By Tanya Rose
How do you begin to tell the story of your dad (the first love of your life, if you’re a girl)?
These memories flash in front of me. When I was little, I would puff up my chest when he came to pick me up from daycare, because I thought he was the most handsome out of all the dads.
Later, he set up a new telescope at my birthday slumber party, thinking it would be a hit with the girls, but it wasn’t. I felt bad for him, because what he did was really sweet. He was sweet. So I went outside and the two of us looked at constellations.
When my mom had cancer and my little kid brain didn’t understand, he made me feel safe. And then decades later, when he was in the hospital fighting for his life, I wasn’t, and never would be, prepared for him to go.
He just lay there, machines breathing for him. Doctors asked us if they should bring him back should his heart stop, and my mom turned to me and said, “I don’t think he’s done living yet, right? I mean right?” She was lost. My dad had always made the tough decisions.
I don’t know much about my dad’s life before me. I know that he’s one of eight kids and grew up on a farm in Kansas. I know he was bookish while his brothers and sisters were athletic. I know he joined the Air Force and served in the Vietnam War, and that the GI Bill made it possible for him to go to law school. I know he was studying for the Bar Exam when he met my mom on a blind date.
But I don’t know any of his friends from when he was a kid, and I don’t know if he had girlfriends before 1973.
The post-me version of him, the one I know well, dreamed big, but at the same time, was satisfied with the cards he’d been dealt. He had two daughters (no son, and never once has he complained) and ran a small law practice up until he retired in the mid-2000s.
He was the lawyer who talked a couple out of getting divorced, the guy who visited the town drunk in the hospital after he’d broken his hip in a fall, the man who hired a meth addict as a secretary because she came from a good family and was trying really hard. I asked him once why he does these things, and he shrugged and said, “It’s just the way I is.”
But he is also the guy who drove when the doctor said he shouldn’t (he called a locksmith when my mom took away the keys). Who once got in trouble for laughing at a prosecutor who’d made a ridiculous argument.
When I was in high school, he would help me write editorials for the school paper. Mostly, he’d talk me through ideas. I think my love of newspaper reporting came from those conversations at the kitchen table where he’d pull out a clipping and start talking.
In 2005, he called me at work and told me he wanted to give me his oak office credenza when he died. He had put it in his will, and he wanted me to know that he’d picked it especially for me.
By then, I was living in California, and hadn’t been back to Kansas in a couple years. He was always bringing up weird things at weird times, so I tried to chalk it up to that. But an hour later, I was standing in the break room heating up a Lean Cuisine and I started to cry. I booked a flight home that day. And when I got there, he was fine. No ailments to speak of, no problems. He’d just been planning ahead, and wanted to make sure the credenza was OK with me – that I felt my sister and I were being treated equally.
My sister was the one who called me in 2011 to tell me my dad was hooked up to a ventilator.
To say I wasn’t ready for this news is such a cliché. I could go on about how unprepared I was, how I sat there in denial while she filled me in (he’d started hallucinating and it freaked my mom out enough to take him to the doctor. Hours later, he was being flown to Wichita.)
They put him in ICU, where he would stay for two months, unconscious.
These things had put him there: COPD, a couple decades of chain smoking, a lot of extra weight around his belly and a paralyzed lung. He hadn’t been getting enough oxygen for quite some time and the doctors said that if my mom hadn’t taken him in, he likely would have suffocated in his sleep that night. They said he would eventually need a tracheotomy in order to live.
We don’t know very many people in Wichita. So we all – me, my mom and my sister - crammed into a hotel room a couple miles from the hospital, and each morning, we’d make the pilgrimage to his room where we would sit and wait.
Days passed. Sometimes he would start to come to, and he would cry. But he couldn’t talk, not with a ventilator in his throat, so we didn’t know what he was trying to say. Before this, I’d seen him cry but once — when my cousin was killed at 15 in a motorcycle accident. I was only 6 then, and it was the most unsettling thing I’d seen. My dad was the strongest person I’d known, and here he was years later, crying a second time — strapped down, confused, frustrated, sick.
I had just started a new job with no vacation time, so I couldn’t stay in Kansas forever. I hate this, but it’s one of those hard realities that people don’t understand unless they’ve been there. I had no one to lean on financially, and life does not stop. Eventually, I had to get on a plane and go home, not knowing if I’d ever see him again.
I am a horrible daughter for leaving my mom in that situation. I imagined her at the Panera Bread Co. across the street from the hospital, getting soup for lunch every day by herself, then calling me with updates.
I remember standing in the middle of the Alameda County Fairgrounds on my cell phone, trying to talk to her over the shrieking of children high on deep-fried jellybeans (I was there reporting a story). I heard “brain damage” and “possible stroke” while staring right at the Michael Jackson funhouse. What crap I was in that moment.
They performed the tracheotomy. He came to, and ripped it out, doing a lot of tissue damage in the process. Eventually, he started breathing on his own, miraculously. The tracheotomy damage healed. He went to rehab. He lost 80 pounds. He came around.
Today, two years later, he breathes better than he has in years. And there’s no sign of the tracheotomy, other than a scar on his neck. No brain damage either.
He doesn’t remember much about what happened – only bits and pieces. A few weeks ago, my sister and I went to Kansas to throw a surprise 40th anniversary party for my parents.
My mom bawled. My dad had a ball. He says he was surprised, but I doubt this — he showed up to what was billed as a Wills and Trusts lecture (the best ruse we could come up with) in a snazzy suit, AND he’d gotten a haircut. Someone spilled the beans. But it didn’t matter – we watched him visit with longtime friends and his brothers and sisters, laughing and telling his sometimes very long stories.
I definitely thought of this party as a “Thank God you're still here, let's celebrate while we can” kind of thing. But a friend pointed out to me the other day that it could have meant something entirely different when it came to my mom. Of course it was to celebrate her too. But it was also my way of saying, “I'm sorry I left you like that.”
When it comes to my dad, there are echoes of 2011. He gets winded walking too fast. And two-plus years later, he’s gained back most of the belly. I asked if he’s eating OK and he dodged the question, saying only that his family genes are strong. My heart breaks, because I know that someday, we will go through some form of Wichita all over again. But we did get a second chance, and for that, I’ll always be grateful.