Why I Went Back to See My Dad

He looked frail, so unlike the strong man I had known as a child

I could tell, even though they didn't ask directly, that they wondered what I was doing. I was wondering that myself. All I knew was that it was time for me to see my father right away. So, with that certainty, I left work, said good-bye to my family and bought a ticket on the earliest flight available.

My mother, father and brother all lived together in a condo complex in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, a place they moved to three years ago, when my father retired from his medical practice. I think they saw it as a step up from the old family home in West Philadelphia. Mom thought it was very "modern." I found the place impersonal and depressing, but I kept that opinion to myself. If they were happy, fine. By moving to the other side of the country, I had given up any right to speak about such decisions.

Dad had been going downhill steeply ever since his retirement. He'd quickly progressed from being forgetful, to repeating himself frequently, to wandering around the apartment in the middle of the night. It wasn't the first time I'd been witness to Dad's dementia, but it was clearly now even worse. Mom said, "Look, Meyer, who's come to see us? It's Butch." Though he smiled and shook my hand, I could tell he was having trouble figuring out who I was and why I was standing there.

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He looked frail, so unlike the strong man I had known as a child. When we were growing up, I rarely saw my father without a tie and jacket. He was a professional guy, through and through. Now he was dressed in some sort of blue terry-cloth jumpsuit. I'm sure my mother had picked that out for him. When we went to sit down in the living room, Dad sat in his new chair, an uncomfortable looking Plexiglas thing, without even a place for him to put his feet up. He kept reaching toward a side table, as if to pick something up. Then he would stop, not having found what he was searching for and bite his lip.

"He wants to smoke," Mom whispered. "But the doctor says it's bad for him. So I had to take away all his stuff." Dad had been a cigar and pipe smoker his whole life. To this day, I can't think about him without remembering the rummy smell of Prince Albert pipe tobacco.

"That doesn't seem right," I said. "I mean, what's it matter?"

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"The doctor said," Mom insisted. "And anyway, I don't want that odor getting on all the new furniture." She looked around the room, nodding at each tacky, modern piece.

Our afternoon together was pleasant enough. We all settled into our roles in the family dynamic. Well, I guess Dad didn't remember his role. Else he wouldn't have been acting so darn friendly—even effusive, in a rambling sort of way. This was very much unlike the way he'd always behaved–reserved, dignified to a fault, often silent, sometimes terribly angry, especially when he imagined he was being disrespected. Now he was telling me a story about his college days at the University of Pennsylvania, when he went to eat in the college commissary, whose name (Houston Hall) he remarkably remembered.

"They didn't have anything to eat I even recognized. It was all treyf. Covered in gravy. I just pointed at stuff. The workers must have thought I came from the old country, a greenhorn," he said and laughed. "That's the way I felt, Butchie." He reached over and patted my knee.

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I was dumbstruck. It had been many years, since my father had called me by my childhood nickname, and even longer since he'd reached out to touch me in any way other than a manly handshake. This was the man I'd always wanted for my father, the one who maybe had always been there, hiding. He even asked me about my family and my work, and really paid attention to my answers.

Mom made dinner for us that evening; a special effort for her, I was made to understand. "Usually we order in," she told me. "Or we send Paul to the deli."

"Well, I appreciate it," I said, as I chewed a mouthful of dry meatloaf. My mother had never been a good cook. "Maybe tomorrow night I can take you all out for dinner. We can go some place nice."

"I don't think we can do that," Mom said. "Your father ..." she nodded in Dad's direction at the head of the table as if I maybe didn't know who he was," "... he doesn't do so well out in public anymore."

"What do you mean?"

"Sometimes he spills. Or the food's too tough for him."

"So we order something soft. I'm sure he's not the only person in the world who can't chew so well anymore."

"He wears diapers," Paul said, looking up from his plate.

Dad just kept eating as if the subject under discussion was of no interest to him. I began to suspect that maybe Dad wasn't as far gone as he put on. Maybe he was dropping out, going inside, much like I'd done when I was sixteen.

"Fine," I said, "Well, then I'll make dinner tomorrow night for us all."

"We could get pizza," Paul said.

"Or Chinese," Mom said.

Dad finally tuned in. "Let the boy make the dinner," he said. "Who knew he could even cook."

That evening we all watched TV, nobody had much to say; we settled into our standard silence until it was time to go to bed. Ten o'clock for Mom and Dad; Paul soon thereafter. "Want to drive down the Shore tomorrow?" I asked him, before he went off.

"I'm still working," he said. "It's just a regular day for me."

"OK," I said, "Goodnight." I wasn't sure why he seemed so sullen.

I stayed up to watch Letterman, then fell into a restless sleep on the living room couch. Some hours later, Mom's voice woke me up. "He can't breathe," she was saying.

"Huh?" I was struggling to figure out where I was.

"Your father stopped breathing. He's in the bedroom." She pointed. "Go in there. Please."

I ran into their bedroom, Mom stayed out in the living room. Dad was lying on his back in the bed, wearing only his underwear. All the blankets were on the floor. I could hear him struggling to breathe, a rasping noise in his throat and chest. I went up to the side of the bed and grabbed his hand. He didn't respond to me. The wheezing and rasping noise continued, like a broken engine. Only later was I to realize that this was what people called the "death rattle."

Just then Paul came running into the room. "What's going on?" He was dressed only in his underwear also. I could almost imagine the whole thing was a dream. But it wasn't.

"He can't get his breath. Listen."

"I'll go call 911," Paul said.

"I'm not so sure that'll help." I knew Dad was not going to last much longer.

"Still, I better call," he said. "You OK here?"

"I'm OK."

Then I was alone with my dying father. I wanted to say something to him, but nothing came to mind. And I didn't think he could hear me anyhow. Finally, I bent over and kissed his forehead, and left my lips there. It seemed to calm him. The rasping became slower, then went away completely. I listened for any breath at all, but there was none. I don't know how long the whole process had taken—maybe minutes, maybe hours—but I held him until the medics, summoned by my brother, came storming into the room, stretcher and medical paraphernalia in hand. They rushed over and grabbed hold of Dad, ready to pull him off the bed and begin administering CPR, or whatever it is that's done in these situations, but I came to my senses, and yelled, "Stop. Leave him alone."

"Who are you?" the lead medic said.

"I'm his son." I was still the only family member in the room.

"And you're sure that's what he would want."

"I'm sure," I said. And I was, without having to think about it. They packed up their stuff and left. I pulled a sheet up over Dad, not over his face, kissed him once again, and went out to talk to my mother.

She was still sitting in the living room, a robe pulled around her shoulders. I sat down next to her and took her hand. "He's gone," I said. Then I started to cry. I needed some relief.

"Don't you do that," Mom said. "If you start crying, then I will, too."

I made myself stop, though it was hard to do. "OK. It's OK, Mom."

Paul walked in then, phone in hand. "I called the funeral home. They'll be here soon to pick up the body."

"Don't you want to go see him before they get here?" I asked them both. But Mom just shook her head, and Paul walked into the kitchen.

It wasn't until many months later, back in Portland, that I was finally able to cry. I don't even know what precipitated it, but one minute I was starting to make dinner for the family, and the next I was on my knees, wracked with sobs, repeating, "Dad, Dad, Dad." I hadn't cried like that since I was a small boy. Something broke open inside me.

When my wife got home later that evening, I pulled her aside. The kids were running in and out of the kitchen, asking what was for dinner. "You know, I really did love my dad," I told her. I thought I might start to cry again.

She put a hand on my shoulder. "I know you did, honey," she said. "That's why you went back."

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