Sunday, June 15, 2014

Little Girl Lost

It's Father's Day.

I tried to write this morning, but I just couldn't bring myself to do it. The weeks since I last saw my dad have been tense and sad. He was not in good shape, physically or mentally, and it's been difficult. It's funny since I've written about my dad and his illness several times here. (And here and here and here. Or here.). Far more often than I ever thought I would; I am a private person who shields herself with a loud and feisty public personality. In this way, yet again, I am my father's daughter.

But to untwist him from my life, to remove him from this space, would be damn near impossible. For the last seven years, his path has become my own. We wander hand-in-hand, lost in a world where we don't recognize ourselves. I have found myself there again today, but this time, I am alone.

My entire childhood, I feared the death of my dad. I thought it would be the undoing of me -- that I would wake up one morning, and he would suddenly be gone. Often, I would lie in bed, wondering how I would get along as if his absence would hobble me as if I had woken up to have my leg amputated or my eyesight lost. How does a little girl imagine life without her hero?

And then I would hear him coming down the hall, and I would wiggle my toes and open my eyes, knowing that the world was still on its axis.

I never stopped to think that there are things worse than death. Because there are. My dad is my hero still, but he has not been allowed a hero's death. Heroes die in battle. They die strong. They die with their wife's kiss and their children's names on their lips. They don't die inch-by-inch.

I woke up this morning with my dad on my heart. I pulled up old posts and pulled out old pictures. I thought a lot about when I was a little girl. I thought about his hands, so calloused and worn. And how he was old pearl-snap shirts and trucker hats before they were cool. And how he smelled -- like Lava soap, freshly-mown grass, WD-40, and Certs breath mints.

I waited until I knew that lunch would be over and the dining room quiet before I called my mom's phone. He doesn't hear well, and his booming voice is often barely a whisper. I knew she'd be there, visiting him at the nursing home because even if he didn't know it was Father's Day, she would.

When she put him on the phone, he didn't have much to say. Even in his prime, the telephone was difficult for my dad who so loved to see someone's face as he told them a story or reeled off his latest joke. Our conversation was stilted and one-sided as I asked him questions he didn't know how to answer.

When my mom got back on the phone, she confirmed what I had begun to suspect several months ago. My father didn't recognize my voice. She's also noticed that he's stopped referring to me by my name and instead calls me "Sister", the nickname my family used for me until I was 10.

I once wondered how a little girl loses her hero, but I never once thought to wonder how the hero forgets his little girl. Now I wonder how long I will live in his mind at all.

I've always thought that the cruelest thing that has happened to my father is not that he is dying but that he is dying in a trap. His body broken, his mind intact. But even that is no longer true, and I am devastated.

I remember when I was six, my dad tried to teach me to take a fish off the hook. I kept recoiling at it, claiming I couldn't do it, putting on my best scared little girl act. It flopped and fought against my hands, its gills fluttering and flailing for oxygen, and I asked why I couldn't just wait until it died to remove the hook. Surely it couldn't take much longer. "Because it's in pain" was his reply. I can still remember the crease in his eyebrows, the frown on his face, 32 years later.

I've always thought about that moment, seeing my father as the fish in that desperate fight for independence and dignity. But it's only in hanging up the phone and hearing my own ragged gasps that I begin to understand what it feels to be on the end of that line.

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