Wednesday, June 10, 2009, (sometime around 5 a.m.) will be precisely 10 years since my father died. I don't even have to look at a calendar to know it's coming. About a month beforehand, I begin to act like (even more of) a prick to those around me. My anti-depressants stop working, and I get increasingly anxious. My insomnia increases from about 2 sleepless nights per month to 2 per week. Or, conversely, I spend weeks in bed.
Oddly, I can't place the cause of these symptoms until about June 5 or later, when I realize of a sudden, "Oh fuck, that's it." Then the odd behavior of the past few weeks all makes sense. Ten years is a long time to mourn the loss of a father, I know, and i have had friends tell me "get over it", but if I could I would. Until I do, friends, shut the fuck up.
It is very unusual for me to open up about personal business, even to my best friends, and it is absolute insanity for me to put my feelings into words here (though the fact that very few people will read this gives me courage). I've never told the entire story of my father's death, and its effect on my psyche, to anyone besides my immediate family. And to be honest, I'm not sure if they really understand. So, if you're interested, and you have the time to invest, here are the facts.
I don't know exactly what happened in the last couple years of Dad's life. One reason is that he never wanted his children to worry, so he never told me what was going on with his health. The other reason is that my step-mother kept anything important from me, for reasons I can only speculate. Karen is asleep, so I can't ask her about exact dates: I was never good at that stuff.
I know that about the mid-1990s Dad was in the hospital and they couldn't figure out what was wrong with him, so he was transferred to the Ohio State University Medical Center. I don't remember if they figured out what was wrong there but they stabilized him and sent him home.
What I remember next consisted of two separate incidents which happened at about the same time. I still had friends in Troy (actually Karen had friends in Troy, I never had many friends), and reports made their way back to us that my step-mother was having an affair while my father lay sick at home. I am trying to not be judgmental. Otherwise, I'd be using terms like "whoring around" or "neglect". But I won't sink that low. The second incident I know is true because it came from a reliable source. My sister Ellen called me one day, crying, because Dad had called her and asked her to bring him some food. It seems his loving wife had taken the kids to school, then gone to work (whatever that was) without preparing breakfast for Dad. So Ellen and her husband Randy (a workaholic, so taking the time to do this was a testament to his love for Ellen and Dad) went to the grocery, bought some food, then went to Dad's house and made him breakfast.
At about the time I was planning a murder in which I would leave no evidence, I got a call from the step-mother (shock) telling me that Dad was in Miami Valley Hospital. The prognosis was grim. Nobody knew how much time he had. I had an understanding boss, so I left for Troy asap. When I got to the hospital, Dad was on a ventilator. There were other things attached, but I didn't know or ask what they were. He was conscious when I got there, so we talked. Well, I talked. I remember asking if we were there to say goodbye. With tears in his eyes, he nodded yes. Although it wasn't quite the situation I imagined when I had imagined our final goodbyes, it had to do.
I apologized for all the hell I had put him through. I apologized for moving away when he needed me most. He could only shake his head and mouth "No, no" from around the respirator tube. I told him how much I loved him. Karen told him how much she loved him. We told him how much the children loved him. Eventually we ran out things to say.
When it was time to leave, when I could no longer see my father reduced to that, we said our goodbyes. Watching my father mouth "goodbye" and "I love you" past that tube broke my heart. We made promises to return, but the next day I didn't have the heart.
So we returned to Elkhart. The next thing I heard was that Dad had slipped out of consciousness. I wouldn't be able to talk to him again. I made sure the hospital had my home and work numbers, partly because I didn't trust his wife to contact me. The call came from the hospital while I was at work. "Get here as soon as you can. We don't know when." That was Tuesday, June 7. My boss told me to go, take as much time as I needed. I had 3 bereavement days coming.
On Wednesday, Karen and I went to the hospital. I was a bit pissed that my children weren't allowed in. Something about carrying germs that could affect the patients. He was dying, what the hell could they do worse? When I got to his room, there he was, covered by machines and tubes and God knows what. I knew he didn't want to go out that way. We had had several lengthy conversations about it. But my little sister had just been crowned Troy Strawberry Queen, and his "wife" wanted to keep him alive to "watch" his daughter in the Strawberry parade the previous weekend. What a fucking joke. "Look, Dad, there's Kristen. I know you have no brain activity, but there she is."
Somewhere in all that, I lost it. A bunch of cousins and aunts and uncles were there, and I remember going into the hallway and punching walls. "This isn't what he wanted." My cousins tried to understand, but they had no idea. In the many conversations we had about this situation, Dad always made me promise that if he were in such a situation, he wanted me to "step on the air hose". The guilt I felt right then was overwhelming.
Somehow, Karen got me out of there. We were to return at 9 or 10 a.m. the next day so that they could take him off life support and we could all say our goodbyes. I went out and got drunk. Then the strangest thing happened. I woke up in the middle of the night to throw up, as I often did when I got drunk. But I happened to look at the clock. It read 5:17 or something.
That morning, when we went to the hospital to take dad off life support, he had already passed. Time of death: 5:17 a.m.
I remember the viewing. Childhood friends turned out in scores, giving me strength. Colleagues and co-workers of Dad's offered their support. It was more like a reunion than a wake.
The funeral was amazing. I was scheduled to speak last. Before me went Judge Richard Goater, my Dad's first law partner, Robin Coleman, who had known Dad since she was in high school, my little brother Brian, then me. Problem was, they all did my best material. For once in my life I was at a loss for words. But I am my father's son, so I ad-libbed as well as I could. I'd like to say I brought the house down, but that's not appropriate.
The line of cars to the cemetery had to be at least a mile long. It was stunning. At the gravesite, after the prayers and speeches, everyone headed for their cars. Not me. I stayed as long as I could. Finally, I kissed the coffin goodbye, and left.
Through all this, I knew I had to be the strong one. My family was a wreck. I remember switching seats to be next to Brian so I could hold him; he cried into my shoulder for a good ten minutes.
So I didn't let my grief show. For a long time. A few week later, when I learned that my step-mother, who had power-of-attorney for Dad, had transferred all his possessions into her name and the names of her two children, I didn't break down. I got pissed. Very pissed. Then I got a lawyer.
As it turned out, power-of-attorney or not, the timing of her power grab couldn't have been worse. The transfers were dated two days prior to Dad's death, when he was (in legal terms) "in extremis", which means he was in no condition to make that decision on his own. Now a power-of-attorney gives you certain rights, duties, and obligations, but it does not give you the ability to make a fiduciary decision for someone who has no mental capacity to make that decision for himself. A power-of-attorney requires the holder to make the decision in the best interest of the person for whom you hold that power. I don't think her actions passed that test.
So we went to court. Even at the most litigious moment, I admit, I wasn't sure of my motives. So I asked my attorney, a very wise man named Robert Huffman (who eerily reminded me of my own father) if I was doing the right thing. "Dale," he said, "not only do I think you're doing the right thing, I'm sure it's what your father would have wanted. And the fact that you're asking me that question convinces me that you are doing this for the right reasons." Thus reassured, I stood my ground.
As for my step-mother, she got more than she deserved (having conveniently lost the pre-nup she signed), but she lost any respect she had in Miami County and almost lost her law license (only because nobody took her seriously as a lawyer). So if you ever need a lawyer in Troy Ohio, and you come across Susan Strayer Swinehart, remember, you get what you pay for.
You might think the story ends there. You don't know me well, do you?
As I said, I showed strength throughout this whole ordeal. With the aid of Vicodin, I was almost able to dull the pain just enough. But I came to need more and more Vicodin, and my family was falling apart because of my addiction, which required more Vicodin to cope with.
Until one day, about 4 or 5 months after I buried my father, I exploded, curled up on the bathroom floor, bawling like a baby, the detonation sending pieces of existential shrapnel into my wife and children, wounds from which they will never recover. Though my wife nursed me through this breakdown, I never lost my need for narcotics. Eventually, the Vicodin addiction would break my family apart and scar them in ways I never dreamed possible.
I'm not blaming the addiction on my father's death. But the guilt I felt was eased by the high I got from narcotics. That I could consume as much as I did without dying, or at least permanently damaging my system, is miraculous.
All that is for another time, though. I hope that telling the story of my father's passing will help me get stronger in the face of each coming June 9. Because I'm tired of letting it consume a month of my life each year.
In nomine Patris, et Fili, et Spiritus Sancti, Amen