I don’t remember his last words to me. My father was back at Johns Hopkins Hospital calling from his room there. The doctors thought his recently transplanted kidney was rejecting. This was after he’d been out in the world for several weeks living from the belief the transplant was successful. He’d gone back to work and was attending church, a strange thing to say about my dad. In any case, he was sick again. I was at work on my new job I’d started a month ago in August as a messenger desk clerk for a land title insurance company. It was September 21, 1998, and I was earning enough to support myself and the kids as a single parent. We were finally off of welfare and thanks to a welfare-to-work initiative implemented by President Clinton, my childcare was paid for a year. My baby girl was 3 and the boys were 8 and 10, so having free childcare for a year was a huge financial relief for me. I was also less than 2 years clean and sober. I tell you all of this because I was still a self-centered, dysfunctional hot mess and my dad had been sick for the past fifteen years.
Here’s what I was thinking at the time. He’d been living with 3 separate medical conditions since he was 37 years old. He was diagnosed with cirrhosis, diabetes, and hepatitis due to his alcohol consumption up to that point in his life. After that, he quit drinking and changed his dietary habits in an effort to take care of his health. However, over the years his kidneys gave out and he’d been on dialysis the last few years before the transplant procedure. All of this seemed pretty far removed from my awareness and comprehension since he lived 3000 miles away on the East Coast. I couldn’t see the toll this had been taking on his body. There’d been a false alarm of sorts almost 10 years earlier with him. He’d been at the hospital and doing bad enough that the family back East thought my sister and I should come see him before it was too late. So my mother flew my sister and me back there but the doctors drained his lungs and he recovered.
For me, my father remained the emotional bully he’d always been. It was something I either realized or was finally able to admit as an adult. I was sensitive and excitable as a child and as an adult, which he never liked. I couldn’t deal with the hurt of letting my guard down and being myself with him because his verbal abuse and chastisement were too painful. I didn’t have the voice or the nerve to stand up to him and our relationship took a hit for that. I just pulled away from him the last seven years of his life. I stopped my regular calls to him, but I did take his calls when he reached out on holidays and birthdays. The conversations were about him catching me up with the family back East and I caught him up on the kids. That was pretty much what I felt safe exchanging with him.
So on that last call that I didn’t realize was our last call, it was superficial in the way it was with us then. He told me he was going into surgery that afternoon, I think. I’m sure I must have said, “I love you, Chump.” I must have said it because I always ended our calls that way. Even with my imposed breach between us, I called him by the beloved nickname I learned from him as a child. And I always said I love you. So I know what I must have said but I don’t remember his last words to me.
I hear it, his voice a smooth, charismatic and soft masculine timbre. I hear his voice but not what he said.
I hesitate when I try to make myself remember or recall our phone call. Is it really so important?
I hose down the guilt that rises up from my stomach into my heart because I don’t remember his last words to me since I didn’t know enough to care it may be our last time with each other.
I hand over this useless feeling of guilt I hid out from for years because I refused to think or write about it.
I help myself now after the distance of time and the experience of personal growth taught me compassion. Compassion for self and finally, compassion for him.
I hang on to the good memories and laughter I shared with him. There were so many.
I hold up my smiles born of those stories, his stories about his life, our life.
I hover over the space inside of me I created for him. A space of compassion, healthy anger and acceptance.
I happen to believe I’ve come to this integrated resolution of my father because I don’t want to keep seeking him in relationships anymore.
For us, now it’s about being free. Making a space where joy fits in instead of guilt and anger.