croupy lungs. This gentle man taught me to fish, to mix concrete, to plant a garden, to appreciate opera and classical and the old hymns of Martin Luther.
He is the one who stole out in pre-dawn hours to gas up my Toyota as a secret gift before I left for Texas, but who then saw fit to wake me and give me a heartfelt winners v. losers lecture related to the flat spare tire in my trunk. (In case you don't know, a winner ~ even a 19-year-old wild child ~ will always check her tire pressure and the pressure of the spare before embarking upon a 600 mile journey.) In those pre-cell-phone days, the thought of his baby daughter on the road without a spare gave this sweet man the shudders.
He called every morning the five years I lived in Texas, the years I was most commitedly on a path of self destruction and the years in which I ran completely wild. The one thing I did every day other than hit the bars was to make myself available for that phone call. I rolled out of countless strange beds, cut short many a night's party to be available for that critical conversation. The single time I missed it ~ in a four day blackout which began on New Year's Eve of 1976 ~ resulted in his insisting that I provide telephone numbers and names of others who might know where I was if I failed to answer the phone. It seemed almost laughable at the time to send him the names and addresses and phone numbers of a bunch of drunks and political radicals, but I did as he requested and thereafter my friends would occasionally report that my father had called looking for me and, as one said, "he seems like such a nice man, how could he be a Republican?"
I think the disappearance of my mother had a huge impact on his need to always be in touch. Was it codependency? craziness? I don't know and don't care: I do know that he came to get me the moment I called for help. He came without judgment, driving overnight to load me up and rescue me from what had become a very dangerous life. That loving response marked the beginning of a new life for me and I am still grateful. Odd that I think of this as his need, when that daily call and the continuing connection with family anchored me in those stormy years.
I miss so much our long and intense, often emotional, political discussions. That was something I shared with him to the exclusion of my two sisters and his personal history ~ living through the depression, World War II vet, working his way through college and the attainment of three degrees ~ played into our lively and sometimes angry discourse. I miss that, terribly. I miss, too, our unified concern for the environment, for the survival of animals everywhere, our joint rage over the absurdity of cutting the last old growth redwoods, of drilling in the Arctic wilderness. We both rooted for the project to bring back wolves in force to the lower 48 and the tallgrass prairie preserve in our state enchanted us equally.
Most of all I miss his gentle and wide-ranging sense of humor. He is a humble man who has never boasted of his many accomplishments, who diminished the excellence of his education, of his brilliance. He was always quick to note and mark the accomplishments of others, however, and I never saw in him a moment's envy or jealousy.
This daddy ~ southern girls always have daddies, until they die ~ is disappearing one moment, one day at a time. It's worsening now. He is sometimes confused by the television remote, punching buttons and unable to distinguish between that and the phone. He calls repeatedly and each time I answer, because he does not know he's already talked to me and I can't stand the thought that he might wonder why I don't answer. In concert with the diminishment of his memory, he is more emotionally sensitive: my oldest sister was testy with him when he called late one night; that is one thing he did not forget, not for days, and it wounded him deeply.
I want to protect him, I want to excise the calcifications, the white matter from his brain. I can't bear that he will lose his dignity, his sense of self. I. Cannot. Stand. It. I can't bear another call in which he tells me about his dog, the one that doesn't exist. I can hardly stand to look at the beautiful card he sent for my birthday: his formerly perfect, miniature penmanship is large and shaky, with numerous cross-outs and two misspellings. From a man whose grammar and spelling have been perfect all of his life, it's too heart-breaking to go back and read the sweet sentiment in that card. I am crying writing this because while my mother was gone in an instant, gone forever, my father is fading and it is worse, much worse, than her disappearance.
I can eat at this. A pint of ice cream and a half cup of chocolate syrup would ease the pain. I haven't wanted a drink in years, but the comfort that comes from consuming sugar eases the sadness for a moment. It's always there, though: when I wake in the night, it's there; when the phone rings at dawn, it's there; when I see someone on the street who reminds me of him, my heart aches again no matter the distraction of the moment. This underlying pain is a constant and so the need for comfort is always there.
I don't know how this will come out except that everyone dies and he will too. I wish, wish, wish he could die with some part of his essential self intact, I wish that more than anything. The day is soon coming when I will walk into the room and my sweet papa will not know me. There is no comfort for that, no amount of sugar, no drug, no quantity of vodka which will ease that agony. It is the height of selfishness to think of my pain at this time and so I will distract myself, but not with food, not today. I don't think I can bear this in the end, but I will bear it for today and do so without turning to a substance for comfort. Just for today.