Last Goodbye: One daughter’s tale of love, loss and forgiveness

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I remember the exact moment when I started pulling away from my father. I was 23 years old and a senior in college. I had invited him for lunch at a Mexican restaurant a block from the rundown garage studio I shared with my boyfriend. Over a burrito, I told him how disappointed I was with my summer lit class, taught by a professor who was obsessed with Mitch Albom. 
 
I talked, and he stared over my shoulder. I filled him in on my plans for the College Democrats and told him how terrifying it was to be teaching a freshman prep course. Still, he said nothing. 
 
Perhaps he was having a bad day. Or maybe something truly interesting was transpiring over my shoulder. But in that moment, it didn’t occur to me to ask why he was so distracted. I felt invisible. My father didn’t see me at all, and the hurt of that realization — regardless of its accuracy — made me furious.
 
That lunch wouldn’t have stung quite so much if I hadn’t felt as if I were falling away from him for years. In the spring of my senior year in high school, my parents got divorced. For reasons I couldn’t quite grasp, they decided that we three should all stay in our family home until my graduation.
 
Living with parents who had become reluctant roommates was as difficult and painful as you would imagine. The only thing worse than the separate bedrooms and the arguing was the fear that, no matter how bad living together was, being apart might be worse. 
 
I knew that once I graduated, my mother and I would move away. I would go to an out-of-state college 2,000 miles away, and she would find a new teaching job at an elementary school nearby. My dad would remain in my childhood home, where he would maintain the business he’d built my entire life. 
 
I knew he wasn’t coming with us. In fact, I don’t know if anyone ever asked him to follow. Still, when the moving van showed up the day after my high school graduation, I hoped he would fight for me. Tearful and hungover from my last hurrah with childhood friends, I slept behind the boxes piled in my bedroom and I waited. 
 
I thought he might climb the stairs and ask me to stay. I hoped he’d see the emptying rooms and say he couldn’t stand being there without us. Instead, he helped load the truck. 
 
I don’t remember driving away from the only home I’d ever known. All I can recall is meeting him at the local Walmart, where he encouraged me to pick out things for my dorm room. We loaded a set of towels and an iron into my mother’s car — the only items I could think to buy as he and I walked the aisles — and he hugged me. I hope I told him I’d miss him or that I wished I didn’t have to leave him there alone, but I can’t remember anything other than those purple towels. 
 
The distance that grew between us after that day didn’t feel like a choice. Within a year, he would remarry. And I learned that only my mother would be helping me pay for college. I felt that perhaps he was done being my dad. By the time I started my freshman year, it became easy to attribute all of my feelings of loss and hurt to him.
 
When I moved back to my hometown to finish my last two years of school and take a job at the local newspaper, I felt so far away from him. I was home — even living with him for a short time — and I expected him to be so effusive with his love, or at least relieved that I had found my way back to him. Instead, he sat in silence as we dined over Mexican food that day and many days like it. 
 
When I left my hometown for the second time months later, armed with my diploma and ready to apply for graduate school, I asked him for help. I couldn’t afford to ship several stacks of newspapers, all filled with clips I’d amassed over my undergrad reporting stint, to my new home in Portland. I needed to comb through them and pick my best work to submit to grad schools.
 
He said the package would be my graduation present. But upon weighing the stacks, he decided it was just too much. I told myself that, to him, helping me reach that goal wasn’t worth the shipping rate.
 
When I arrived in Portland, I simply stopped taking his calls. I moved to Chicago for grad school and then to Nashville for my first real reporting job. Nearly two years passed with my siblings asking me to let him back in. In order to be in my life, I said, he would need to show me why he should be there. 
 
For a while it was easier, not allowing myself to be hurt by him. If he were a boyfriend, everyone would say I deserved better. Why should this be different? I didn’t feel like he could love me how I needed to be loved. Sticking up for myself was empowering.
 
I ignored his phone calls until I got a new cell phone and stopped hearing from him altogether. Then it happened. I was sitting in my corner cubicle at work when my phone rang. I didn’t look away from my computer screen as I picked up the receiver and heard my dad’s voice on the other end. 
 
As he said my name, my heart ached. When he asked how I was and told me that he loved and missed me, I couldn’t hang up. It was so much easier to push him away when I didn’t have to hear the pleading in his voice. For the first time I could ever recall, he sounded vulnerable — like he needed me. I had never felt that before. It was disarming.
 
Later that night, I nervously dialed the phone number I had memorized back in preschool. My dad answered and asked me about my day. He never demanded an apology or explanation. He never said how much those years hurt him, though it now turns my stomach to think how difficult and painful it must have been.
 
Fast forward four years, to this past July, when I finally talked to him about my time apart from him. He was lying in a hospital bed, unable to speak after having a second stroke as a result of advanced pancreatic cancer. He was dying.
 
Only a few days prior, he walked me down the aisle and danced with me to Elton John at my wedding. Once we heard my father’s diagnosis, my husband and I scrapped our November wedding plans to plan a smaller summer wedding near my hometown. I didn’t want to risk my father not being there. 
 
Several days after the wedding, my dad and I were drinking coffee in the house I’d left so many years before when that final stroke gripped him. As my stepmother rushed through red lights and sped down country roads to get him to the hospital, I held him in the back seat of the car. 
 
With one arm around his waist and the other cradling his head, I supported him and told him that he’d be all right. He wouldn’t, though. 
 
The doctors couldn’t administer TPA, the stroke reversal drug, as they had weeks before with his first stroke. It was too soon for another dose. We would have to wait and see how his body responded without it. 
 
The swelling in his brain continued unabated. There was nothing the doctors could do to stop it, and my dad had made it clear he didn’t want any surgery to prolong his life. With the amount of pain the cancer had caused, no one could blame him.
 
I sat in a chair to the right of his bed every day, fearful that if I left, he might die without me there. I would rush to and from the bathroom and the hospital cafeteria. I didn’t want to miss a single moment of lucidity. 
 
One day when I returned from a hurried outing, my dad opened his eyes and said, “Hello, Elizabeth. I love you. Thanks for taking care of me.”
 
Those were the last words he would speak to me, the last time I would hear his voice. If I had known years before how precious the sound of his voice would be — the way he always emphasized the first long “E” in my name when many people rushed past it — and how I would give anything to hear him say anything again, I wouldn’t have ignored a single phone call. 
 
The last night of his life, something inside of me told me not to leave the hospital. When my stepmother and brother returned to hotel rooms nearby, I turned off the lights in my father’s room in the ICU and held his hand. 
 
I wasn’t sure if he could hear me, but I talked anyway. I told him stories I remembered from my childhood — fishing in the gulf, winning softball games he’d coached, teaching him the two-step in our living room. I laughed and I cried, only pausing to turn off the alarms that sounded to tell the nurses what they already knew. He was slipping away.
 
That night I apologized for shutting him out. I explained my reasoning and my regret. But most of all, I thanked him for opening up to me again. And I promised that I would be there with him until the very end, to see him through to whatever was next. 
 
As the sun rose over the water outside of his hospital window, I held his hand and looked up at his face. He was so peaceful, his skin luminous in the early morning light. Hours later, even when sobs shook me and my brother wrapped an arm around me to hold me up, I didn’t let go of his hand. His palm was rough and strong and so much bigger than my own — just as I remember from my childhood. 
 
Days later, as we planned the spreading of his ashes over one of his favorite surf spots, my husband and I received our wedding photos. I smiled when I saw him, my father, beaming in his suit and bowtie. Never in my life had I known my father to have one sartorial thought, but he insisted on finding the perfect seersucker suit for my wedding day. He looked so dapper.
 
When he and I danced in the middle of my brother’s living room, all of the guests looking on, I could hardly bring myself to look into his eyes. I knew if I did, I would crumble. Instead I fought back tears as I stared over his shoulder, smiling at my friends and family. 
 
But in those photographs, I could finally see his face. He was crying. It was then that I truly saw him — just how much he loved me and didn’t want to let go. Every time I look at those photos, I feel so much gratitude. 
 
I am grateful that I answered the phone in my cubicle that day. I’m grateful that he held on for my wedding and that we shared that moment, when it was just him and me arm in arm before the ceremony, ready to walk toward the rest of my life together.
 
I’m grateful that he trusted me to hold him up in the car on the way to the hospital that day. And that I was there to hold his hand when he took his last breath. In those final days, I’m not sure who needed those moments more, him or me.
 

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