Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Men watching

Okay ladies, truth time: if you saw this handsome dude in the mall you'd look twice, wouldn't you?

I'm lucky. I was watching him my whole life.

This is my father, before I ever knew him. He passed away on April 27 and I haven't posted since then. Even dedicated writers experience seasons: a time to record their lives, and a time to set down their pens and immerse themselves so fully that they might live something worth writing about.

I could have written sooner of the shock when I got to the hospital and heard my mother, so small in the waiting room, say, “He didn’t make it.” I could have written of the panic urging me to connect with the only sister within striking distance—“Can you leave work? Come to the ER right now”—so she might witness with us the cooling evidence of this loss. I could have written of the way the chaplain tugged at the wedding band ensconced on my dad's hand ever since my mother placed it there sixty years ago, and the way that struggle left my dad’s fourth finger lying unnaturally straight, never to curve again alongside his others.

But these are observations, and since what I seek on this blog is perspective, I had to wait until I gained some. And this is what I keep coming back to: the differences between my first husband and my father.

I’ve written about Ron a lot on this blog, because for fifteen years I watched him as well. In choosing death, he taught me a lot about life. Because he was fourteen years older than I, one could posit that I sought in my first husband a father substitute, and one might be right [I totally wrote that sentence in my Dad’s voice]. Ron was the hugger my father wasn’t, giving freely the affection I sought to earn from my father. But both men were aloof, and unpracticed in sharing their inner emotional lives. What I learned from them both I learned by processing my observations.

But unlike my father, Ron was overwhelmed by life’s challenges and possibilities, and he committed suicide at just about the same age my dad was when he faced off against the first of many life-threatening illnesses: cancer, encapsulated on a kidney he would lose. He didn’t need it—spirit would fill in what the body couldn’t provide. My dad would continue to fight for his life for the next thirty years, pummeling into remission two more kinds of cancer. During those years he would have and enjoy all of his eight grandchildren.

By the time his first grandson was born—my son Jackson—my father was already well into a string of heart attacks that would lead to angioplasties and stents and quintuple bypass surgery. So worried was I for his life that when Jackson and I left the hospital in 1987 we went straight to another: Ron drove us from our room downtown to my dad's in another section of the city. I wanted to show Dad his first grandson...just in case.

My dad would live beyond Jackson’s college graduation because time and again he reached death's threshold and bounced off. When my mom called that last morning of my father's life to say he’d had a massive heart attack and that the ambulance had just left, I didn’t know what to expect. I grabbed the living will and power of attorney, dutifully, but also his med list. How many times had I driven the hour to get there to find him holding court in the emergency room, greeting my arrival with a hearty, “Well hello, Kathryn. What are you doing here?” On that final drive, until I would observe for the last time his silent, unmoving face, I held all possibilities aloft.

These past few years my dad was frustrated by dementia and a tremor that kept him from two of his great loves, reading and painting. Yet still his body continued to carry him proficiently through all his daily tasks, and he accepted the challenge of finding what pleasure he could in life, much of which involved the treasured company of my mother. When his heart seized this time the end was astoundingly complete. He lived to be 86, beyond any doctor's expectations, and there is some small measure of relief in the fact that this brilliant, creative man did not have to suffer any further the ravages and indignities of dementia.

Ron’s death at age 54 was also sudden and complete, and offered some measure of relief in a household that had weathered the storm of his psychological torment. We hope he rests with a peace he never knew in life. But the torment that was his continued for those he left behind.

My dad, on the other hand, left behind a precious gift: peace. All things must come to an end, we know this, and that includes the life of Jack Graham, fighter pilot, industrial designer, corporate executive, weekend carpenter, artist, writer, devoted husband, father, and grandfather. It was clearly his time to go, and we can rest in this knowledge. Because if it were within his power to stay, he’d be calling to me now from the porch of our camp: “Kathryn, is there any more maple cream?”

I licked it from my fingers this morning, Dad, thinking of you. May the toast in heaven be slathered with it.