In the last weeks of his life, I would talk to my dad on the phone frequently.
He was in Montana. I was in Minnesota. It was January, and at the same time his heart and lungs were deteriorating, my body was busy helping those same organs grow inside the baby I’d been carrying for more than 40 weeks. Completely, utterly, I was in The Middle Place, sandwiched between the start and end of life’s cycle.
When I was the baby, it was my dad who was in The Middle Place. I was born, and a few months later, my dad’s dad died.
Thirty-five years later, Paco was born, and 16 days after that, my dad died.
A time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, indeed.
Because I was so heavily pregnant during his final decline, my dad and I didn’t have a face-to-face goodbye. I would talk to him on the phone, with him in the hospital and me laboring to breathe as I sat on the couch in our tiny house. Similarly, my brother was far away, in Japan, with his 7.5 months pregnant wife and five-year-old daughter. Five months before his death, my mom had filed for divorce and turned her attentions to a new boyfriend in California. Thus, my heroic sister single-handedly walked Dad to the grave as she cashed in all her days of leave and drove, again and again, the ten hours from Denver to Billings.
He was decency incarnate, my dad, and I loved our conversations on the phone. Although a quiet Finn by nature, he was an astute observer, listener, and question asker–skills that find special life over the telephone wires. We discussed his health, of course, but also my teaching, his grandkids, life in Duluth. After the traumatic delivery of Paco, when my dad realized we were struggling to cope, he asked a question–so charming to me because its phrasing revealed his farmboy roots: “Can I send you a cheque so that you can hire a girl to come in?”
He was a love, and yet his body was done. For decades, he’d lived with chronic bronchitis, asthma, diabetes, allergies, eventually a heart attack. By the age of 66, his lungs and heart were exhausted.
When we would talk on the phone each day, and he would tell me, his breathing more labored than mine, how much he loved seeing photos of his new, his ONLY, grandson, how much he loved seeing pictures of Allegra cradling the new baby, how much he couldn’t wait to see them both,
it was as though my opera singer father was engaging in a kind of overtone throat singing. There was his voice, but there was also a simultaneous rasp of air, sort of a thick hitch in his breathing, with every word. The sound was distinctive and ran, literally, as the underlying accompaniment to our conversations.
And then one day, after a few close calls, one involving emergency intubation,
he rolled over, exhaled, and died.
At that point, he was alone. My sister was in Denver attending to her job, about to drive back up to Billings. I was recovering from a C-section in Minnesota. My brother and his family had gotten on a plane in Japan the day before and were above Detroit during that last exhale.
He died alone.
There is a saddest story in my life, and it is that my dad died alone.
There is a happiest story in my life, too, and it is that my dad and I shared a birthday. Every year, come March 25th, we had Our Day. Even in his absence, March 25th is Our Day.
This week, this March 25th, he would have been 78 compared to my 46. For the first time in my recollection, I was sick on my birthday, largely bed-bound with the same virus that laid the kids low last week. First, there was a fever, then painful lungs, then a developing cough, then a vise-like headache, then a draining nose, but most of all, a complete lack of energy.
I spent Friday, March 22nd, in bed.
I spent Saturday, March 23rd, in bed.
I spent Sunday, March 24th, in bed.
On Monday, March 25th, my eyes flew open at dawn. Although I had been sleeping sitting up, propped by pillows, breathing was still work. In fact, it was the sound of my breathing that had awakened me.
The sound that pulled me to consciousness was like an overtone throat singing noise–a rasp, a hitch. I woke up thinking, “DAD. That sounded like Dad. That was Dad.”
Thusly, we started Our Day together.
Inside me, forever with me, the very breath I exhale,
there is my dad.