"Dad, could we talk?": My father and I had not been close for years, but with his illness everything changed

As he was nearing the end, I discovered the depth of my love--and understood he was the reason I'd become a writer

Published March 12, 2016 11:30PM (EST)

 (<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-62233p1.html'>Arman Zhenikeyev</a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>)
(Arman Zhenikeyev via Shutterstock)

When my father became ill, something remarkable happened:  I discovered a depth of devotion to him I’d not known was there.  This came as a surprise because of what I had long thought was the nature of our relationship—warm and for the most part free of conflict, but marked by a distance between us, a distance, in part, due to our each being fiercely independent; we’d both moved out of the family home shortly after I turned 17, and hadn’t spent more than a dozen nights under the same roof since.  Once, when he was in his 80s, about to embark on one of his far-flung travels, and I’d suggested he carry a cellphone, he’d replied that the point of traveling was to be out of touch.  Even when he was home, weeks would sometimes pass without our speaking—and then, impromptu, he’d come for Sunday dinner: pour himself a scotch from the bottle we kept for him, and inevitably the atlas or globe would find its way to the kitchen table while he discussed Russia’s role in World War II with my younger son, or Lucretius’ prescient understanding of atomic theory with my older son, or developments in plastics and LED technology with my husband.  My own pursuits, as a psychoanalyst and then as a fiction writer, were a language as a scientist he didn’t speak—Freud, in his view, a witch doctor; Philip Roth, the last contemporary novelist he’d read—though he did ask me each time I served him my roasted cauliflower how I cooked it.

With his illness, everything changed. We had a shared project: uncovering a diagnosis, and then attempting to synthesize three radically different treatment recommendations from six stellar medical centers.  I hadn’t talked to my father daily since I was a child, but now we were in touch every day. Rather than feeling like a burden, the conversations filled me with admiration for my father’s dispassionate view of his situation and his lack of self-pity. He’d been well most of his life and now he was not.  He did not believe that he had been dealt a bad hand; rather, this was a hand.  He wanted to live for as long as he could maintain a reasonable quality of life—but he never sugarcoated the grim prognosis.  Most of all, he remained himself: living alone, reading the New York Times and the New York Review of Books, setting himself mathematical problems, going to movies and lectures, cooking ribs in his toaster oven.  

As the months passed and my father grew weaker, as much from the treatment as from the progression of his illness, he became essentially homebound.  Because he insisted that he needed no more help than the same cleaning person he’d had for years, three hours every other week, I began to visit him most days.  He refused to lock his front door, so I would let myself in, and if he was napping, as he often was, I would stealthily wash the piled-up dishes, bag the trash.  Puttering about, surrounded by the relics from his life—the samovar his grandparents had brought from Russia, the fossils from Montana, the yellow pads with his calculations—I would wonder about the dedication to him I’d discovered, aware that it came from somewhere primal, from something that must have transpired between us when I was very young.

A year after my father commenced his journey into illness, he collapsed in the middle of the night. In the emergency room, it was my father, not the medical staff, who correctly identified the reason for his collapse—and it was he who discerned that he’d fallen off a cliff and was now plummeting, not drifting, toward death. Had he been able to control his fate, he would have ended his life then, rather than returning home bedridden. His affairs were in order and he felt, he told me, at peace. But I was not: There were things I still wanted to talk with him about.

But what?  What did I want to say to him?  

What I wanted to tell him, I realized, had to do with the deep influence, I’d come to see, he’d had on my most basic pursuits, an influence that had been obscured by our glaring differences and the divergent paths we’d taken.  By now, though, he was sleeping nearly all the time and when he was up, it was rarely for more than 20 minutes at a stretch.  

I planted myself next to the hospital bed we’d set up in his living room. When his eyes opened, I said, “Dad, could we talk?”  

With a look of curiosity on his face—this was something new—he said, “OK.”

“There are some things I’d like to tell you.” I took his hand. “I know I’ve never said anything like this before, but I want to tell you what I’m grateful to you for.”

I told him how to my surprise—surprise because family lore was that he was an absent-minded professor, his mind more on the equations that describe wave formations than on the inner lives of people—I’d come to see how perceptive and tolerant of me he’d always been.

“Do you remember when I was in second grade and I was terrified of an icy hill outside my school?”

He gave me a half-smile.

“All that winter you would park the car, and then, taking my arm, walk me to the door. You never made me feel badly that I was afraid of slipping.”

“And later that year, when I was scared of a dead bird on the sidewalk, you never chided me for taking a different street so I would avoid seeing it. You just accepted that about me.”

My eyes welled with tears as I reminded my father that after my younger son was born and we were all lost in the bliss of a new baby, he’d been the one who’d privately warned me not to overlook the dislocation for our older son, no longer the solitary prince. How, more recently, when there’d been some family discord about which I’d not spoken to him, he’d asked me to share with him my experience—and then, never taking sides, distilled what I’d said in a way that had left me feeling utterly understood.  Only now did I see that what I’d learned from his way of absorbing distress without minimizing it or compulsively giving advice were at the heart of my work as an analyst and novelist.

When I finished, he said, “Thank you, Dear. I’m grateful for your having told me. But now I need to close my eyes.”

He closed his eyes and slept and I sat by his bed, and when he woke up, I gave him some apple juice and said, “Dad, there’s something more I want to tell you.”

“OK,” he said, and I could see that this conversation was important to him too.  And here’s the second thing I told him.  I told him that I understood now that I’d become a writer because of him.  That behind my own drive to tell stories was what I’d learned and been inspired by and imprinted with from his omnivorous curiosity and adventurous spirit—a spirit that led him to the wild places in Central Park where there are feral raccoons and waterfalls, to corner bars in Tehran and Baku from where he’d brought back tales of guys who work in concrete factories and on oil rigs. He’d made me believe that with bravery and persistence and creativity, narratives could be fashioned: how the universe came into being, scientific discoveries scaffold one atop another, ethnic identities fold and unfold within the shifting borders of nations.  

“Well, I’m glad,” he said.  

During my father’s final week, I watched his death arrive, step by step—the end of foods and then liquids and finally consciousness itself—with a crescendo that reminded me of childbirth.  “I am not afraid,” my father had told me, and I realized that I, too, was unafraid: that he’d shown me, who had once taken circuitous routes to avoid a bird corpse, how simple and natural death can be.  

Sitting at his bedside his last afternoon, I could see that he’d reached the portal: his eyes open, his gaze fixed on the ceiling, his breath halting.  I swabbed his parched mouth and cracked lips, and decided to put faith in our hospice nurse’s claim that he could still hear us.  

“Dad,” I said, “it’s very near, you are nearly there.  I hope you remember what I told you,” and then I said again how very much I loved him and would miss him.

The final thing I learned from my father is something I never got to tell him.  As I stayed with him through the evening after he died, holding his hand, feeling his body cool, I was no longer surprised by the depth of my dedication to him. I understood whereby it came, and I was thankful to have discovered it: this devotion that had supplanted obligation and guilt and carried me through my father’s final year, down a river of filial love as ancient, I imagine, as humankind.

By Lisa Gornick

Lisa Gornick is the author of "Louisa Meets Bear" (Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2015, and upcoming with Picador, July 2016), "Tinderbox" (Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013, and Picador, 2014), and "A Private Sorcery" (Algonquin, 2002). Her stories and essays have appeared widely, including in Agni, Glimmer Train, the New York Times, Prairie Schooner, Real Simple, Slate and The Sun, and have received many awards, including a distinguished story citation in the Best American Short Stories anthology and winner of the Summer Literary Seminars Contest.

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