Updated: Dec 30, 2019
Call came in at 6:30 am 12/27/2006, normally not a good sign which proved amazingly accurate. Only two days prior Dad and I made prime rib: a simple paper bag recipe baked in the oven at his request. Some obscure bottle of red was extracted from the bar; he wasn't into the thermostatically controlled coolers. He was old school; his treasures rested quietly behind wooden doors. It was all the more ironic given his secrets were once locked from my prying teenage hands when I thought I had carefully raided the liquor cabinets. Even Mom was eventually barred after too often rampaging, taking precious cargo to imbibe upon with the sausage lady from The Fruit Ranch.
We sat at the curly-cued cherry dining table that now like my Mom I lament the tedious cleaning it requires. It was just the three of us: Tom, Dad and I. Like every Christmas since my sister and I left home, Sue and Joe were absent. They would show up after hours, amazingly so lit up to cause even Dad to be the sober party.
Dinner was hearty. My first and successful attempt at such a beast. He toasted my cooking which purely through DNA had matured and even possibly improved upon Mom's over time, something she would never experience. He requested the same menu at the same table for Easter, suggesting perhaps my sister and Joe could join in. He would not be alive to partake in such a celebration.
In the ensuing months I would be witness to his dying. But at the time I was rather clueless. My Father was invincible. I had never seen him hospitalized in all my forty years; he barely had a cold. Even at nearly eighty, he could stay up later then either Tom or I. As a child after twelve hours on the job he would still putter in the basement on some project, the tapping of hammers echoing again through the heating vents. His crotchety mother had lived well into her mid-nineties, living alone in her original home until just the last few. He was just as ornery so in my estimation he certainly had another fifteen plus years on earth to guide and irritate me.
But that was not the plan. It is a challenging rite of passage to become caretaker of one's parents, eventually denial gives up the ghost. During the weeks ahead, I would assure the nurses that he was in fact mentally stable to return home after surgical psychosis when he found the amazing strength to pull his tubes and run down the hall naked and screaming post his heart stint. I would be there to change his soiled pj's when he was delivered to our doorstep drugged on Oxycontin and released ahead of schedule from the nursing home coaxing him back to health and pre-mature independence with the aid of my massage therapist/trained nursing assistant he affectionately coined Sargent. I would be there to aid him up our stairs, into the shower, back into a change of clothes, and safely down the same flight. Note to all to have a shower on your first floor, preferably without a lip to step over!
During that brief tenure there were so many moments of acute maturation. Tucking him into bed and seeing for the first time his ancient smile without his dentures. It actually took me years after his death to allow myself to toss those damn things when I accepted his soul was not inside. I recall the comedy that became Dad and Rachel chit chatting during America's Got Talent, left to watch only one station for days because they couldn't find the remote and were mutually too lazy to search. But it was always dinner that holds the fondest recollections. He would happily great us at the door and walk into the kitchen. Mutually exhausted from work, with both children and a Father to feed, meals were pretty simple. But it had been years since anyone had cooked for him after Mom succumbed to Alzheimers and sadly last served him a Pyrex dish of uncooked chicken peppered with shards of glass, her classic chicken and rice rendered infamous by this single delivery. Dad would plop down at the breakfast bar. He and Tom would chat about the news; he would inquire about what happened at work, truly riveted by any stories, certainly recalling his own career. Dad had a sophisticated palette; but, it was a taco dinner that seamed to conjure up the most joy during that six weeks he lived with us the summer of 2006. Made from an Ortega kit with simple ground beef he devoured that particular meal and fell asleep soundly.
I have been blessed to have had a few successes in school and even at work. But my greatest accomplishment in life will always be caring for Dad that final year of his life. I couldn't do so with Mom given the kids were younger; we lived a city away; work was all consuming as too was the nature of her illness. But life opened up just enough to take up the charge for Dad, even if I was frankly oblivious to the impending end. I was there bedside post his open heart surgery so that when he called out he knew he was not alone. I was there to grant him one final Leinies' Red, a swab at hospice, bedside during the final hours when he groaned in pure delight. It was both comical and frightening. I would be there to spread his ashes on the wooded path up north at the lake. We cried at the obvious finality but laughed too as our dogs swim through them in the water, something he would have equally appreciated. I spotted a Lady Slipper that day as well, a forest orchid I hadn't seen in decades since they are only visible in May for a brief time. It had been decades since life had granted me time to make the trip that Memorial weekend. I felt his presence then as I still do now, even if more fleeting, but always as poignant with the passage of time. He will visit unexpectedly, shedding some wisdom sought. But I always know he waits reverently for my visits as well, drink in hand at the end of the pier, on the lake at the home he beloved.