When I reached my late 30s, I finally began to understand the kinds of sacrifices my parents had to make throughout their lives. Sacrifices for their kids and for each other. Of course there were also sacrifices my sister, brother and I had to make, and the real pisser was they weren’t our sacrifices and we never agreed to them. But we had to make them anyway; sometimes that’s the way it goes.
When I was still in grammar school my father lost his job. It was a tough time for our family, particularly since the job market was so poor. My father decided to sell real estate, and began selling land about five hours away from where we had temporarily settled in a rental home. He would be gone for long stretches of time, and when he got home, he was anxious to simply relax.
I’m not really sure why I missed him so much when he was gone. He hadn’t ever been what you would call an involved father. He wasn’t interested in children, not even his own, and didn’t delight in any of the things we did. Don’t get me wrong – I know he loved us, at least in theory if nothing else – he just wasn’t really there. And when he was there, he wasn’t really interested in us.
I remember one time in particular when he had been gone for what seemed like several weeks. He came home and was sitting on the sofa talking to my mother. I’m sure he was anxious to see her after so much time apart. I was sitting next to him, and I picked up his hand and began kissing it. I think I was about 9 or 10. I was just so glad he was home, and even though he wasn’t even aware I was in the room, I just wanted to kiss his hand. As I kissed it over and over I saw my mom look at me, then look to my father and direct him to me with her eyes. At that moment he became aware of what I was doing, and put his hand on my head.
I don’t really remember what happened after that. He probably went on talking to my mom. But I can clearly remember that look on her face. She thought it was so sweet that I was kissing his hand, and it hurt her that he didn’t even notice I was in the room. I don’t think it hurt me – not really – because it wasn’t any different than any other time I’d been around him.
As the years went by my relationship with my dad went through some difficult times. There was a period where I didn’t care if I ever saw him again, a period where I was extremely angry over his dispassion with his children, and finally, there was a period where I had children in my life that helped me understand him much more. It turns out, for better or worse, this apple didn’t fall far from that tree.
The year I turned 40, my father turned 81. He had been sick for quite a while with a bad heart, and after two open heart surgeries to install artificial heart valves and a pacemaker, we kept thinking each new illness might be the last. I would ask my mom if I should fly from where I was living in Virginia to California to see him. She would always say not, yet. Just like a Timex, he kept on ticking.
He finally died in October just over a month after his 81st birthday. My mom had called to tell me he was in the hospital again and I should fly out, so I knew it was serious. When I first saw him in the hospital, I was scared to see how thin and old he was, how frail and sick he looked. I just knew the end was very close. That night, I sat next his hospital bed while he struggled to breathe. And I mean he struggled. He would roll over and grasp the bars on the side of the bed to help with the effort of filling his lungs, and sometimes his hands would reach out between the bars.
I can’t honestly say I don’t know why it took me so long to take his hand, because I know exactly why. Not because of some old grudge, or because I didn’t love him. I just wasn’t sure if he wanted me to. How stupid of me. I finally reached out and took his hand. And, not sure why, I bent down and kissed it. He mumbled something I couldn’t understand, so I said, “What was that?” “Thank you,” he said. I had no idea what to say, or how I felt. I just said, “Oh you’re welcome,” and bent to kiss his hand again. Then I laid my cheek on it and said, “It’s all going to be o.k.”
This time he knew I was in the room, and I knew it meant the world to him. As it turned out, that was the last time I spoke to my father and he died the next day. I’m glad I was able to send him off with a kiss.