Friday, June 16, 2017

My Father's Hands

by Paige Peterson

"I want you to know I love you.” 

Those were some of the last words he said to me. And the first time in my 62 years I heard those words. 

The day before, he had said, "I know I failed you.”

Lying next to him, I squeezed his hand. "I love you, Pops.” Assuring him that he was forgiven and that I had survived.

He was born in 1923.

An only child.

Fawned over by a neurotic mother, according to his first wife, my mother. 

Dad was well educated. 
Long limbed.
Dark thick hair.
Chiseled face.
He had won the genetic lottery.

He spent 94 years feeling unheard.

My parents’ marriage lasted eight years.

My father as a young boy.
The divorce was final by the time I was 18 months old.

From before I was five, I have few memories of him.


I felt loved.

Then he was gone.

Three decades later I went to our local county paper and filled out the paperwork for my wedding announcement. 

I filled in my parents’ names. 
I hoped that he would see it.

He had always lived less than 20 miles away from my childhood home.

When my daughter was not yet 3 years old, she asked, “Mommy, where is your Daddy?”

I contacted him and asked him if he would meet me.

We met in a local restaurant.
I was in a booth, as were two other women of similar age. 
When my father appeared in the door, I would have known him anywhere.
Perfect posture.
3-piece seersucker suit.
Grey thinning hair.
Chiseled face ... not a wrinkle.

He didn’t know which of the three 30-something women was his youngest daughter.

I raised my hand.
He approached me, awkwardly leaned in, and kissed my cheek. 
I matter-of-factly asked him what I should call him.
He said, “I don’t care what you call me — just don’t call me an asshole.”

My father and me.
As he settled into the booth, he reached into his back pocket to pull out his wallet.
He removed a tattered yellowed newspaper clipping.
Tears in his eyes, his frail hands trembling.
For the first time he looked me squarely in my eyes and said, “Thanks for this.”

I quietly said, "I don’t want anything. I just want to get to know you.” 

Eyes lowered.
Chin quivering.
He held his breath.

I grabbed his hands, kissed them, held my cheek to his hand.

I whispered, “Let’s just move forward.”

During the next thirty years I would see my father regularly.

I always felt honored, privileged to be near him.

I understood that I needed to have him in my life in order for me to be whole.

He was articulate.
He was well read.
Studied world history.
International affairs.
He loved his home.
"Finest home in California,” he assured me every time I visited.
He loved his horses.
A small trust fund and a professional wife enabled him a lot of freedom.
My Pops with his horse in his local paper.
Time was his gift.

Before marrying my mother, my father was in the U.S. Navy.  He was a Pharmacist Mate on the USS Sumter, an attack transport ship. His work was to remove shrapnel from the buttocks and legs of the wounded.

He suffered from PTSD. 

When I visited him, before I sat down, he would say, “Now I am going to talk at you.”

For hours he would rant about the bastards who fornicated a generation of idiots.
How poor boys were only interested in making money so they knew nothing because they did not have time to read and study.
He told me 27 years ago that we are going to run out of water.
He never flew in an airplane.  The thought of it paralyzed him.
He lived in a 30-mile radius.
Shopped at Costco.
Drank good wine.
Belonged to a country club.

He never asked me a personal question.
He never asked about my health. 
He never gave me a present.
He never asked me if I needed help with anything.

He was so desperate to be heard. 
He felt he was never heard.
His ranting distanced people. 

To share a meal. 
To be near his breath. 
To watch him move. 
To hear his voice.
That was enough for me.

His very presence filled me up.

“Pops, are you scared of death?”
“Hell no! I don’t want to die. I want to find out what is going to happen.”

When hospice was put in place.
When the hospital bed was placed next to his king-size bed in his bedroom.
When he no longer left his bed.
When he could only hold my hand ... I began to sleep next to him.
For days I sat next to him, holding him.
Holding his hand.
With one hand he would hold my hand and with the other grip my wrist.
We would be still for hours.
Me holding on to him. 
Finally ... he was holding on to me.

Ten days after no water or food, my father passed peacefully.

I closed his eyelids. 
Holding them until they stayed closed. 
I kissed him and let him know how much I loved him.

Instantly he looked as though he was a marble sculpture on coffins I had seen in cathedrals all over the world.  In cemeteries in Argentina.  In religious paintings from centuries ago. 
He was still warm, but he was otherworldly.

He was gone.

I was grateful to be with him when he left us.

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