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Shorty goes home, life goes on

Published in December 1995, Iroquois County Times-Republic

It took me quite a while to let go of Shorty. I thought about it for a long time before I got the nerve to drive to the hospital equipment rental place and hand him over.

Shorty was my father’s portable oxygen tank. He was named “Shorty” to distinguish him from the large, floor-model oxygen concentrator that sat by Dad’s bed.

That piece of equipment was, of course, named “Bertha.”

The hospital had already picked up Bertha. But Shorty, the little tank, had accompanied Dad everywhere — to doctor’s appointments, haircuts, trips to the car wash — for five years. It was Dad’s security blanket, his walking stick, his constant companion … and it was just so hard for me to let it go.

It has taken me a while to adjust to my father’s death. For three days after he died, I didn’t sleep or eat. I couldn’t think of anything except how much it hurt. I restlessly walked around the back aisles of stores, looking at jack handles and lug nuts, craft supplies and frozen foods. I drove through a few stop signs.

At times I thought the grief would tear a hole in me, and what used to be my life would come spilling through that hole and fill up the room, and the anguish would drown me, as certainly as the fluid in his failing lungs eventually overwhelmed and drowned my father.

Shorty sat on the back seat of my car.

But the clock ticked, and life carried me forward. There was numbness, but also the cycle of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, acceptance — spinning through me again and again. I cried like an orphan. I felt like one.

The realization that he was gone left me breathless … gasping like a man fighting for air alone in a hospital bed in the middle of the night.

After years of taking care of Dad — a job I could never get quite right — people told me I should be relieved that his struggle was finally over.

Instead, it felt as if the person I had spent so much time protecting was suddenly beyond my reach, pulled from my care. His absence was unimaginably heavy and painful. It left me in a panic, exhausted and desperate. It did not feel like relief.

Ours had not been a classic father-daughter relationship. He was never Robert Young to my Princess; in my family, Father did not always Know Best.

Dad was a man generally displeased with life, who stubbornly refused to acknowledge that it’s a cruel, crazy, beautiful world after all. He was angry about the way he had to suffer. Despite my tender care, he said he thought the world was a bad place, life was a bad deal, and death would be eternal nothingness.

And at times, in the first few days after he died, it seemed that Dad had been right.

Shorty hung around with me as I struggled to cope, as I tried to take care of the details. I dropped Dad’s reading glasses in the collection box at the bank. I talked to the library about taking some of his old books about stage illusion magic.

The brand new clothes he had never gotten to wear, because he was too sick to change out of his pajamas, went to the resale store. But the old empty oxygen tank just rattled around in the back seat of my car.

I guess I couldn’t quite surrender the last of Dad’s things because … I just missed him so much. I missed being able to ask him questions about how to set the small things right: how to fix the refrigerators’ thermostat, and when to change my oil, and how to get the rear fender off my bike. He always knew these things; it was the bigger issues of life that weighed him down.

My father would never swim with us on family vacations. Just before he died, he explained why: When he was about 10 years old, at a swimming pool in Chicago, he had gotten turned around underwater. He began swimming for the bottom instead of the surface as he ran out of breath, because both were tiled in identical black-and-white. He said he would never forget the way it felt to be able to breathe again, when a lifeguard pulled him into the air.

I wasn’t there at the moment he died, but I think it was something like that. After fighting for each breath for years and years, he suddenly broke through to that afterlife world where the air flowed easily into his lungs, and he was finally able to take a full, sweet breath again.

Dad wanted his obituary to ask people to take care of their lungs. It did, and I will say it here again: Life is short and breath is precious. Tobacco’s toxic fumes will eventually pull you under to an agonizing, suffocating death.
Don’t smoke. Please.

Yet I have to believe Dad was wrong about this world, this life. It’s not a bad place, not a bad deal. I know this because — he was my father. Surely he would never leave me here to face such a world without him.

Sometimes, even years later, I forget that he’s really gone. I drive past the nursing home I used to dread to visit, and my longing to see him again is so strong, I have to fight to keep myself from walking up to the door.

And every once in a while, I have this feeling that I have misplaced Dad somewhere, that he and his oxygen tank are at the barber shop or the doctor’s office or the grocery store, waiting for me to pick them up.

And then I remember.

I have to remind myself that, if there is life after death — and I truly believe there is — then my father is, indeed, somewhere waiting for me.

I guess I just can’t believe he went there without Shorty.

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