Saturday, June 15, 2002

A Father's Day Synchronicity
My Dad died 18 years ago. Each year since then, I have ignored Father's Day. It's irrelevant to me.

Today I was contacted by a writer from my home town of Yonkers, NY -- a woman who writes for a Polish weekly newspaper. She wants to do a feature on my Dad, who, during his lifetime, was well known in that city, not only for his work among the Polish community, but also for a range of political activities behind the scenes that put him in contact with some of the major players in New York State.

So, I spent this afternoon-before-Father's Day looking through the folders where my mother has stashed dozens of newspaper clippings, award certificates, photos, and other documentation of my father's life as an active citizen. There are notes from Nelson Rockefeller and photos of my Dad with Thomas Dewey. There's another photograph of him with Francis Cardinal Spellman, Archbishop of New York back in the '50s.

What really got to me, however, was a copy of an op-ed piece I wrote that the Yonkers newspaper published on January 31, 1985, a little over a month after my Dad died from pancreatic cancer. In email conversations I had with Halley Suitt while she was struggling with her father's dying, I mentioned the article, and she asked me to share it with her if I ever came across my copy.

So, here it is now, edited for length and relevance. This is for you, Dad. I am thinking about you this Father's Day after many years of not wanting to feel your loss all over again.

My youth in Yonkers was bordered by death. My father was an undertaker, and I grew up with death as a matter of everyday, emotionally distant, fact.

When my father received his own death sentence last October on his 71st bithday, however, death abruptly closed that distance. For the first time, I looked death in the face, and it was my father's face.

My father was well-known in Yonkers. In his prime -- which it seemed extended throughout his lifetime -- he was well-respected by colleagues and adversaries alike for his compassion, pragmatism, and humor; for his ability to see all sides fairly; for his willingness to seek and accept advice and cooperation. These were the virtues that brought meaning to his life. These were the virtues that brought dignity and courage to his death.

Four days before Chrismas, having become progressively weaker, despite the best effort of hopital staff, my father told us that he wanted to die. He had, in his life, virtually worked miracles for the Polish people of Yonkers, but he knew that there would be no miracle for him. The next day, irreversibly weakened by the strain the disease had placed on his system -- but mentally alert and aware -- my father asked to have all tubes removed from his body. The nurse had tears in her eyes when she came out of the room with the doctor after thay had presented their final argument for delaying the invevitable.

The hospital staff had all liked my father; no matter how weak he was, he would find something to joke about. When one of the doctors had asked him what he did for a living, my father paused for a moment, smiled, and shot back, "I take care of your mistakes."

We cared for my father at home for four days, massaging the tired flesh hanging looser and looser from his proud bones; struggling to move him, turn him, find ways to ease his bad back, urge liquids into him --first with a straw, then with a spoon, and finally with an eye dropper. We warmed his icy hands in ours, wiped his forehead of the cold sweat that matted his still-thick head of gray hair. We told him jokes and told him we loved him. We assured him, again and again, that we would be all right; he was not to worry about us.

At one point on the night before he died, I went into the living room where the movie "Gandhi" was playing on the television. That night replays through my mind like scenes from a Coppola movie -- sudden shifts back and forth between two simultaneous occurrences, tension mounting toward some anticipated disaster. I would watch Gandhi building his ashram and then tiptoe in to see my father clutching at his pillow. I would listen to Gandhi speak for peace and freedom and then return to hear my father's raspy breathing. And so it went, until the burning pyre turned the TV screen red, and my father's cough brought my mother out of her light sleep in the other room.

Finally my mother lay on the bed we had pushed next to my father's, her hands folded around his. He was sleeping, panting rather than breathing; she was watching, murmuring encouragement and prayers. I fell asleep next to her.

It was the silence that awakened me. The clock said 6:26 a.m. For the first time in days, his hands were warm.