The Long Goodbye by Gregory Shafer

  Dad lay in the same position day after day. The drugs had taken away his personality, and those final days—which ran into more days and weeks of silence and darkness—became a time for reflection. I could talk to him, but he wouldn’t talk back. Occasionally though, he would surface from beneath the pain. 

     He would grimace in agony or smile at a comment I made. He had been my dad through all of the tears and victories. He had made me feel secure. He had talked to me about girls and the Detroit Lions. And now, he was dying—slowly.

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     “I’m sorry,” I said as the tears rolled down my face. “I’m sorry for not being there after the divorce. You were the best dad a guy could ever have—all of the baseball games and root beer floats. And when you needed me I was ignoring you just to please Mom. Please, please forgive me.”

     People speak of the dying in a mainly perfunctory way. They roll out all of the platitudes about a better world and the magic of God and faith. But I didn’t have any of that. I didn’t feel any of it. 

     In the quiet shadows of twilight, the diminishing sun escaping from his bedroom window, it was just the two of us and the morphine. The smell of death came and went, but it was replaced with medicine and tubes and bags of stuff that would keep him from pain—at least any that I could see. But what was he feeling or thinking? 

     There were all of those years of jubilation and change. He had fought in World War II and married my Mom after the Japanese surrendered. So many memories and I wondered as I looked at half-closed eyes if he were replaying his life—the chapters on a farm, Friday nights in a small Northern Michigan town, the glories of youth, suddenly replaced with parenthood and, then, old age. 

     When the words of contrition were exhausted, I would study his face, his hands. So strong once. He was the star basketball player who was featured in a special newspaper edition fifty years after his graduation. I looked at the faded black and white picture, his skinny legs not reaching the gym floor as he sat on the bleachers for the portrait of his team’s glory. He was smiling and young and cocky. 1943 was a good year.

     At night, when there were fewer people, there was more time to reminisce and talk. Nobody could hear me or see what I did, and I would stand over his body—so weak and helpless-- and curse him because there was so much that had not been said.

     “You were a coward,” I would say. ‘You never helped me when you knew I needed it. You never listened to Mom when she wanted you to be better. You never answered my questions when I wanted to know why you left us. Why did you have to do it my senior year in high school? I know you were desperate, that you didn’t feel loved, but I was seventeen. I was alone and desperate, too. That’s why I hated you for a while. Now, you know. Now, you know.”

     Dad blinked, but there wasn’t much else. Maybe he forgave me. Maybe he just didn’t want to think about those times after the divorce when the kids stopped visiting him and decided to make him the villain. There was such a deep quagmire of emotions, so many passions shooting through the air like bolts of lightning. 

     It’s hard to live with guilt, but, when it is felt on the death bed of another, it becomes horrific. It is a scar that keeps festering. And when the days become weeks and the silence is terrifying, one wallows in its unforgiving darkness, searching for an answer—searching for clarity.

     Some days were happy—but never too happy because they always were the same. Dad was dying in front of my eyes. “I loved it most when you’d come from lunch—right in the middle of the day. You’d walk in and I’d have some T.V. dinner ready and we’d talk about Al Kaline and Tony Oliva and the (Detroit) Tigers. You knew who my favorite players were and always made me feel better by telling me they were the best.” I smiled as the tears began streaming down my face. 

     “Those T.V, dinners were awful, but they tasted good, maybe because we were having such a good time—right? You were such a simple person—weren’t you? Anyway, I’ll never forget them, Dad. I want you to know that we’ll do that in heaven, and I’ll value our time—I’ll talk to you and look straight at you."

     No answer. Dad’s teeth seemed to be deteriorating before my eyes. Should I brush them? His mouth opened just a little, but he wasn’t going to speak.

     When I cried, it was a desperate kind of convulsive cry. People say that crying creates a catharsis, but for me, it was like vomiting or something desperate—as if I were going to be sick. During those times, when I would literally moan and whine, I would begin to realize that I was crying for not only dad but myself—my own mortality. I had seen dead people before, but this was Dad. He and Mom had always been there, providing some sort of buffer between me and death. I was young because they were still there, representing the older generation.

     “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” I thought of that old line from Robert Frost. I wanted my wall, the person who would keep death at bay.

     “Dad,” I said another day. “Dad, I can remember the times you held my hand. I can still feel the calluses, the thick cuts from the butcher shop. I can still see your blue eyes as you look at me and smile. You were proud of me—your only son. Maybe you didn’t show it, but I know you did.” I smiled on days when I could recall the past in such vivid and even tactile ways. I wanted to reassure him, to end the endless guilt.

     Dad had only cried once in front of me. I knew when he talked to me about my Mom and their fights that he wanted to cry, but he never did. There was no reason to cry when it’s only tears, and it won’t make any flowers grow. He wanted to be young again. He wanted the energy of romance and basketball and potential. 

     “Cindy changed her name. She doesn’t have my name anymore.” The words just lay there, as he cried briefly in front of me. “That I cannot forget or forgive,” he said with more anger. “All of those days where nobody came, but why take away my name?”

     “I wanted to say I was sorry for that. But Dad was so silent, and there was no quivers, no movements. He wasn’t dead. The eerie rhythm of his breathing told me he was still alive, and that another day would be the same. “I’m sorry for that,” I said shaking my head. It was useless. It was late. Tomorrow would be another day. There would be more hours and days and weeks to say the same thing.

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