Choosing a Father’s Day card for my dad has always been arduous. Most have too many words for a man with few of his own. At least few that he shared with me. He probably had many words. He was an English major after all. Yet, somehow, to me at least, he was a man of few words.
Saturday, I went through my annual ritual of searching through those cards looking for a simple one without a lot of words. Finally, after much searching, I found the perfect card with a simple picture of a classic car and the words “Happy Father’s Day to an Old Classic.” After hemming and hawing over which candy he would like most, I settled on some Lindt truffles and headed to visit him.
You see, he had just been admitted the day before to the hospital with difficulty breathing. He assured me he’d be home on Sunday or Monday, but for some reason, I decided to visit him anyway. That may seem like a normal choice for most, but we weren’t exactly normal. He told me he got remarried on an answering machine message. Yes, an answering machine. Over the last few years it was impossible not to notice the problems he was having walking, but he still talked little about it. There were times I didn’t learn he was hospitalized until he came home. He never wanted to be a burden. Maybe he thought nobody would care or maybe it was too hard for him to be weak and in need. Either way, he didn’t talk much about his joys or his struggles, at least not to me.
Still, I loved him very much. His intelligence, wit, and compassion were sometimes buried beneath his ornery spirit. But they were there. I loved hearing his perspective on politics. I remember talking to him during the Republican primaries about how surreal it felt to see the debates with Donald Trump. He was certain he would not win and wasn’t happy when he did. Of course, the Republican primaries weren’t exactly in his wheelhouse. He supported Bernie Sanders and told his wife – a staunch Hillary supporter – that he couldn’t not support a socialist. He had a unique way of looking at history and applying it to current events, so I loved engaging in those conversations with him. He also loved to play chess and taught me when I was in high school.
I also remember his impatience with poor service from waitstaff at a restaurant – and my utter embarrassment. Ironically, my daughter was recently embarrassed by me as I argued with a pizza delivery person who asked me to pay for a pizza they had forgotten to deliver in the first place. I guess I learned to advocate for myself from him! And while he was impatient with poor service, he was the one with the patience to teach me to drive. I remember him telling me to hug the right side of the road on right curves and the middle on left curves. I remember trying to drive his stick shift up our very hilly neighborhood and giving up less than a few hundred feet from the house.
There were good times and there were bad. But aren’t there for everyone? I never once doubted he loved me. I just sometimes wonder if he loved himself. He moved here from Austria when he was in elementary school and the transition was tough. My grandmother likes to brag about how he went to Italy as a young boy and quickly learned to speak Italian so well that the locals thought he was one of them. He spoke German, Italian and English before he came to the US. But when he got here, he refused to speak German and Italian. His step-dad, the US army man who married my grandmother before they moved to the US, once asked my dad to speak Italian for a friend. My dad responded by saying, “you made me travel for days on a boat here to be in America so I’m only speaking English now.” He was stubborn – a family trait with strong genetic linking, as I see it in my grandmother, my three kids, and me.
Recently, I’d been asking about his fears as a child to try to gain more insight into my own kids. He shared a story of walking home from preschool in a snowstorm alone. (I know that sounds crazy but remember it was Austria in the 1950’s.) Anyway, he said that along the way he heard a dog barking in the distance and was petrified so every time he heard it bark, he turned the other way. He got himself all turned around and my grandmother had to send someone to find him in the deep snow. I loved hearing this and other stories, getting a better picture of who my dad was.
Seeing parents as people, flaws and all, is hard for some. But I’ve always had a unique way to see past flaws to the pain, hurt, and story behind it. And so instead of being angry at my dad’s flaws, I saw his pain and hurt and wished he didn’t hurt so much. Often, I find those who hurt a lot have lots of compassion for others and this was true for him. Once, when doing ordered community service, I remember him sharing how much he enjoyed working at a soup kitchen and how much they enjoyed him. More recently, he formed a friendship with the man who mowed his lawn and allowed him to park his RV in his backyard. It seemed strange to me to think of these sides of him that I never really got to see – relationships he formed with people I never met. I wonder if he shared words with them. Did they see the man of few words I did?
When I went to bring him his card in the hospital, I wasn’t sure what to expect. We didn’t always have a lot to say. To be honest, I often have little to say so together we were quite a pair. But I headed in with my card and candy in my bag, determined to sit through awkward silence if I must. I sat with him for an hour or so as nurses came in and out of the room. He was reading the New York Times and talking about how he needed to get a new car. He talked about how he wanted to be home. How he couldn’t sleep at the hospital because they kept coming in to poke and prod him. We started watching an old western, something he always enjoyed. I looked up the title as it frustrated him not to have the ability to see the name of the show and cast like at home. He began to fall asleep and his wife, who had walked there and needed a ride home, said we should go. I wondered if I should wake him to say goodbye but she said to let him rest and so I did. I never managed to hand him his card and debated taking it with me and giving it to him later. But instead, I left the card and candy by his bed. Unfortunately, I don’t know if he ever saw the card as he died hours later.
And I keep asking myself questions. Why didn’t I say goodbye? Did he wake up and wonder why we had left? Did he ever open my card? Did he know how much I loved him? I hope so. He hadn’t always said it to me but recently had made an effort to say it each time we spoke.
Although he talked about a new car and coming home, I wonder if he knew somehow. We didn’t talk all that often but he had called me the night before he went to the hospital to tell me he’d been having some health struggles. We talked about going out the following weekend. He talked about how he’d never managed to do his “special outing” with my son like he did with my daughters and told me to have him pick something to do. He talked about not talking to my sister in a few weeks and told me to tell her what was going on if she called me. Thankfully she called him the day he went to the hospital, urging him to go there. I think he knew. Maybe didn’t want to admit it to himself but seemed to be trying to put things in order.
And I believe God prompted me to visit him. I hate phone calls. But when his wife called to say he was in the hospital, I asked her if he had a number. When she said she didn’t know it but that she’d have him call me when he came home Monday, I without hesitation (huge for me!) called the hospital to get his room phone number and talked to him. And then, despite a busy weekend, I decided I needed to visit him the next day. And so, when my kids and husband went to see the Incredibles 2, I went to see him. And I am so thankful I did.