REALITY CHECK: I’ll never rake again without thinking of my old man
A couple weeks ago, I wrote a column about parenting. In it, I mentioned my old man. The comment was peripheral, at best, to the point of the essay. I barely gave it a thought.
I’ve thought about it a lot in the past few days, though. It turns out that column was the last thing — of mine, at least — my dad would ever read. He died a few days later. Something like a stroke, sudden, unexpected.
In that column, I wrote the following: “I love my old man, but as a child, I feared him, too. He put up with exactly zero BS from myself, my brothers and my sisters. I often thought he was unfair and sometimes he was.
“But with him, I knew where I stood. I had my part to play in the family and he had his. If I was bored, he didn’t rush to the psychologist’s office to see what he, as a parent, was doing wrong. He handed me a rake and put me to work in the back yard until I wasn’t bored anymore.”
He mentioned that column after it was published, when I went to see him in the hospital. By then he was moving in and out of consciousness and was thwacked out on morphine; I hung around the hospital room for hours, hoping he would wake long enough to speak with me.
Nobody looks good on a hospital bed, but my old man looked bad; gray, tired, used up. Shrunken, somehow. Tubes and wires snaked into him and out of him, to help him breathe, to monitor his vital signs, to deliver drugs.
His breath hitched in small, shallow gasps. His hand felt cold, frail, insubstantial, like the fluff of an August dandelion waiting to be carried away on any errant breeze.
A moan escaped his parched throat as he swam up toward consciousness.
“Sharon,” he said, calling for my mother in his semi-delirium, forgetting she died two years ago. His fragile hand constricted slightly around mine. His eyes remained closed.
“No dad,” I said. “It’s Mike.”
“Big Mike or little Mike?” he said. A joke. “Little Mike” is my 10-year-old nephew, my brother William’s son.
“Big Mike,” I said. “Glad to hear you’re feeling well enough to be a smart—.”
I knew his windows of awareness were by this time opening but briefly, so I quickly told him about the crowds of friends and relatives that had come round to see him as he slept, how the whole family had stopped by during the course of the afternoon. He either didn’t hear me or wasn’t interested.
“I read that column you wrote about me handing you a rake when you were bored as a kid,” he said. “Pretty funny. I wanted to share it with your mother, but … she’s gone, you know.”
“I know, Dad,” I said. His grip, already tenuous, weakened further. He was fighting to remain awake, losing the battle. Then for just a moment, his eyes cleared and he focused on my face.
“Get a rake,” he mumbled, smiling, drifting off. A few hours later he was gone.
“Get a rake” were the last words my old man spoke to me. Somehow, I like that better than “I love you” or “Goodbye, cruel world.” “Get a rake” is … I don’t know … more honest. It’s closer to summing up the often complicated relationship I had with my father.
I’m really going to miss him, especially when I’m bored. Or holding a rake.