I was in a car, in Florida, with two people I’d never met, headed to a hospital in Gainesville to visit my dad.
“We’ve known your parents since they first moved down here,” said Kate. Or was it Kay? Or Joan? I had the text with the details on who would be picking me up from the airport, what kind of car, etc., but I didn’t feel like looking at it.
“Your mom and I are both in the neighborhood quilting club. She’s told me all about you kids, and we’re always comparing stories about grandkids. Of course, mine are…older.”
I manage a small smile at that, but it doesn’t come easily.
“They did it right,” people always say. “Retire while you’re still young and can enjoy your retirement.”
But nobody retires young from a factory. Not even when your first day is as a teenager. I remember the exhaustion on his face after weeks of 12-hour shifts. The stench of the oil and other chemicals that had permeated his clothes, his hair, his boots.
And of course, his lungs.
I had scheduled to come down on a whim. My job is one I can do from anywhere, and we’d all planned to visit as a family over Spring Break, so I decided to head down a little early when a plane ticket was $49 and I could help out around the house. He’d been admitted for pneumonia, but we all assumed he’d get over it and be back home, hitting the oxygen bottles and whining about not getting out on the boat as much as he wanted.
He loved to fish. I remember when he’d take us to this little mud hole down the road. We’d bump through the field in the car and then fish for little bluegill with dough balls made with Wheaties. I have no idea why it always had to be Wheaties, but it did. We’d drink bottles of Cokes and get sunburned and mosquito bit and catch more tree limbs than we did fish. Occasionally, someone would hook a catfish. I don’t remember if we ate them.
“…interstitial lung disease…pulmonary fibrosis…his lungs are scarred and it’s hard…treatments…high dose steroids…transplant…”
I was struck by how small a hospital bed can make a person look. He was a big man, my dad. That was always what my friends said when they met him.
“Wow, your dad’s tall!”
(I think it was more because I didn’t hit 5 feet until middle school than it was him being 6’3″.)
He had four sons, and he called us all “bud”.
We talked for a bit, then I headed back to his house to meet one of my brothers who was flying in. I came back the next morning. He’d talk a little, then he’d rest, and I’d watch the oxygen levels and heart rate and pretended that the little changes meant something.
He asked to make sure I took care of the van for my stepmom, as it needed some service or another. I made a joke, I think, about him pestering me about it but said I’d take care of it, figuring he’d do it himself. We were always fixing one car or another. I remember when my Nova froze over one winter and we had to change out the freeze plugs. And the time we used a lawn mower blade as a leaf spring. Even before I could drive, I was still fetching wrenches and burning my fingers on trouble lights.
I just realized I never did take care of the van for him.
“Get back to the waiting room now.”
My dad took my oldest brother and I to watch The Return of the Jedi when we were kids. I was maybe 7 or 8. We always went to the movie on Chrysler Day, when Chrysler employees could take their families to the movies for like a dollar. Usually it was some Disney flick like Herbie or The Fox and the Hound, but this was different. I’m not sure why they strayed from the rated G movies, and I think that was the first time I saw someone die in a movie.
But death is not always gently fading away in your son’s arms.
Sometimes, it’s ugly.
Sometimes, it’s terrifying.
Sometimes, the person you love if not more than anyone else at least longer than anyone else cries and apologizes for being a coward and begs you to take off their ventilator so they can just stop hurting.
And you do.
Because that’s also love.