Deep in a rustic canyon, tucked away in the bedroom of his beautiful glass home, wrapped tightly in a hospice hospital bed, buried behind the damage of another stroke, my father is dying.
His muted dark eyes stare out at me full of undelivered communications and I am overwhelmed with loss. He'll never tell me what he thinks I should do again. He's 93 and for all of those years minus the last three months, he's run his life pretty much the way he's wanted to. My brother and I, both in our 60s, still think an event hasn't completely happened to us unless he knows about it too--unless he's given us his thoroughly mulled over feedback. In fact, it's only been since he started to have small strokes and TIAs that all of us, including his granddaughters, have begun keeping things from him. If the news included a family member, he couldn't take it; his reactions invariably sent his blood pressure off the charts.
He didn't miss knowing. But we missed telling.
When do you stop needing a father? Never, if you were lucky enough to get a father like mine. Someone to watch over you, be there no matter what, be critical but supportive, a teacher of just about anything in the world, firm but kind, stubborn but flexible about his family, and a real cheerleader. An intellectual and a manager, a technical engineer and an English lit scholar, my father pushed me to reach past the mundane on the chance of glimpsing the exceptional. His demanding voice still drives me through songwriting, editing, and prose. And lucky me, the few things he didn't drum in, my mother modeled scorchingly well: Tell the truth whether they like it or not.
After her death in 1989, my father became "my parents." He emerged so vividly, so ready to make sure the continuity of the family was maintained, we all just fell in line. When I came all the way out and took a job as an editor at a gay publication, he was pleased. As long as the work I produced was good and teaching me something, he was a proud father. When my partner and I got legally married in California in 2008 after being together 20 years, he managed to pull his failing health together and be there. He loved both his daughter-in-laws in that total, fair-and-square way he insisted on. And one afternoon recently, while I worked on his bookkeeping, I got to overhear him tell my wife how good she was and how she always made things a little better for everyone including him. "Judy is a lucky girl." I wonder how many LGBTs in this world like me long for and finally get such total acceptance from their parents?
Dad was never a great socializer. Going to parties or hanging out with friends pretty much died for him when my mother passed away. She was his main transportation to other worlds outside his home. For him it was all about "the family." If he did let himself go, he had plenty to share. He loved to talk about movies, the theater, finance, science, politics, and, of course, what life was like when he was young. His values are the values of a smaller, less jaded world. The grey areas of the second millennium troubled him deeply, and he worried about how his granddaughters would navigate them. He also worried about if they had gotten their flu shots.
So where do we go when we're finally gone? Everybody has a theory, but nobody really knows. Whether you believe we go to Heaven or we go to Hell or we go nowhere or we go everywhere, no matter what your personal belief systems are, there's one thing that's certain: we carry each other on. So if in no other way, my father will be eternal because I am alive and I carry on his genes, his opinions, his values, his ideas, his arguments, his love and support for so many things, even me. (Learning that last one is big.) And after me, my wife, my brother, and his wife, will come his granddaughters who already have his voice so firmly in their heads, they rework anything they're about to do if they find themselves thinking: We'll never tell Grandpa about this!
So now I can only lean across the bed and into his frightened face, smooth his long, curly white hair, and tell him over and over what a great job he's done and that he can finally rest and let it go. His work here is done. We will never stop loving and needing him, but we've got him deep inside us forever. In addition to being ourselves for the rest of our lives, we are all Jack Wieder now.