This past spring I met up with a friend who had recently read my book Tornado Dreams. We had a long conversation about many things, including some details about her relationship with her father. She then told me about a single question he asked her upon his deathbed. It was impossible for me not to reflect on how I would answer the same question by my father.
On my walk home from meeting my friend, her father’s question kept rolling around in my head, until it formed itself into a short story. What follows is that story.
Haddie quietly entered her father’s room. His relaxed, drug-induced sleep betrayed the internal fight his body was losing over the pneumonia that had, with alacrity, consumed him. She found it hard to believe death was so close, but the doctor, who called, had been clear, direct and assured in his tone when he said, “He won’t make it through the afternoon.” And, at 89, her father lacked the energy and the will to battle such a powerful adversary.
“I’ll be at the desk. Just push the button, if you need me.”
“Thanks, Cathy,” Haddie said.
Cathy, the nurse, a long time family friend and former neighbor, rested her hand on Haddie’s shoulder. Haddie squeezed Cathy’s hand in a gesture of thanks for being the one constant in her life. The words didn’t need to be spoken. They both understood. Cathy was one of the few friends of her parents who had not slept with her father. For that reason alone, Haddie knew she could always rely on Cathy.
She watched Cathy leave the room. Her long, white hair cascading down the middle of her back like a waterfall still evoked envy in Haddie. Since her earliest memories, Haddie had coveted Cathy’s hair. All Haddie wanted to do, on those days when Cathy babysat her so many years ago, was to brush those long, luxurious strands: coal black, and shining even in the absence of sunlight. Now, nearing 65, Cathy’s white hair was equally as beautiful, and as lush. Haddie longed to run her fingers through its bulk once again.
Haddie picked up a chair and placed it quietly at the head of her father’s bed. After a long night by his side, while he wheezed and groaned and was barely coherent; and, after informing his wife to cut her long weekend short with her daughter, and return to Iowa from Colorado as quickly as possible; and, after attempting to sleep in the uncomfortable chair she found herself sitting in again; and, after awakening this morning to wails filling the ICU from the family whose husband/father/son/uncle had died in the room next to her father’s, she was back at the hospital, just an hour after leaving, with wet hair and a cup of coffee.
As he slept, Haddie took in the sterile atmosphere of the compact ICU room. Filled with a non-stop beeping from the various hook-ups attached to her father’s body, the room didn’t inspire health to Haddie. Rather, it connoted a waiting, a watching. She thought of the man who died earlier. His family had waited. They had watched.
Moments ago, before entering her father’s room, Haddie bumped into a young girl, her eyes swollen from sobbing.
“I’m sorry,” Haddie said to her. “Was he your father?”
The girl looked up at Haddie. “Yes,” she replied, her voice quiet and hoarse. “He kept me safe. He kept us all safe. He loved everyone, and now he’s gone.”
The pain in the girl’s eyes, the sorrow in her voice, evoked in Haddie a longing to relate.
Sitting with her father now, Haddie felt a void she hungered to have filled.
Her father’s bald head, dry with short, white hairs coiling upwards, made her laugh.
“Thank, God, they took off your rug,” she said, half hoping he heard.
Years ago, before he divorced her mother, his aunt had given her parents a sizable amount of money for Christmas, of which her father had applied a portion of to a high-end toupee. This high-end toupee had conveniently required her father to journey to Des Moines once every six weeks to the high-end toupee salon where it was washed and styled.
“You know,” he had reported to Haddie and her mother shortly after getting it, “all the ladies down at the cafe tell me I look just like George Clooney.”
His expectation had been clear to them: be happy for me that I’m getting all of this attention.
“Haddie,” her father’s crusty voice interrupted her thoughts. For an odd moment, she didn’t recognize the man smiling at her. But time robbed her of this brief respite from reality.
So, Haddie thought, I’m entering into the final-words’ moment.
“Hi, Dad,” she said. She attempted a smile, but she felt her lips push downwards against her wishes. She didn’t like her smile-frown. It exposed her true feelings.
“How are you?” she almost rolled her eyes. Dumb, dumb, totally dumb question, she berated herself. You’re 35. Can’t you come with something better than that?
“Oh, you know,” her father, answered.” His parched lips, cracked and a small droplet of blood filled in a crevice on his lower lip.
She wasn’t sure why she thought conversation would be easier now. They hadn’t had a real conversation in at least 15 years, if ever. Unable to lie to herself, she had to admit that she had dropped everything to come be by her father’s dying side, so she could say her last words and be done with him. She believed remaining in absentia at her father’s funeral gave her an emotional tactical advantage. Her father’s wife would insist she give the eulogy. “You’re the writer in the family. And besides, you’ll do a better job than I can,” she heard her saying.
There was no way Haddie could write and present a eulogy for her father without completely abandoning herself to falsehoods in order to do what she was certain was expected of her in this moment, which was: to say things, which were positive and inflated, about her father that everyone could feel good about, and wouldn’t, in anyway, expose the truth they all knew, but were afraid to admit.
And, Haddie refused to stand in a receiving line between the woman who had publically slandered her mother and the woman’s daughter, whom, her father, to Haddie’s face, had declared to be ten times the daughter Haddie had ever been.
Haddie wished, looking at her father’s aged face, she would have had the presence of mind, on that day long ago, to say, “Maybe, that’s because you haven’t treated her the way you have me.”
Suddenly, seized by an undeniable feeling, Haddie straightened. Death began swirling about the room. Then, it stopped, and hovered above her father’s body. Waiting. Watching. Haddie audibly gasped. There was no question in her mind that a distinct energy had joined them in the room, and its sole purpose was to take her father from this life.
“Haddie,” his urgent tone let her know he felt it too. “Have I been a good father?” he asked.
He noticeably lifted his head and looked, with pleading, please-tell-me-that-I-have-been eyes at Haddie.
Stunned, Haddie stared at her father. A wave of emotions raced inside her: anger, sadness, hurt. Panic gripped her as she forced her feet flat onto the floor and tried to breathe.
How dare you, she wanted to yell at him.
Then, guilt, ingratitude, peevishness, and shame erupted in her stomach. She fought the need to retch. She turned everything inward, and screamed in silent self-condemnation Haddie, you’re so awful! For God’s sake, the man is dying.
Her conflicting feelings came too fast and too strong for her to separate them.
She questioned herself. What did I expect in coming here?
Scenes from her past flooded her mind, and for the first time, the nature of her relationship with her father distilled itself into one word: capitulation. She had spent her entire life surrendering herself to his needs. And, while there were a multitude of incidents that demonstrated his emotional and mental abuse, his bald head sent her back to a single moment in time that spoke for so many.
“Get in here, Haddie,” he calls from the bathroom.
Haddie pulls up her leotard and puts on her sweats. Oh, how I hate this. I don’t hate many things, but this, I hate, her mind rages.
She stomps into the bathroom with all the attitude her 16 year-old self can affect to find her father in his usual place for this repeated meeting: sitting on the small stool in front of her mother’s vanity table and mirror.
“Hook up my hair,” he orders.
Disgust overcomes her, “You know, I’m trying to get ready for dance class,” Haddie says. She wants to add, I don’t ask you to put my hair in a bun, but she walks behind him instead. She takes a deep breath. She has to will her hands to lift up the back edge of his toupee.
“Well, it’s just a lot easier for me, if you do it,” he says.
Haddie overlays the toupee edge about a half-inch into his hairline. As she begins to snap the first of seven small barrettes sewed onto his toupee into his hair, he says, “Make sure you get it nice and even, Haddie.”
She looks at him in the mirror. He smiles at her like a giddy teenager.
She can’t help but notice he’s showered and shaved. The scent of Old Spice permeates the air.
Haddie wonders how her mother can continue to act like nothing unusual is going on.
Haddie swallows her disgust, and focuses on the toupee.
Oh, how I want to make it completely crooked, she thinks. She resists the urge to dig the tip of each barrette into his scalp.
With each closing snap, a whispering voice slides further up into her consciousness. “How does it feel to get your father ready for a date?” it asks her.
Her memory ended, but his question, “Have I been a good father,” still hung in the air.
The years seemed to collapse into this single moment with her sitting, dumbfounded, staring at her dying father. And, for Haddie, this moment was bathed in her father’s neediness. He had taken so much from her. Even in his last minutes on this earth, with only her present at his side, with one last chance to offer her something, anything, he didn’t.
Did you ever worry about me? Have you not once, in the last 10 years, reflected on how you have treated me?
These questions would forever remain unasked.
She wanted, so desperately, for this moment to mirror what she had witnessed in the young girl she encountered earlier. Haddie wanted to feel sorrow. She wanted to grieve the loss of a protector. She wanted the lack of one’s presence to create in her a heart-wrenching void. She wanted her eyes swollen, and her voice hoarse from grief-stricken sobs. She wanted to feel anything other than nothingness. He had left her nothing to feel, other than, perhaps, relief in his death.
It dawned on Haddie that she had given enough. And, yet, his question, “Have I been a good father?”
The energy in the room started to move again. She knew his death was drawing near. She reached out for her father’s hand. With her thumb, she stroked its wrinkled, veiny back.
“No, Dad,” she said, “you haven’t.”
A single tear rolled down her cheek. As it crossed her upper lip, she caught it on her tongue. Its salty residue lingered.
“But you have been a difficult child.”