My Father’s Death
by Tita Chico
I begin my summer vacation on the morning of Father’s Day. I am with my partner and his children.
My father—my difficult, strange, passion-filled father—has been dead for five months.
My father was born in a tiny little town in the vastness of Argentina’s countryside. His mother, Magdalena, was young, beautiful, and high spirited. His father, Jesús, was ten years older, a hardworking, gentle man, an immigrant from Spain who took his chances in another country and who never lost his accent.
Like his mother, my father was handsome and high spirited.
Like his father, my father took his chances in another country and lived as an immigrant who never lost his accent.
High spirited. My mother still tells the story of her new mother-in-law chasing my uncle up to the roof of the house, screaming and shaking a broom at him.
High spirited. My father once threatened to burn our house down, piling clothes in the upstairs hallway and holding a can of gas.
I got the call in January. It wasn’t “the” call. It was a message from the director of the “memory care” residence where my father had been living. “Memory care” is such a clumsy yet telling phrase. It isn’t about caring for memories or taking care of memories. It is for people whose memories have been wiped clean.
My father’s memory began to go years ago. My mother and one of my brothers often attributed it to my father’s peculiarities. He was, if you knew him just a bit, a strange fellow. He would scavenge wood and rocks in our country club suburb, and then make dozens of flower beds in the backyard, none of which had flowers in them, just weeds. Surrounded by a spouse and children with no loss for irony or wit, he told a joke once, something about a large roll of butcher paper being elephant toilet paper.
But if you knew my father well, you knew that he wasn’t merely odd, but also violent and angry. When the neighborhood launched plans to replace the wooden fences with a brick wall, a conversion most beneficial to my parents’ corner lot, my father refused, yelling obscenities at the association’s board and sending threatening letters by registered mail.
He also disowned me three times.
So when my father started taking the garbage out several times a day, it really didn’t seem that much out of character.
He also wasn’t so angry anymore. We thought he was mellowing with time. None of us realized that he was losing himself.
Back to the call in January—the medical director told me that my father was deteriorating and that he thought I should be the one to tell my mother. “He is now bed bound.”
As I spoke to my mother on the phone, I was looking at airline schedules. I knew that I wanted to tell her two things at once, that the medical director called and that I was coming out. “Why?” She was incredulous. My father died the next week.
“He wasn’t like this on Sunday,” my mother kept saying. My father was sleeping and wouldn’t wake up.
Sound could never wake him—he’d been severely hard of hearing since before I was born. My whole life, whenever I went to wake up my father, I’d touch his shoulder. His eyes would pop open and his face would brighten into a smile. He was always happy at that moment, happy to be woken up, happy to see me.
I’m trying to explain how much I lost that day when I touched him, rocked his shoulders, held his hand, and his eyes didn’t open.
My father woke up one last time before he died, but this was the start of the end.
My father lived long enough for my brothers to arrive. Seeing them walk down the corridor of the memory care wing, boisterous and energetic as always, talking to strangers with instant familiarity, I felt deep comfort, joy even.
Sitting around my father’s room, with my father unresponsive in his bed, my mother, my brothers, and I laughed and teased each other, talking over one another, never on the same topic at the same time. Like always. My father never participated in these loud, brawl-like conversations, but he loved our giddiness and the heavy love that connected us.
One brother and I slept on the floor that last night, listening to my father breathing and listening for when he stopped. That happened later the next afternoon.
I am on vacation with my partner and his children, and we arrived in the morning on Father’s Day. I write this now in the middle of the night in our Airbnb, restless from jetlag and unsettled by grief.
One of the things I love so very much about my partner is his fathering. His warm embraces, his playfulness, his care, his cooking and cleaning, his worry, and his attention, even his annoyance and his hurt.
My partner is from the country next to where my father was born, a short, steep flight over the Andes, but there isn’t much else similar about them.
My father may have felt those things my partner does, but he had difficulty showing them in ways that were not blinding and frightening.
When my father got last rites for a second time—a mix-up I know would have pleased him, ever the skeptic of the Catholic Church, ever pleased with getting a good deal—I took to a corner and in a hush turned to the church staff member who came with the priest, a kind woman I had gotten to know as my parents needed more help.
I told her, with tears hot on my face, that my father abused us, that he was a terrible, difficult man.
I also told her that I loved him hard and could not imagine being anywhere else, that it took me nearly my whole lifetime to realize I inherited my gentleness from him.
I needed, in that moment in the corner by the door, to pour out the hurt and make room for grief.
The last time my father woke was five days before he died, and he was alert for only 30 minutes or so.
My mother fed him dinner—part of a cheese burger, French fries, cranberry juice, some cobbler. He was hungry and thirsty.
I reached my Tía, his little sister, on FaceTime. She spoke gently, telling him to take a deep rest.
And my father? I sat next him in his bed and we held hands. And he told me, in the last words he uttered, “You look like Tita.”
Tita Chico is Professor of English at the University of Maryland and lives in Washington DC. She is currently writing a book on wonder.
Image: Matheus Frade/Unsplash