My mother didn't touch me. In the dark I heard her whisper into my ear, "Lissa, Daddy fell." I came straight up off the bed, made a U-turn in midair, and started running to my father's room. He was sitting on the bathroom floor dressed in his pajama bottoms and a T-shirt. Blood covered his head, face, clothes, and the floor. The blood was sticky and was starting to turn a rust color. His fall had happened hours ago. I got down on my knees to look into his eyes. My brain kept calming me by repeating the mantra, "Head wounds bleed more... head wounds bleed more."
Daddy looked back at me and said in a raspy voice: "Looks like a scene from CSI. What would Grissom do?" I took in what looked like a murder scene and imitated crime scene investigator Gil Grissom from the Las Vegas version of the TV show: "Follow the evidence: old man falls down." It was 5 a.m.; the day had begun.
Three weeks before, I had returned to my childhood home to become my father's primary caregiver. He had interstitial lung disease, and it would kill him sometime this summer. "Interstitial lung disease" is a term that covers a lot of disorders. Basically, it means, "We don't know what is wrong with your lungs, but it's not good."
I was 50 years old, and I had spent most of my life as a mother and a freelance photographer. Now I was a full-time caregiver. After beginning a sabbatical in New York City, I had gotten a call from my older sister—she needed help. Daddy's health was failing, my mother's emphysema was worsening, and my other siblings were unavailable. I took the next flight to Florida.
My father was 77 years old. Once robust, he was still not a thin man, and his vigorous spirit was intact. He and my mother lived in a small town outside Tampa called Lithia. They didn't really like each other that much: My mother staked out her own bedroom after I left home at 18. I feel certain the well water at their home, laced with lithium, helped create a truce and, in a way, a kind of love only my mother and father could understand.
The night I arrived, Daddy was still in relatively good shape. He walked fine but needed portable oxygen. I loved my parents dearly, though we saw the world very differently. We had our tense moments, but they usually ended in laughter.
At the beginning of summer, our daily routine began with a trip to Wal-Mart or the grocery store. Daddy didn't like my music, so we listened to big bands, which I do like. He noted that my clothes were very nice and my hair was too long. (I admit it: I am a hippie.) In the grocery store, he would remind me to look at the eggs first before buying a carton to make sure none of them were broken. In my loudest adult brat voice, I would repeat, "I am 50 years old! Fifty!"
My age only really sank in for him when we had our one and only big fight of the summer. For the life of me I can't remember what it was about. All I do remember is calling my dying father a bad name. Three times.
The next morning, sleepless with guilt, I realized my Daddy and I were going to have to make this work. I loved him, and we had to be a team. My father's greatest fear was that he would die alone. I would not let that happen to him. I swore he would die in my arms.
The next day as we headed for Wal-Mart, I apologized. "Daddy," I said, "last night I was so angry with you I called you a bad name. I am sorry, but in a way it was a compliment. If you were just some little old man I felt sorry for, I would patronize you. Instead we are equals. In a way, I called you a bad name out of respect for you and your power. I respect you, Daddy."
We had a very long, quiet moment, and then my father looked out the car window, smiled, and said, "Your sisters sure do respect me, too."
Riding Into the Sunset
With him astride his brand-new red scooter, Daddy and I went to Busch Gardens, Wal-Mart, the malls, and up and down the driveway. He loved his new means of transportation and loved to sing an old '60s song: "Hey there Little Red Riding Hood, you sure are looking good."
After July, Daddy's condition began to get worse quickly. Our summer together felt like a bittersweet autumn. We stayed indoors. We spoke of death. We watched Gunsmoke every day, and almost every day he would ask, "Is it today?" I'd reply, "No, Daddy, it's not today." He was curious about how his body would look. He didn't want my mother to feel repulsed. With my photojournalism experience, I had seen enough death to assure him that he would not be ugly. I promised to brush his hair, change his pajamas, clean the room, and put Old Spice on his cheeks. He wanted to smell like Daddy.
One late summer afternoon, I was moving my father from one chair to another. His labored breathing made him sound as if he were on fire, and he didn't seem to be able to get enough air. "Take my hand, Daddy. I've got you," I said. He took my hand and sat down. I put my arms around him and said, "Breathe." He didn't.
My father gave me his body to care for as he began to die, and I have come to believe there is no greater intimacy than sharing one's death with a loved one. Over those weeks, I reclaimed the father of my childhood and claimed the father of my adulthood. The summer he died, I fell in love with my daddy.