Three years ago today, I received a phone call at around two in the morning. It was a call I was both expecting and dreading. My father had died.
The tale of his life and death is one I could never do justice. A political refugee, he fled his native country to avoid being executed for treason, leaving my his wife and their one year old daughter behind. As long as he was gone, they were relatively safe. He made his way to the US from South America after surviving a bout of malaria that almost ended his life. He claimed his family, and joined the army, where he gained his citizenship. A Vietnam veteran, and proud American. In fact, the pride he had in being an American citizen was an integral part of his personality.
He and my mom had two more kids after they were reunited in this country. Two girls and a boy. I became his third daughter because life just happens that way. Because in reality, this man was my grandfather. His son is my actual father.
But that’s another story entirely.
Three years ago daddy was admitted to the VA with an enlarged heart. They determined that he had a hernia pushing against his chest. And since he had had two strokes in the past they needed to be careful. He spent four months in the hospital and had two heart attacks. Every time they tried to take him out of the ICU he would get worse again. Eventually they had to put him on dialysis because his kidneys stopped working, and put in a pacemaker.
A mix of pain meds and cabin fever slowly made him lose his mind. For a while there everything seemed like a complete nightmare. I have never felt so hopeless and terrified in my life.
But something amazing happened. One day he woke up and was completely sane again. Coherent. Reasonable. No one could explain it. He took charge of his care again and for a while there was hope he would finally come home. By then he had become bones in too big clothes. But they assured us that physical therapy would get him mobile again. I readied our guest room and started making plans to bring him home. Talked to his insurance about at home care and doctor’s appointments. I was going to do my best to give this man the care and attention he needed to get better.
Then one one day the hospital called. They had sent him back to the ICU because his heart was a little weak, but it wasn’t anything to worry about. They just needed to make sure he was healthy enough for PT. But he never left the ICU again.
For weeks he slowly started losing his memory. He thought I was my mom. He thought the orderlies were old friends. He would tell me things from his youth as if they had just happened yesterday. Eventually he had no idea who I was, but he thought I was pretty. I did my very best to be as happy and kind to him as I could, while going into the hospital bathroom to cry so he wouldn’t see me. I was losing my dad before he had even died.
The irony being that he knew and recognized my husband every single time he saw him. He never forgot him, not once. In a way I’m so grateful that he was able to keep that one bit of sanity, and that my husband could have that special experience with him.
He died in his sleep after a long hard fight with his heart and kidneys. We would learn later that the cancer he beat twice had come back as well.
I was so heartbroken and angry. My mom had died ten years earlier, and while I was relieved that the two of them could finally be together again, I resented the hell out of how it happened. But my dad had always been a jokester. He loved laughter. And the morning he died, as I numbly asked the nurse for a priest to say last rights, he got me good.
The priest arrived and did all the things someone does to express sympathy for a grieving family. He was tall, super pale in a priest usual black suit, and had a speech impediment. He politely asked if we would like him to proceed in English or Spanish, and I said Spanish because my in laws were present and it’s an easier language for them, and my grandfather would have preferred it. I made the mistake of assuming this kind priest was somehow as Hispanic as the rest of the people in the room.
He was not.
What occurred could only be compared to the wedding scene of the Princess Bride, but in very badly accented Spanish. Every word was almost unrecognizable, as he, with great enthusiasm, lisped his way through holy scripture, mispronouncing and butchering every word he encountered with gravitas. He even got my dad’s name wrong. While my in laws bowed their heads in solemn respect, my husband and I were trying very hard to hide the giggles this spectacle induced. Because we knew. This was my dad, having one last laugh at our expense. A more perfect set up could never be planned. It was a perfect way to say goodbye to him. And I suspect, he to us.
The memory of it would get me through the next week, as I arranged for his cremation and dealt with his estate. We would tell the story over and over again, to the hilarity of everyone we had to deal with. His landlady, his social worker. The lady at the bank, the gentleman that ran the funeral home. His secretary. Old friends. Those that knew him laughed through their tears and immediately said he would have loved it.
I still have his ashes. They’re were mixed with my mom’s ashes, and placed in the same urn. They’ve been waiting for three years to go home. Poured into the ocean current to take them back to the home they fled so many years ago. I’ve been selfish, not letting them go. Waiting for someone else to say something. But I think I’ve made them wait long enough. So I’ll have to make that trip to the Keys, and find a perfect spot to set them free.
Perhaps part of me will be set free too.