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Losing a Father -- Daughter Reflects on the Death of a Parent

Recalling a Lifetime of Moments in a Father-Daughter Relationship

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Updated June 23, 2010
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, and I thought as a child. But when I became an adult, I grew far beyond my childhood, and now I have put away the childish ways.

- 1 Corinthians 13, 11

This verse keeps running through my mind, the one persistent thought among a kaleidoscope of memories that wash over me like waves against a lone rock on the beach. Each time the passage enters my consciousness I end it with this thought: I was about eight when I put away my childish ways.

When I was brand new at the job I've had for nearly a decade, I called one of my best friends. She's been my friend since grade school.

"I'm the Most Responsible Person." I explain, over the phone, about my new position as head of Regulatory Affairs for a small pharmaceutical company. "Whenever I submit papers to the agency, there's a line that asks for 'the most responsible person.' That's me!"

This woman, who's known me for so long, laughs a deep, from the belly laugh. "You've been the most responsible person since you were born." I can see, in my mind's eye, her head thrown back as she laughs through the phone line.

---

Several months ago I called my father. It was my weekly 'how's everything' call. He'd just come from the doctor's, explaining the results of what he described as a routine annual physical.

"Let me read you the results of the CAT scan," he says. "A distended abdominal cavity due to excessive adipose tissue. A two centimeter growth on a rib extending into the chest cavity. The doctor wants to do a biopsy."

"Sounds like you're fat, Dad." I needle him. "Too much ice cream, I suppose. You know, sometimes cells get senile. They forget what they're doing and go their own way. Kinda like their owners."

"Well, I've never felt better." His voice is overstuffed with optimism. "No need to worry until there's something to worry about." Mom gets on the line and asks me to pray. Just in case.

---

When I was a little girl, just learning to read and write, with a freshly sharpened Number 2 pencil, I wrote notes to my father:

I love you. Do you love me? Yes or no. Check one. I pass the crookedly printed note up from where I sit under the dining room table and put it on his knee. The table is filled with men, his brothers, my uncles. They stop their lively conversation while my father reads the note and writes his response. Smiling, he passes the note back under the table to me. Neither box is marked. Instead, there are several lines of heavy script. I can't read cursive yet. I carefully fold the note and put it in my worn jeans pocket.

Forgotten, the note stays there until it's reduced to shreds in Saturday's laundry, causing my mother's dismay to travel up the stairs from the basement laundry room. "How many times do I have to tell you?" she cries.

---

Long before I'm a teenager, being the second of nine, mostly beautiful, dutiful girls, I take care of the fields, the farm animals, bury the barn cats when they inevitably die, and fix the downed fences. My father works long hours to support his family. Given responsibility, I assume authority, even though I'm really too little for either. Not a good thing when the head of the household comes home. Angry checkers fly in the air, as I gloat at beating Dad. We have life and death battles over whether golf is a sport or an activity, and neither of us even plays golf. He challenges me to calculate the amount of sand needed to fill a foundation. And criticizes that I took too long to figure it out. He teaches me that next to everyone, I'm nobody; and it only takes 10 pennies to make a dime, 10 dimes to make a dollar. He pays me a dime for each "A" I bring home on my report card. I empty his pockets. No one makes my father angrier or prouder than I do.

---

When I was barely into adulthood, I lamented to my mother that people assume I am much older.

"You've been thirty since you were eight years old. You were born grown up," she says in the voice that reminds me of my first grade catechism:

Q: Who made you?
A: God made me.
Q: Why did God make you?
A: God made me to know love Him, to love Him and to serve Him in this world and the next.

Simple answers to seemingly simple questions, no room for discussion. I accept what my mother says without argument. My father remains silent, looking up from his TV show only long enough to increase the volume.

---

Several weeks ago, I went with my parents, the couple of 52 years to get the results of the tests, which followed the biopsy.

The doctor's voice is matter-of-fact. But his eyes are big and brown and moist. "Three lesions on the liver. No treatment is certainly a viable option," he says. I think viable is a strange choice of words.

My mother, my father's bride, looks at her steno pad, at the doctor, and at the steno pad again. Her carefully prepared questions, follow-up to a different prognosis, are neatly aligned on the right side of the double line. The left side is blank, waiting for her to jot down the answers. She grips the pad with two hands, then flips a page searching for a question that will have an answer. She comes up empty.

My father's eyes fill with tears and meet mine.

"Well, we've got a lot of work to do, if we're going to finish your book." It comes out of my mouth like it's a fence we have to finish before we can go on our annual camping trip. A natural storyteller, my father wants his life recorded as fiction, in case he needs to hide. I know he'll never write it himself, he's only written three letters in his life: one to me when I was away at college.

---

When my own children were nearing the age I was when I first married, I went to visit my parents. My divorce was, at last, final.

My father has nothing to say to me. Catholics don't divorce. Mom offers her own form of support. She knows I made a bad choice to begin with.

"Go out and talk to Dad," she says, always pushing for harmony.

He is flat on his back, repairing the hay baler. I sit beside the toolbox and hand him wrenches and secure a nut, while he tightens a bolt.

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