Tonight is the first time I’ve had a quiet night alone in a while. To be more specific, it’s the first time I’ve really been alone at night since my father passed away on May 18. He died unexpectedly.
I’ve been putting off writing about this, because in some way it makes it real, as if the PUBLISH button has a way of cementing reality into place. I’ve been so busy with the ramifications of his death, that I haven’t had time to actually process that he is gone. The only thing I know to do is to keep moving. To protect my mother and brother. To keep busy so the black hole of grief doesn’t catch up to me and disseminate my atoms across a galaxy or two. To tell a story.
I wasn’t always that close to my father. In fact, if I’m being honest, I don’t know that we were ever really close. Not like he was with my younger brother. I don’t fault him for it anymore. We were so different. He knew what was going on, and I know it bothered him. I never had the tickling flame of wildness they both had. I’m not sentimental. I can’t claim to be introspective with any regularity. He was all of those things and a lot more. A complex man. A father who never let his sons forget how much he loved them.
When my brother and I were little, our dad traveled a lot. Sometimes it was just for the week after a stint in Chicago. Other times he traveled around England, Austria, and places so exotic my adolescent brain didn’t register them as real places. No matter how big or small the trip, he would bring us something back. Maybe a hat or a t-shirt. Sometimes a toy. We would run down the stairs as soon as he got home and jump up and down in anticipation. He’d unzip his suitcase and present the bounty. I suppose we were too young to ask about his trip with anything but feigning interest. The self-focus of youth.
He had rules he wanted us to live by, even though we never really understood the Whys of what he wanted. He enforced a strict seasonal clothing policy. Each season while we were in grade school, he would take us to the Dillard’s boy’s department and outfit us in whatever was trendy at the time. He veered preppy and traditional. He wore an uniform as far back as I can remember: Khaki pants and a Polo long-sleeve button down with some kind of brown leather loafers. He embraced the vulgarity of jeans and tennis shoes much later in life after he had been injured.
Dad spoiled us. He had a turbulent time with his parents growing up, with a lot of NO’s. I think he overcompensated often by giving us whatever we asked for – and man could he do Christmas. My brother and I were a bit mischievous as children. We would stay up late at night watching Nick at Night on Christmas Eve. We’d wait until our parents were asleep and tiptoe down the stairs to see what Santa brought us. After a few years of ruining the surprise, we found Santa left our presents covered in sheets.
Even as we got older, he would give us “Santa” presents in addition to whatever he and my mom wrapped from them. He always bought a massive fresh tree. I can still smell the piney needles if I close my eyes and let myself drift. He loved Christmas. He loved the presents, the decorations, the music, and the food. My brother and I are just as Christmas-obsessed, largely because of what he imparted about the holiday. It’s sacred. It’s fun. It’s important.
Not that every Christmas went well. He had a mighty temper. He often wanted Christmas to go so well, a tiny setback on Christmas Day would send him into a tirade. I’ve never seen anyone who could yell like my father (except maybe my brother). Luckily, by the time I was in college, he had calmed down a bit.
He would call me daily while I was in school. I wouldn’t answer all the time, but that didn’t stop him from calling. We grew a lot closer once I left the house, which was also around the same time he stopped traveling for work. I was so young when I went off to college. I was indecisive. I hadn’t found my confidence yet. I didn’t know what the hell I wanted to do with my life. And he was there for me. Be it a flat tire or getting such a bad case of mono, I nearly died. He would drop everything in a second for his children. I changed majors several times, and each time I would ask my parents, who were staples at Baylor for the first two years. They called the Waco Hilton their second home. They brought Baylor football season tickets and came to more games my freshman and sophomore year than I did. We’d somehow always end up with at least one meal at this BBQ place in the hotel. I’d sit across from them and share the latest. I’m changing majors again. I don’t know what I want to do with my life. What should I do?
They’d never tell me. My father would listen, and be very careful with his words. “Whatever makes you happy.”
How it would infuriate me! Why wouldn’t he just tell me what to do? That in itself was a rarity. He’d just tell me not to repeat his mistakes. He had always wanted to go to medical school and become a doctor. My parents married young and had my older sister soon after. He focused on supporting his family instead of finishing medical school.
He had a lot of outdated traditional views of how husbands and wives were to interact with their children. My mom did all the cleaning and cooking. He managed the finances and shopping. He always really liked shopping. I didn’t understand why at the time. He would ask my brother or me if we wanted to go to the store with him. We learned pretty quickly this meant a four to five hour excursion that usually involved the dry cleaners, an oil change, lunch, and finally the grocery store. I rarely volunteered for the errand-palooza. But I get it now. He wasn’t the sit at home type. He liked being out in the world. He liked interacting with strangers. He could talk a Macy’s clerk’s ear off for an hour.
He had a lot of love for the underdogs, and he’d use his strong temper and assertive demeanor to fight for them. He volunteered with Big Brothers Big Sisters before I was born and for a long time after. I’m named for his last Little Brother. In fact, his Little Brother’s mom was like a grandmother to us. Her house was a requisite stop every time we were in Charleston, and every Christmas. She always had gum and cookies. She loved us like we were hers.
There was one time I remember him causing all kinds of trouble at a church we attended in San Antonio. He had been elected to the funding/appropriations committee, and he discovered the church wasn’t giving their employees health insurance. The option on the budget was for the minister to get a new car, or all the church employees to finally get insurance. He raised such holy hell, we didn’t go to church for a few weeks, but the employees got their insurance.
Right under four years ago, I got a call from my brother who was living in New York at the time. He was upset because he couldn’t get in touch with our dad. This was unusual, as the two of them talked several times a day. I was in the middle of a work day, but I had just wrapped a client meeting out of the office, so I had a little flexibility. I stopped by to check in on him. I found him sitting in his favorite chair in his bedroom. He was non-responsive but awake. It seemed like he was drugged up and out of it, but it didn’t make any sense, because it was the middle of a work day. I tried to get him alert, but everything failed. His eyes rolled back into his head. He was in septic shock. I called 911 and got him to the emergency room, where he nearly died. In fact, the doctors asked us to start prepping funeral arrangements. I was so stunned, I couldn’t speak.
But those doctors hadn’t met my father before. He pulled out of it. Though that would not be the last of the trauma. He essentially spent three years in the hospital and various rehabilitation centers. We would have a system – he’d go to the hospital, then the ICU, then get sent to a rehabilitation center. He’d last a few days before having to go back to the hospital all over again.
Christmases when he was sick were some of the hardest. My brother would fly into town to be with our mother and me. He had been away while our dad was sick, so the lack of alertness, the general malaise was so alarming to him he just cried and cried. But my dad didn’t stop fighting. And neither did my mom who was hellbent on getting him better. Several times over the three years we were told to plan a funeral, and each time he pulled right back out of it. It was one of the hardest times in my entire life. The constant stress and fear. The unending roller coaster as I watched the wear and tear age both my parents who had always looked remarkably young for their ages.
And then I was blessed with a gift it would take me a while to recognize. All the heartache. All the stress. All the inevitable death. I had grown calmer. Patient. So many huge boulders were crashing down, I had to stop letting the little things get to me. Life took on a different perspective. I grew up a lot. I met someone special.
There was finally a light at the end of the tunnel. After a lot of effort, yelling, and threatening, we were able to get my dad stable. He was going to be able to come home. And then I got a job in Los Angeles.
I moved to LA in April of 2013, which is about the same time he stayed in his last rehabilitation center. He wasn’t the same person he had been three years earlier. He came out of the ordeal mostly blind, largely confined to a wheel chair, and lacking the judgement ability to be left alone for longer than an hour. But there was a lot of him left. The same person was there, just different. My parents had moved to a retirement-style apartment village and had built up a community of friends and neighbors around them. They started going to church. My dad undertook extensive physical therapy.
We talked regularly. Not as regularly as he would have liked, but then three times daily wouldn’t have been enough. He wasn’t whole, but he was doing so well. Zero hospital visits! Six months went by, and no scares. My boyfriend and I flew back into town a few months after we left and celebrated his birthday with him. We flew him and my mom out to Los Angeles for Christmas. He still had issues, but it seemed manageable. He seemed to have come to terms with everything that happened to him. He was kinder. He’d call and sing into my voicemail. He’d tell perverted jokes to people on the street. He called my boyfriend his son and demanded hugs every time they saw each other.
About two weeks ago, he developed a blood clot. My mom took him to the hospital and kept me well apprised of what was happening. He was let out a day and a half later with some strong meds to take care of the clot. My boyfriend and I had gotten engaged in January of this year, and we had been talking about elopement. After the odd incident of my dad going into the hospital after almost a year of no hospitals, I decided I wanted a wedding. I wanted a wedding my parents could attend.
We started planning furiously. We found a location and went for a visit. I was in heavy negotiations on guest list, menus, decorations, etc. We found a date. We picked a day in mid-September to have all of our parents fly out. I had a genetics test run just in case we decided to have genetic children one day. We were planning for the future.
I’d been really busy at work, so I didn’t call my father back for a few days. I finally did call him back after he sang into my voicemail: “I’ll call you back. I’ll call you back. I’ll call you back.” He wasn’t a great singer, but he had a knack for making sarcastic statements sing-songy. I remember the conversation. I told him all about the wedding plans. I told him to take extra physical therapy so he could walk around a bit at the wedding. I also told him about the genetic tests and let him know I’d be sending some kits to him and my mom. He was so excited about both. My mom later told me all he talked about for two days was the wedding. He would have packed his bag then if she had let him.
That Saturday after we chatted, I got a text from my mom. Dad was back in the hospital because of a reaction to the blood thinners. She didn’t seem too worried but wanted to let us know. I asked her to keep me updated.
On Sunday, May 18, my mom texted me he was having blood pressure and maybe kidney issues. I called her right away. “Should I fly down there? Is he okay?” She wasn’t sure. I didn’t know what to think. I was worried, but he was at Baylor hospital. He was surrounded by physicians. He would be okay. My fiancee had been at a wedding in Mississippi over the weekend and had a layover in Dallas on his way back to Los Angeles. He volunteered to go check everything out and let me know if I needed to fly down there.
Thirty minutes later, I got a call from my mother. She was sobbing. She told me he crashed. His blood pressure tanked, and his heart stopped. They had a team of doctors working on him. They had kicked her out of the room. I conferenced in my brother, and we calmed her down. My fiancee was there a few minutes later. They had pulled my dad back from the brink. He was on a respirator. There were decisions to make.
But we needed information. And thank God my fiancee was there. He pulled information from the doctors. What happened? What are our options? There was a small sliver of hope. He could wake up. He was a fighter. He had beaten the odds so many times before. I stopped crying enough to let that sink in. That sliver of hope. He couldn’t be gone yet. He was still alive. I bought the first tickets out I could for my brother and me. If something was going to happen, we wanted a chance to say goodbye.
About an hour and a half later, I was pulling laundry out of my car. I had planned to drop it off, but I needed the clothes for the trip to Dallas. I had a huge navy blue bag on my shoulder when my phone rang again. “He’s gone,” my mom told me. “Ryan, he’s gone. His heart gave out.”
I couldn’t walk. I had to sit on the stone perimeter of the landscaped front of our building. All my breath left me.
It has been almost two weeks since my father died. I haven’t let myself have time to really think about it, although in reality I think about it all the time. It’s every other thought. I’ve been focusing on taking care of my mom, and all the pieces that need to be done when someone passes. On all the mountain of work that proves a reliable distraction.
Tonight in the quiet, I can’t escape it. I still don’t really believe it. It feels beyond my comprehension. It’s like you lost a limb, but you look down and you still have all of them. But you feel the phantom limb pains.
I won’t get to talk to him on this upcoming Father’s Day. I won’t get to celebrate his 65th birthday with him in July. He won’t see me get married. He won’t meet his grandchildren. And they won’t know him. It doesn’t seem fair. It doesn’t seem possible. And there’s nothing my mom, brother, or I can do about it. We have to navigate this unexpected hole on a daily basis. Walk around it. Try not to stare too deeply into it.
Whatever happens when you die, wherever he is now, I hope he knows how much we all loved him, even if we didn’t tell him as much as he told us. I hope he knows that I never doubted my father loved me. I hope he knows he is missed.