12/22/2011 06:40 am ET | Updated May 17, 2012

Primitive Love And The Hope Of Forgiveness

When my 91-year-old father lay dying in a Veterans Administration hospital on the other side of the continent, no one told me that I "should go," that I "had to go," or even that wanting to go was a reasonable idea. "My God," my beloved maternal aunt reminded me, "You don't owe the old bastard a thing. If I had a nickel for every time you told me what a rotten father he was..."

"I don't understand why you want to be so nice to him when he was so mean to us," said my sister. "And I've hired a super-competent social worker to make sure all his needs are met, and that he's comfortable. So you don't need to fly all the way across the country when you're a single mom with no help," she announced.

After I hung up the phone, I found myself quietly lamenting the total lack of controlling authority figures in my life. Where were all the stern Catholic voices of my youth when I needed them, the ones who would tell me that I should go, I had to go, that I was a bad person if I didn't? Wait a minute, I reminded myself, with a mental slap. I couldn't stand those shaming voices. And one really big, unexpected perk of crossing over that once-scary line from your 40s to 50 is that you realize you have far less time to listen to the wrong authoritative voice. You look down that road and see Death, waving at you in a friendly manner, or making some obscene gesture, depending upon the day. So what's left is only for you to decide, finally.

As an over-50, divorced single mother, I have become increasingly aware that I am showing my soon-to-be-men two boys, ages 10 and 13, how to behave in the world. Sometimes this burden feels so heavy that I simply have to lie down. From this horizontal position, I considered what my sons would learn from me not going to my dying father's bedside. The "sandwich generation" of which I am a part also makes you ponder how you might wind up being treated, when you're no longer the meat. "Was he a good dad, Mom?," my older son inquired. "Uh-oh," I thought to myself. What if his answer about me is also really complicated...

I called the super-competent social worker. "I am sorry to ask this, but how long do you think my father has exactly?," I inquired, wincing.

"It is impossible for me to say," she answered gently. "But it is a very personal decision, so if your heart tells you that you do have a personal need to spend time with your father, sooner is always better.

I booked the flight immediately. By the time I found my way to my father's bedside, there wasn't too much of him physically left. Weighing about 100 pounds and riddled with lung cancer, and legally blind from the macula degeneration that had gradually taken his sight, my still mentally razor-sharp father didn't even want to smoke anymore. He could hardly breathe. He could, of course, still make me feel stupid. "You shouldn't have gone to all this trouble to come!," he spat at me, outraged. "It was not necessary." But he accepted my help, to at least identify the cafeteria food. And I could rub the anti-itch ointment onto his skeletal back, even though it didn't alleviate his unbearable itchiness. "No, no, no, you're doing it all wrong, rub harder, harder, and dig your nails into the flesh, into the flesh," he instructed.

I tried to distract him. I brought him latte coffees from Starbucks, and fried oysters from his favorite restaurant. "Are you crazy?! You can't afford this, can you?!," he cried, gobbling them down. "Absolutely delicious," he said, smacking his chapped lips.

He slipped in and out of sleep. "I wasn't a very good man, and I'm sorry," he told me. "I had no confidence." He said it simply and quietly, with none of the raging self-pity that dominated his alcoholic youth. "Would you pray for me, and ask the Good Lord to take me?" I patted his still salt-and-pepper, full head of hair before I had to leave. Almost asleep, he opened his sightless eyes. "Me love Jane," he said, quietly. "What?," I asked, not understanding. "Me love Jane," he repeated. "Am I -- Jane?," I asked, the light dawning. He nodded. "So you're -- Tarzan?," I asked. "Yes," he grinned, delighted. There was nothing even remotely peculiar in his meaning; what he was trying to tell me was innocent, and pure.

On my way back home it hit me, how perfectly apt my father's joke was. I wish he'd been able to tell me earlier that he was just an uncivilized man-child, who simply didn't know how to behave. "Was he a good dad, Mom?" my older son asks me again, still trying to get an answer.

"At the time, no, but in the end, yes, because he was sorry about being mean, and said so. He found his courage, and told the truth." My son likes this answer; it has hope in it. I am so glad that I modeled sustaining that hope for my sons-who-will-soon-be-men. I'd like them to have that legacy. So would Tarzan, wherever he is swinging.