Monday, December 11, 2017

Ten Years Gone

On December 3, 2007, my dad turned 56. That evening he, my stepmom, a couple others, and I had dinner at their place. My stepmom was a wonderful cook, but I don't remember what we ate. I know that we had warm, enjoyable conversations, but I don't remember what any of them they were about. If I knew what I know now, I'd have made note of what had for dessert. I'd have catalogued everything we discussed, everything my dad said. I'd have chosen my own words deliberately and with great care. But I didn't know. I didn't know how busy I was going be during the next week, finishing up papers and projects at the end of my first semester of graduate school. I didn't know that after two years relatively fairly gradual changes, my dad's condition was about to decline rapidly. I didn't know that dinner would be the last meal we ever ate together. I didn't know that conversation would be the last we ever had.

Eight days later, and ten years ago today, my dad passed away.

Time is strange. I think about my dad so often, about conversations we had and moments we shared, that it can be hard to believe it's already been ten years. At the same time, so much has happened in my life during that decade, and because every big moment I have is shaded by an acute awareness that I'll never get to share it with him; it often feels I've lived a lifetime since his death, and so it can be hard to believe it's only been ten years. Enough time has passed that on most days his absence registers only mildly, or sometimes not at all, but there will never come a point when so much time has passed that his absence stops hurting.
My dad was diagnosed with glioblastoma, the most aggressive form of brain cancer, in November of 2005. He would undergo multiple surgeries and rounds of radiation and chemotherapy, but we were told from the start that even with all that, he would likely only live another 8 to 12 months. Instead he lived for more than two years, and despite more and more severe limitations as that time went by, he spent most of his time in good spirits, continuing to go to work, not because he had to (he didn't), There were certainly days when fatigue or sadness got the best of him, but he never complained.

One week after my dad's birthday, having spent most of that week working to finish a number of big school projects. For more than two years, I had never gone more than three days without seeing my dad, and had gone that long only for a trip to Washington and another to Cleveland. I hadn't planned to go the whole week without seeing (or even talking to) him, but had underestimated how busy I would be all that work. As I walked out of the building, feeling the relief that the end of every semester brings every student, I took out my phone to call my dad. I saw that I had a voicemail from my aunt, left more than an hour earlier. Her message was very matter of fact: My dad was in bad shape; I get there quickly.

When I arrived, my dad was in the hospital bed he'd been sleeping in at home in the den for a few weeks. He was conscious, but unable to speak. His eyes were open, but it was difficult to know if he was hearing any of what was said to him. It seemed like his lungs were filled with fluid, so that even breathing was difficult. More than once I thought he was going to suffocate, or drown, because the effort of getting air was so great. I called my sister Jennifer in Los Angeles; I told her to get on the first flight she could.  I spent hours sitting on the edge of his bed, or on the couch next to the bed. I spent the night in the room with him, nodding off when he was able to, and waking up a few minutes later when a coughing fit woke him up.

The next day I picked Jen up at the airport, fearful that he'd be gone when we got back. I remember few specifics of the afternoon. My stepmom and aunt were there the entire time. Other family members and friends showed up later, until a group of more than 20 people were there by early evening. There was food and people sharing stories in the other room, but I stayed near my dad the entire time. At some point everyone gathered in the room with him, and someone I didn't know led some sort of... I don't know what to call it. I think the idea was to create a peaceful space, to convey how loved he was, and to convey that it was okay for him to let go.

I sat on the edge of his bed throughout that, and at some time I must have put my head down and fallen asleep; the next thing I knew I was waking up with my head on my dad's chest, probably the closest any of us can ever come to returning to childhood. Jennifer was the only other person in the room. She took my spot on the edge of the bed, and I laid down on the couch. Dad's breathing was shallow, but seemed less labored. His eyes had been closed for hours. I fell asleep again, and then half an hour later Jen woke me up to say that he was gone. She and I held one another for a couple minutes, then went to tell others.

During his last 24 hours, I talked to him a lot, often holding his hand. I reminisced about my childhood and adolescence, about camping trips, games of catch, Christmas mornings. About shoveling snow together, and watching Michael Jordan score 43 points while we sat court-side because the Bulls screwed up the nosebleed seats we were supposed to have, and riding the train downtown with him when I was a boy. He sometimes gave my hand a squeeze. I don't know if he was hearing me, or if it was simply muscle memory.

In addition to thinking back on days I also told him about the rest of my life, the version I imagined anyway. Now, ten years later, I can say that I got a lot of it right. I did get a job teaching in Oak Park after I finished school. I did go to Tanzania and climb to the peak of Mt. Kilimanjaro. I did fall in love with and marry a woman he'd have thought a lot of and spent a lot of time talking with. I did become the father to a little girl he'd adore. And someday I will tell her about the grandpa she never got to meet.

I feel so fortunate for all of that; I have a life worth envying. This anniversary is a reminder though, that some wounds never fully heal. Even the life you always wanted can't paper over a hole so vast.  My daughter will never be held by her grandpa. My dad will never hear his granddaughter laugh. In the silences between my words that last night and day I had with my dad, I painfully regretted all the questions I'd never asked, and mourned all the things I'd never know. They are countless.

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