Originally written and read for Permission to Fail July 2016 at Lotta Studios in New Haven, CT. Dad passed January 28th, 2014 at the age of 71. Grief has been a large part of my life since then and I’m realizing the need to release some of that hold on me as his third anniversary rolls around this month. I share this story with you in his memory and in memory of all those we have lost who added flavor to our lives.
My Dad, The Onion
The experience of getting to know my dad was akin to peeling down an onion.
First was the outermost and most transparent layer. Ten minutes or less with Dad and his passion for cooking, and eating, music, both writing and singing it, his cat, Thumper, and pretty much all animals in general, would shine through.
In those same ten minutes you’d know when he was on a spiritual bend, as his testimony would reach you at the door in the form of handwritten scriptures and, sometimes, the boom of his friendly but deeply raspy voice saying, “Hey! Welcome to Grumpy’s Soup and Sandwich Shoppe. Have I told you my salvation story?”
This question was met with mixed reactions. Not wanting to risk missing out on his famous firehouse chili, and sometimes out of fear of Dad’s six-foot tall, 350 lb frame, most folks wisely chose to listen to his tale.
I should add here that while Dad was born with the name Roger, it was the nickname Grumpy that stuck. It was adopted as the name of his greasy spoon deli, eventually taking over his birth name in most social circles.
So after that initial introduction, if you were lucky, and a bit brave, Dad would let you get closer. Like when you’re cutting into the core of that onion, sometimes the sting would come and your eyes would water, sometimes you would outright tear up. The type of tears experienced with Dad could be from belly laughter or sorrow depending on the part of himself he shared with you.
But however deeply you were allowed in, it was guaranteed that your life had more flavor because he was in it.
And no matter the emotion Dad evoked from you, every bit of it was laced with his wit and wisdom; a humorous mix that was most often inappropriate, but also refreshingly real. And for many reasons, this is why I enjoy sharing memories of my dad.
Dad’s health had been on the decline since I was a child. We once made a list of all his ailments, as one does, and stoically realized it was simpler to say what WASN’T wrong with him than what was. Many a times my family was called to the ER “to say goodbye before it was too late”, and every time Dad lived to make another pot of firehouse chili and write another country song.
In what would be the last few months of his life with us, it became apparent that Dad was on a rapid decline. It was September 2013 and my gut told me he wouldn’t make it to Spring. We began the move to short-term care when the reality of his situation couldn’t be denied, even by him. The plan was to eventually transition him to long-term care from there.
You’d think being Dad’s mini me would bring me into that envious core circle of his, but he always managed to keep me at just enough arms’ length. He counted on me as his primary care giver but I had to do a lot of detective work to get to the truth of his various scripts and conditions. Visits to him in the nursing facility were short and sweet: As usual I was the audience of one listening to him complain about the food (“Uh! Horrible, tasteless stuff!”) Understandable. And his aches and pains (“Everything hurts!”) I totally got it. And his sharing (many times over sharing) of how he used to be a stud and now he’s not. (“Whaaaat?! I’m SHARING with you! Hahahaha!”) Trust that I visited happy place many times while in his presence.
One day I had the brilliant idea to bring our family’s cherished Scrabble game to help facilitate our visits. It was the fancy board that spun like a lazy Susan, where the tiles locked into the 3D grid. Very cool stuff! Scrabble was Dad’s second favorite game after poker, and he played both for serious cash. Little did I know that the Scrabble board would act as a portal for him to safely channel deep emotions and memories, both good and bad, in what would be our final days together.
We talked about when he first met me after I was delivered and how he instantly fell in love with me. I mean, what’s not to fall in love with? How he once swaddled me so tightly he bent my pinkie back, and to this day the memory of my crying at the pain broke his heart. He laughed until he had to catch his breath recalling when I was teething and Mom, a nurse, was livid that he had put Southern Comfort in my formula and he had drunk the rest. “Hey,” he said in his defense, “We were BOTH in pain.”
Then there was teaching me how to fish aka me casting line and bobbers into the trees above us. Meeting my prom date who had a leg cast and crutches from a soccer injury only to tell him if he touched his daughter the other leg would match it. My date thought he was funny until I assured him Dad wasn’t kidding. So many good memories and times we couldn’t stop laughing.
Then, gradually, he mentioned his strained relationship with his dad, his own battle with depression, deeply missing his deceased mother. And when he admitted that he was tired, that he didn’t like needing help going to the bathroom now, and how he wanted to die in his sleep. I told him I wished that for him too but I didn’t see how that would happen for him. His entire life had been about being big and noisy. About creating a commotion. A scene. How could he die quietly? I just didn’t see that for him. I didn’t prepare myself for it either.
The last time we spoke, Dad said he was ready to go. I told him, “I know you’re done and it’s ok. You’ve stayed here a lot longer than your body would have let us thought was possible. Make your peace Dad and I love you.”
On January 28th 2014 at 9:20am, I woke from a dream to the sound of my phone ringing. It was the nursing director of Dad’s facility.
“Hello Sharon,” she said.
“Hello,” I replied, still a bit groggy.
“I don’t know how to tell you this but,” she paused, “your father is gone.”
Now, Dad dying was not the first thing I thought of when she said “he’s gone” and this is why: Dad never died when we thought it was his absolute last time with us. He always bounced back. Every. Single. Time. That, and I hadn’t received a call in the middle of the night to call the priest or meet at the ER or come say goodbye. Dad’s MO was drama infused all the way so no, I didn’t think that by “gone” she actually meant dead.
When she said gone I thought she meant he had run away because THAT is something I could see Dad doing! He probably got on his 5 mph senior scooter and rolled out the side door in the middle of the night. The visual of him doing just that made me chuckle a bit and I’m thinking. ‘Can’t you just go get him? How far could he have gone?’
Instead of that though I said, “Gone?”, with a question in my voice.
“Yes, he passed away.”
“Oh,” I replied somberly. “And when was this?” I asked.
“About 9am this morning. They went in for his breakfast order and he had passed.”
“Ok thank you. I will gather my family to sit with him before the funeral home comes for him.”
Standing in his room at the home my older, and only, sister and I observed how quiet he was. “He’s peaceful,” my sister whispered as she leaned into me. “You don’t have to whisper,” I replied in my normal voice. “He can’t hear you.” Her weak but sincere smile told me she appreciated me trying to keep things light. We continued to stand vigil, amazed at the unusual presence of silence and Dad in the same room.
As I observed our surroundings I noted the sun streaming in through the room’s double window, the cleanliness and orderliness of the space, how it almost looked like he had just been placed there in the bed and not living there these several months. It was in that moment of observation that I was jolted back to the dream I had been woken from when the phone rang with the nurse telling me Dad was gone.
In my dream I was arriving to see Dad but he wasn’t in his room. In fact there was no sign of him at all. I asked the nurses about this and was told, quiet cheerily, that he had been moved upstairs. I found this odd because this was a two-floor facility, and Dad was already on the second floor. But while I knew, even in my dream, that there was no upstairs to this building, up I went.
And as I recalled entering what was said to be Dad’s new room, I realize it’s exactly the room I’m in now, minus my father or anyone else. The same sunlight is streaming in the double windows. There is the same sense of peace and calm and feeling like he hadn’t been there for very long. I felt a bit like I was in a time warp when it all came to me in a happily crushing wave.
‘Dad! Oh wow Dad! You little stinker! You did it! You went in your sleep! You went in your sleep! And you came to me in my dream to tell me you were gone! The phone call that had woken me was merely confirmation! You had already told me yourself! Wow! Thank you Dad! Thank you!’
With this new knowledge in hand, I turned to my sister with a smile that I’m sure confused her, and reassure her, “I know he went peacefully,” and I smiled even broader. “It’s ok,” I tell her, “He was ready.”
And it was in that moment I also realized that I had made it into Dad’s inner INNER circle. I had reached the core of the man who was so much like an onion, and here came the tears. Though he lived a loud and boisterous, often rebellious life, though he was sometimes biting in his conversations, when he slipped away it was silently and alone, but he had made one final memory for us.
And now I share that memory with you.
Copyright 2016 Sharon Arsego