One summer day, when I was about twelve, I woke up and realized that nothing felt right. The day went on and the feeling of unnamed dread persisted, but I had nothing to pin it on. That night, my beloved cat was hit by a car and killed.
I thought about that day yesterday as I lay in bed staring at my gauzy mosquito netting. What does the day look like when you know your dad is going to die? It looked sunny and clear with no indication of anything out of the ordinary. Why was I so certain it was today?
Just like that summer day when I was an almost-teen, the predetermined knowledge seemed to be set in stone. I called my brother to confirm my hunch and he reported that dad had had a very bad night. I suggested visiting and he agreed, adding, “Check in every hour or so first.”
I had one major errand to do first and once that was completed I could head over to my family’s house and visit with my dad. I imagined that while there he’d die peacefully, perhaps while holding my hand, just like you see in the movies. But I quickly put the discomforting thought out of my head and drove into Manhattan to meet “Allan the ticket guy”. I was about to purchase two tickets to All Points West via a stranger from Craig’s list. Any doubts about his credibility were dashed as I deemed him honest and authentic through our emails and phone calls.
We were to meet in Union Square at noon; then I would drive over to the next task of the day. To Do List: 1. Pick up All Points tickets 2. Visit dying father 3. Get girls to swim practice. It all seemed rather perfunctory and unemotional – but that was how I could best process the impending event.
However, a major kink in the plan came in the form of Allan-the-ticket-guy carelessly leaving his cell phone at home. Arriving in Union Square and scanning the mob of folks reveling in the perfect summer day, he knew there was no chance of finding me. Meanwhile, waiting patiently for Allan’s call, I had parked my car then wandered around the neighborhood awash with memories of my dad.
When Bebe was small I worked just off of Union Square at a perfect little slacker software company. They let me bring my baby to work, and when she got older I recruited my dad in the form of free childcare. For my retired father this was a great way to hang out in New York and to spend time with his daughter and granddaughter. My dad was never much of a New Yorker – affecting more of a “tourists” viewpoint and agenda. But now he was a fixture in the local playgrounds, chatting with the Barbadian nannies. He was a regular in the children’s department of Barnes & Noble and he knew all the local bathrooms equipped with changing tables. Sometimes while Bebe dozed in her stroller my dad would just people-watch in the park; which amounted to girl-watching mostly.
I’d join him for lunch and he’d say things like, “Look-it all these broads! Don’t they ever wear bras??” He’d actually mimic the noise of what bouncing breasts might sound like, “Buh-loomp-a-loomp”. I’d roll my eyes in annoyance, just like I did in the Vatican [see Sicily blog].
Once he noticed the Virgin MegaStore on the south end of Union Square and cried out, “The VAGINA MEGA STORE? What kind of a name is THAT?”
“Dad, it’s VIRGIN, not vagina,” I explained peevishly. He’d also marvel at the giant billboards and their ambiguous photographs. “Is that a naked boy up there? Or a flat-chested lady?”
Despite these sexist and occasionally questionable remarks it was great to give my dad something productive to do and to give my daughter additional time with her grandpa. Each day, worn out from a day out on the town, the two would stroll into my office. My colleagues tolerated them both despite complaining once, “Do you think you can keep your dad from wandering into our meetings?” My dad could not imagine that guys in shorts and flip-flops could possibly be doing any legitimate work.
Back in the present, Allan took the train back home, grabbed his phone and explained his tardiness, apologizing for the blunder. “Just stay there,” he said, “I’ll be right back in fifteen minutes.”
How could I explain that my dad’s life hung in the balance and I sort of had more pressing demands ahead of me? But I said nothing and agreed to wait for him.
I paused at the door of my dad’s favorite diner and recalled all the breakfasts he enjoyed there as part of his babysitting routine. All in all, that was a really great time for my father and for us in adapting to my role as a mother. I was no longer that smart-allecky teenager traipsing through Italy on her dad’s dime. I was an adult with a small child and my own responsibilities and achievements.
Eventually Allan showed up and we exchanged cash for tickets. We chatted for just a few minutes but the nagging feeling that I needed to get somewhere quickly pulled me to my car and up Third Ave.
At this point I phoned my brother. “I’m running behind schedule,” I explained. “My noon appointment was an hour late.”
“Well…he might not make it till you get here,” my brother said.
The shock of those words hit me like a brick. “Please don’t say that,” I cried. “I’m driving there as fast as I can!” I hung up and panicked at each stoplight, at every slow truck and lazily strolling pedestrian. I called my friends saying, “Oh my God! I ran an errand before going to see my dad die and now I’m going to MISS IT!??? Can this be happening!?? Why did I do it in that order!???”
Everyone calmed me down and said, “Come on; your brother can’t predict the time of his death…just hang in there and for god sakes slow down.”
At some point on the highway I felt a sense of calm. I had a thought that seemed to come out of nowhere which basically said, “It’s okay that you’re not there…best to remember him the way you did; vibrant and ridiculous in New York City. Maybe it’s harder for him to depart if you’re hovering close and tethering him to this material world.”
I heard the message loud and clear, then watched the red speedometer needle drop slowly down to safer territory.
Fifteen minutes later I burst through the door of my family’s house. A hospital aide sat in the living room with her hands folded. My brother emerged from his anti-chamber (the den). “Well??” I said, a little too loudly, “Anything new??”
“He died, Jayne,” my brother half-laughed. “He died about five minutes after you called.”
The shock of that statement was a punch to the gut. I ran up the stairs half-expecting my brother to have been joking. I wish I hadn’t seen my dad, withered and white; mouth open wide like a broken hinge.
I stomped outside and sat in my hot car. I called my boyfriend and left an anguished message….”How the fuck?? Why did I go to New York first?? Why was Allan so goddamn late?? If he wasn’t late; if he had BEEN there at NOON I would have been here on time!”
On time for what, I wondered. I walked back in the house and my brother seeing my distress said, “He was asleep from the morphine; besides, you said good-bye the other day when he was way more coherent.”
And that was true. Just two days before this, I brought my girls over and we all took turns saying good-bye and holding his papery-skinned hands. For some reason I asked Bebe to sing “Moonriver” with me; and thankfully she put up no resistance. We sang together, quietly but clearly, the song I have sung to my girls for years; the song that always puts them right to sleep.
I should feel grateful that this particular good-bye was a genuine and poignant one. That I wasn’t there for the “moment of passing” is really immaterial. It was pointed out to me that many, many people have experienced the bedside vigil only to step out for a much-needed shower or cup of coffee and have missed the actual death by moments.
As I spoke in turn to my friends that day, I was made aware of how many of us have lost our fathers - and lost them FIRST, as women nearly always outlast the men folk.
So my farewell was not played out in the script of my mind as I might have written it. But, birth like death, is beyond our control and we have a difficult time comprehending its will. In the end I came to peace with the frazzled day and had to believe that somehow this ending came just as it was meant to be.