Today would have been my dad’s 86th birthday. I’m thinking about the best conversation I ever had with him. It took place the evening before he died.
My parents divorced when I was 4. All I knew about it was that my daddy never seemed to come home anymore. I’d wait on the porch step, jumping up when every old Chevy drove by, then crying when it didn’t stop. He remarried after a couple of years, raising his new wife’s daughters as his own. He got his PhD, and became an economics professor in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, known for being the end of the Cherokee Nation “Trail of Tears.” There were occasional visits, but I always felt like an interloper, and was both sad and relieved to get back to my life with mom.
Pushing away the pain of feeling unimportant to him, I made myself strong and nonchalant. That version of me drank excessively, used drugs, and kept the tough exterior as intact as possible. I reached out for help only once, when I asked him to buy me an electric guitar and amplifier to help launch my dreams. He wrote a letter rejecting the request, letting it be known he thought that was a poor choice of career. My success in the Go-Go’s seven years later proved him wrong, and he readily apologized for not being more supportive. “I’ve got my Go-Go’s records right next to my Merle Haggard albums,” he said, with a twinkle in his eyes. Knowing he was proud made me happy, but I was off on my trajectory and our closeness didn’t seem important.
The years went on, the Go-Go’s broke up, got back together. Getting sober at age 30, in 1989 finally brought up my daddy issues. In the late 90’s he came to see my band play in Las Vegas. I intended to give him a very personal and emotional letter, a suggestion from a therapist. Instead of the chance to express/dump my feelings on him, he had a heart attack. He survived; I tore the letter up.
His wife passed away in 2004, and I thought he might need me in his life more. I’d married, had a nice home, and most of all, I’d given him a DNA-carrying granddaughter. We both made efforts, short visits, once, maybe twice a year, or less. He was lonely. After being married for 38 years what he wanted most was companionship with a woman. My dad drove his RV around, created a new life chapter as a widower, played his banjo, learned to dance and kept mentally active. He was super smart, a self-made man who came from zero privilege and made his own opportunities. Learning quantum physics at 83—that was him.
I was proud of him and he was proud of me. But close? No. We loved each other because I was his daughter and he was my father. We even liked each other. But we didn’t have enough shared time and experience to create something meaningful and deep.
That began to change a few years ago. He got a place near Houston and would come see my Texas band, the Bluebonnets, when we played nearby. He even stayed with me for Thanksgiving, and a Christmas—our firsts together, ever. His health was a nagging concern: A-Fib, another heart attack, asthma. He was getting older, 81, 82, 83—and would often say “I will probably live to be 85. No one in my family has gotten past 85.” And I’d tell him to stop saying that. I think words are powerful, seeds that manifest reality if you don’t watch it.
When I found him a place to rent in Austin in late summer of 2017, I’d never seen anyone move cities so quickly. He set up up his new house in record time, building a workbench in the garage, getting his TV sorted. He made stews in his crockpot and hung Native American art on the walls. There was a nice barbecue birthday celebration, his 84th, with my stepsister, our daughters, and a lady friend who adored him but who he wouldn’t commit to. He seemed happy to be here with family close by. It felt like a new era was starting.
It wasn’t the era I hoped for. Dad kept feeling lousy—out of breath, unsteady on his feet. In October, he asked me to take him for an angiogram. In a matter of hours, I became an explorer, lost in a medical jungle, trying to lead him to recovery. In true Western fashion, fixing one issue always led to another. All four arteries to his heart were nearly completely clogged–he was literally hanging on by a thread and his brand new cardiologist was surprised he was alive. The heart surgeon wasn’t sure he could operate.
They said it would be rough, but none of us could have imagined how bad it was.
For seven months he endured: a triple bypass, valve replacement, unsuccessful rehab stint, congestive heart failure, “problem solving” procedures, a permanent catheter to drain fluid, infection, leading to sepsis and MRSA, intense antibiotics, renal failure and, finally, dialysis. Six hospital stays, two inpatient rehabs, two skilled nursing stints, an acute-care hospital. Only twice did he go home, both times ending up back in the ER within days. Throughout, he became weaker and progressively less able to fend for himself. Still, he was determined. He set goal after goal: his last was to celebrate his 85th in August—the one he used to say would probably be his last.
While this terrible stuff was happening, something wonderful was also going on. I saw him, dozens of times a month, if not every day. I advocated on his behalf, nagged the doctors and case workers, cozied up to nurses and med techs, made playlists with his favorite music, got him to play his guitar, sang with him, downloaded books to read, brought fresh fruit and kept on him to not give up. Nearly 60 years of single-parented, only child-ness ended. I had a dad I’d grown to love deeply.
The more I loved him, the more I realized what I’d missed. It was a new pleasure having a dad to consult, one that could give me advice about the pressures and stresses in my life. He had great perspective and input on anything I asked about. Watching how hard he tried to live, overwhelmed me with sadness, and then I’d get frustrated—why didn’t he try more, try harder, to eat, to stand, to move? I desperately didn’t want to lose him. Not after losing him as a child. Never knowing what to expect, I dreaded calls, or walking into whatever room he occupied. Would he be in his chair eating, listening to Lightnin’ Hopkins? Or would he be curled on his bed, shaking, depressed that they’d found an infection, or weak with dangerously low blood pressure, or swollen with fluids puffing his feet or his belly or his hand? I’d do everything in my power to make sure he knew he was supported and loved, and try to distract him with talk. I’d leave him, grateful for the time, but sob all the way home.
Despite all this, his focus, presence and mental capacity stayed intact. Staff came in continually, taking blood and vitals, giving breathing treatments and oxygen, hanging bags of fluid to drip in his veins, followed by drugs to take fluid out. A continual in-and-out of PICC lines and ports and catheters. He took it all like the most stoic superman ever and befriended everyone.
“It is what it is,” he’d say.
I still had a daughter to parent, and business to take care of. Life went on and good things were happening, but always, my dad was on my mind. Empathy and compassion and love and worry kept me up at night and stress levels high. I developed respiratory ailments and took a Transcendental Meditation course to manage my stress and exercised vigorously in boxing and spin classes.
During it all, we talked. We talked about everything. We talked about the time I took weed to his home and my other stepsister narc’d me out and I was sent back to Austin. We talked about his disdain for his mother who wouldn’t leave his alcoholic dad, and I’d defend her. He told me it was my mom who wanted out of the marriage, not him. I wasn’t all that surprised. We talked about philosophy and Marxism and politics and music and books. When things looked grim, we talked about death. He told me the Native American saying: “There is no death, just a change of worlds.” He wasn’t afraid of dying, not one bit. His humor, always quick and unexpected—and increasingly more self-deprecating—was a trait that made the terrible tragedy of it all bearable. I liked that he liked my jokes and my directness and honesty.
It was the dialysis that took his strength and will away. It stripped the life force from his blood, along with the toxins it cleaned out. He could barely eat but was too proud to be fed. On the last evening of his life, I flew home from a 3-day work trip and went straight to him. The nurse had called: she thought he might have a couple of weeks left. His voice was frail, but he was still alert, happy to see me. We talked about death again, but this time, not in the abstract. Dad knew it was over but refused to meet with hospice. He wanted to “keep on, keepin’ on,” doing dialysis, trying for rehab.
As I gathered my things to leave, tucking him in, he said “Wait. Don’t go yet.” I dragged a chair back to his bedside. And my dad told me, on what neither of us knew would be the last night of his life, what he needed to say: “I have so much regret. I feel so much loss. I wish I had known you like this sooner. I wish I’d known you better for longer. Because you are an extraordinary woman.”
I thought quickly. What did he need from me? What could I give him?
Sometimes I am in tune with a higher power that channels through me, and I know what to say and I know how to say it. This was one of those times. I reassured him: I would not have been hanging around, making a close relationship with him my priority. Right now, right then, he was getting the best me I’d ever been. Besides, I said, he’d never have let me quit school and run off to be in a band. No way. It was meant to be like this. This was our journey. This was our time.
It had been a long visit, four hours. I left, promising to bring butter pecan ice cream, his favorite, the next morning. One more ping of hope entered my heart. Maybe he’d eat ice cream, turn all this around and get better.
The next morning, I nearly didn’t go, I thought maybe I’d wait ‘til evening, after his dialysis. But I didn’t want him to feel forgotten, and I’d promised the ice cream. He let me give him a few spoons of butter pecan. His mind seemed far away. I had the therapist stand him up so we could hug each other properly. I wheeled him into the sunlight on a terrace and told him I’d miss him and always remember him. My words brought him back from wherever his thoughts had taken him, and he took my hand. We hadn’t locked his wheelchair and the wind started blowing it towards the edge of the balcony. I got a ridiculous image in my head of him flying over the rail, the wind carrying him and the chair off in a gust.
Below us, the van that took him for dialysis pulled into the drive. Time to go. “I love you dad,” I told him, and he answered as he always did; “I love you baby.”
Dad died a little bit after he got back from dialysis that evening. The staff was surprised, they told me they’d seen thousands die and very few got to exit so peacefully. I thought he’d left like a Native American warrior would; that he’d decided for himself it was a good day to die.
The grieving was ragged, much harsher than I expected. Sadness and sorrow, I was used to—but not that.
His absence in my life had always given me purpose. I am, at my core, a sad young girl who wanted to matter to her daddy. That deep sorrow and longing was soothed in ways that both hurt and benefitted me. It gave me drive, ambition, and perfectionism. It gave me joy in creativity—an act that pushes the pause button on whatever churns beneath the surface. His absence was a presence throughout my life, one I made light of, dismissed and denied, until I began, as an adult to confront and accept that very large absence. And then finally, there we were, together. He and I completely present with each other.
A few weeks after his death, I went with my stepsister to go through his things. He’d mastered the art of minimalism without even trying. No debt. His valuables: two gold rings, a guitar, a banjo, a few guns, a truck and a car. I suppose, of value to him as well: a recliner and several binders jammed with hundreds of song lyrics, chord charts and tabs.
Then I found another file. It held every letter I’d ever written to him, neatly folded, in its original envelope. Postcards from my early band tours and reams of press on my bands. CD’s and cassettes from every stage of my career.
It was a trove of postmortem evidence, the treasure I never expected: I mattered very much to him, and I always had. I can’t erase the story of the little girl who waited on the porch steps for her dad to come home, but now, as a woman in my 60’s, I can embrace a new, revised version. That little girl finally got her wish.