Most of the last couple of days were spent thinking about my father, who passed away on May 6, 1991, at the age of 53. The man who never raised his voice to me, who told me he cried more than I did the one and only time he ever spanked me, ceased to exist. We traveled down to his hometown in Georgia to bury him, then returned to our home in NC to finish out the school year. Upon our return, we found my little sister’s dog killed on the highway. We spent her birthday, May 9, mourning our losses and wondering what would become of us. My mother, who had left us several years before, never came for us. We finished out the school year, my senior year, then moved to Georgia to live with my dad’s sister.
According to my father, I was an angry little soul when I was born. My mother was put under anesthesia for my birth. My father was relegated to the waiting room, where he paced nervously. I was brought forth unwillingly with forceps, caught by gloved hands, cleaned and tightly wrapped, then placed in a nursery bassinet. My father’s first glimpse of me was from the viewing area, behind glass. It would be several hours before I would be held by either of my parents. The other babies were either crying or sleeping. I was the only baby that was both silent and wide-awake. The bruises of the forceps marred my wrinkled skin, my black eyes stared directly into his. He said that I seemed to be glaring at him in anger, as if accusing him for my abrupt departure from warmth and security into this coldly sterile world. He said I was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen, which proves his love, because I saw the photos of my cone-headed, puffy and reddened visage, all stern and scowling. Nevertheless, he found me lovely, and he vowed to never leave me alone again. At least that is the story that he told me, which I had him repeat over and over again until I thought I could actually remember the event.
He did indeed take me everywhere he went. Back in the days before mandatory seat belts and car seats, I stood next to him in the driver’s seat, my arm stretched behind his back, my head on his shoulder. Sometimes I napped there, standing upright, in my place of honor. Other times I simply gazed ahead, absorbing his lessons about how to tell what type of car was coming by the shape of its headlights. Also, I kept on the lookout for cops. “O marti-san!” I would cry in Japanese, a word from my mother, and he would rapidly decelerate in accordance with the speed limit.
Though he worked hard and was often busy, his free time was always spent with us kids. My sister and I always tagged along to go fishing, though most of the time we just played with the night-crawlers. His mixture of pride and dismay when my little sister caught “the Big One” that he had been out to get is a memory that we cherish. We hiked in the woods often, swinging machetes to tame the underbrush, eyes on the ground in search of old arrow heads. I became quite the marksman with my .22 rifle, which he taught me to use safely and accurately. Though he was a mostly typical southern man, he told us that being girls shouldn’t stop us from doing whatever we wanted to do in life. He told us we didn’t need a man to tell us what to do.
Life was not easy. Mom left. We were all devastated. Several years of treatment had kept his cancer under control, but the struggle took its toll on the marriage. My dad sank into a horrible depression, which was worse for me than my mother’s absence. All night he would pace the creaky floors, unable to sleep. Sometimes I would get up and sit with him, listening to his memories of better days. He never spoke ill of her, never blamed her for leaving. But I did.
Slowly he climbed his way through the misery, and learned to exist in a world without my beautiful, volatile mother. I’m sorry to say I didn’t always help out like I should have. He would ask us to wash the dishes, but we were too busy to be bothered. They sat in the sink for a couple of days, a steadily growing pile that we successfully ignored. Never one to berate or nag, he simply threw the dishes out into the yard one day, while we were at school. That act spoke louder than words. We sheepishly toted them back inside, washed and dried them, then put them away. He never acknowledged our surrender with more than a small, mischievous grin.
Spankings, groundings, time-outs and other punishments were not part of my dad’s arsenal of behavioral modification. His disappointment was the worst consequence of bad behavior, and that was enough. I would rather have chopped off a limb than cause him to lose faith in me. I placed my father ahead of God himself.
When the cancer returned with a vengeance, we wanted to deny it. As his appetite diminished, his cheeks began to hollow. His eyes dulled with unspoken fears, he went about his days with exhausted determination. I knew he was sick, I knew it was bad. One day, after he dropped my little sister off at school, he announced that he was hungry. I asked him if we could stop and eat before he dropped me off. He allowed me to tag along, and he ordered a big breakfast of grits, eggs and bacon. I watched him eat every bite and hoped it was a good sign. Signing in late to school that day, I treasured the little slip of paper that stated “unexcused tardy” and walked into class with a smile on my face.
Unfortunately, this would be the last big meal my dad would ever eat. Very soon after that lovely morning he entered the hospital. Though he had been fighting cancer for fifteen years, he had never before been hospitalized. Born at home, he had never before spent the night in a hospital. This stay, which lasted exactly one month, would be his first and last.
Never a man who could sit still, this forced incarceration worked quickly on his morale. He couldn’t eat, he couldn’t sleep. Within a couple of weeks, his green eyes became haunted and desperate. Medications meant to control his pain left him nearly incoherent. The day before his death he grabbed my hand and squeezed it painfully. “Take me out of here,” he begged. “Take me to see the sunshine.” He was light enough that I could have carried him-a mere 77 pounds according to his autopsy. How many times have I wished that I had done it! But I was a child and didn’t know what to do. I kissed him and gave him ice chips, smoothed lip balm over his cracked lips. “No, daddy,” I said. “You have to stay here and get better.” His eyes cleared momentarily and he nodded, “yes, yes.”
Before he entered the hospital, but after we knew his health was declining, I asked my dad if he believed in ghosts. In his typical fashion, he stated that he didn’t know if there was such a thing as ghosts, but that he would never come back to haunt me. “Would you try to come and check on me, to see how I am doing?” I asked him. “No, baby. I know you will be all right. I won’t be bothering you once I’m gone.”
The night he died, my sister was sleeping. I got the call that he was gone, and I went to wake her up to tell her the news. I stood staring at her, postponing the moment. She opened her eyes and told me, “He’s gone.” She knew. She said she felt him leave this world. Did he pop in once more after all, to check in and say goodbye?
My one constant in life, my moral compass, my hero was gone. The years that followed were spent looking for another anchor to ground me. No mother, no father, no one to believe in me, no reason to be a good girl any longer. I drank too much, smoked too much, partied hard and tried to numb my pain. I was angry at life, at God, and at everyone else. I blamed myself for my dad’s death, thinking how I should have helped him more. I blamed my mother for breaking his heart. I was angry at him for leaving me, for breaking his promise made to me on the day of my birth.
Not until I had children of my own did I start to realize that there was no room in my heart for anger and blame. My time on this earth is finite. My father knew this and lived under the shadow of death for so long that he never wasted time. Every day he got up and did what needed to be done without complaint.
Big college basketball fans we were, living in the heart of NC, where college ball reigns supreme. Our favorite team, Duke, was playing Kansas for the NCAA championship in 1991 after a major upset over UNLV in the semi-finals. This was the fourth consecutive year in the Final Four, and Duke was the underdog. On April 1, five days before my dad would enter the hospital and one month before he would die, Duke took the NCAA championship as we all huddled around our little television and whooped with joy. This last memory of our life together, so clearly etched in my mind, is one of those perfect moments when all worries fall away and there is only happiness. Now, when people make fun of my allegiance to Duke over the legendary Tarheels, I just shrug. I am ever faithful to the Blue Devils for coming through for us on that day.
Today I am relatively well-adjusted, happy and thankful for everything I have. I miss my father the most on important days in my life. Mom walked me down the aisle to be married, carrying his photo. The birth of each of my children was tempered with thoughts of how he would have “spoiled them rotten.” May 6 always rolls back around and my melancholy thoughts return to the injustice of a life taken too soon. But I will be all right, as he always knew I would be. In our short amount of time together, he taught me everything I needed to know, and I believe he would be proud of the woman I have become.