And I ask Kristina if she remembers her grandfather – my dad, her Papou – because I worry she’ll forget.
The week before March 1st last year. That week before was a hard time. I’d been driving to Modesto a lot in January and February, when my dad began failing, when—
Christ, what a ridiculous word, failing. This is what I'm left with, ridiculous words. But they’re all I have to convey what I felt, words are all any of us have to convey what we feel, but the words, often, are so ridiculous. How can the Inuit have dozens of words for snow – specific words for falling snow, for snow on the ground, for a snow drift – and yet I don’t have the precise word for the act of watching the strongest man I’ve ever known confronting, head on, the end of his life, with that end accompanied by pain of a magnitude unfathomable to me. Meeting that pain and that fate with courage, with quiet dignity. I should know the word for that, shouldn't I? Shouldn't there be a word?
Of course, the Inuit probably don’t have a hundred words for snow. Is that just another something made up by someone somewhere?
The last Wednesday in February, last year. Late at night – 11:30? A quarter of twelve? Dean called. I couldn’t make out the words – though of course I knew what they were – I could just make out the sounds of my brother, crying soft. He thought, they all thought, my brothers and my Mom, that my father was dying. That night. Right then. I got in our Accord, drove fast. I drove fast a lot then, in those weeks speeding back and forth to the Valley.
Part of me felt like an intruder. I don’t live in Modesto – could only give my often strong and strident opinions over the phone, over email. Had to remind myself that we were all interested in one thing, in one goal. And when those doctors failed my father—
I will say nothing other than that, that those doctors failed my father—
When those doctors failed my father, and our goal changed, became instead focused on easing our father’s pain – nothing more, in the end, than that – then we called Hospice.
They came after that night, after that night that we all thought was the end. My family had done so much, for so long – and everyone was so tired, and it was so late. So as the clock turned Wednesday with no remorse into Thursday, I said I’d stay up. Everyone else – my brothers, my mom especially – had done so much for so long there in Modesto, so much—
I'd stay up. I'd sit with my dad as he lay dying.
Dean went home – slowly, grudgingly. Ball cap on his head. George lay down on the couch in the living room. My mom. My mom needed rest. She of any of us needed to rest and so, finally, she agreed to try and sleep in my room. To rest, with no chance to dream.
I stayed up, next to my dad, and talked to him. George said he could hear me from the couch. Just talking. Said I put him to sleep with all my talking. I thought I'd remember everything I talked about that night. But what did I say?
I just talked. About our good times. Playing catch. Driving to Columbia – to Gold Country. Watching Twiggy race around out back, barking at bees. I just talked. About watching all those Dean Martin videos. About trying to distinguish my dad's voice coming out of the choir loft. About the birds in our yard getting drunk on the pyracantha berries that had fermented in the sun. I just talked. About how much I loved him. About how great a man I believed him to be. About my girls, and Karen.
What do you say when there instead should be a flight of angels singing your father to his rest? I have no idea - so I just talked. Through the dark and the quiet. Picking up framed photos – snapshots of our lives. George there, a chubby baby. Dean and Laura, their wedding day. And the girls. The Christmas photo with all my dad's granddaughters. The baby, Eleni. Her sister, Adrianna. Our own girls – Kristina, just two. Elizabeth, six.
So I just talked. There was nothing to say and so much to say. So many questions that I'd never asked. When was your parent's anniversary? What shows did you listen to on that Philco radio? When you saw that screwdriver ripping through the screen door in Hiawatha, were you scared?
I talked. And right after six that morning, as I'm explaining to my dad that Kristina was telling me just yesterday, just Wednesday, about how much she loved him, loved her Papou, as I'm letting him know that Kristina is always telling me how much she loves him – my dad opened his eyes and said, She's just too much.
My dad opened his eyes. Opened them and saw me - really saw me. Made eye contact with me and so I told him how much Kristina loved him, yes, how much we all loved him. Got it out fast before he closed his eyes and dropped off – but dropped off to a restful sleep.
That was 6:06 am.
Just a little later, my dad opens his eyes, again. Could focus on me, again. So I tell him, again, how much we love him. Then asked if he wanted his blanket pulled up and he said, Yes, please.
That was 6:20.
When his eyes opened for a third time that morning, I told him that we were all just thinking about how much we loved him. That time I got a big smile and my dad looked at a picture of my mom and said, We love you, too.
We all love you, Dad – I'm just saying it again and again so he hears me, so he knows that's all anyone is thinking about. He kind of waves me off.
We all love you, Dad.
Thank you, he says.
No, Dad, I say, emphasizing my words, thank you.
And my dad smiled big again.
That was 6:48.
In the midst of that exchange, I heard my mom coming down the hall, and the look on her face when she saw my dad, saw him talking to me, focused on me – ah, Mom. I love you, too. For everything, but especially for that look. Confusion, astonishment, wonder. I know that she knows that this is only a reprieve – but we've been given my dad back, for a few days at least.
In those days, we can remind him how much he means to us, to the girls. How his friends are thinking of him.
We can say goodbye.
I can talk to his neighbors of nearly fifty years – Ed and Ann – and then relate to my dad the stories they shared with me.