At the end of last year I posted about some “night terrors” after I met an older man contemplating his impending death. A high-school classmate responded by telling me of his heart attack a few years back. His comments are included at the end of the blog post; he says he felt an overwhelming sorrow at the thought that he might not be able to say goodbye to those he loved and express his gratitude for what they had done for him.
I spent some time thinking about this. Around 12 years ago, my father died. Although many people admired him for his athleticism and charisma, he was your basic deadbeat dad. A violent, manipulative drunk, abusive in every way.
I don’t hold all of it against him. He suffered from at least some combination of these, all untreated: alcoholism, narcissistic personality disorder, ADHD and/or manic depression, post-traumatic stress disorder from World War II, and multiple concussions. God bless the shrink today who would have to deal with that differential diagnosis.
His brain was sclerotic from the alcohol and maybe from bipolar’s kindling effect, and his thinking had grown rigid over the years. Nevertheless, he had the phenomenal memory that ran in his family and that was as legendary in the local bars as his physical strength. He could recite historical names and dates, or your telephone number. At 73, he was still building docks and boathouses, singlehandedly hoisting pressure-treated beams, and competing in triathlons despite his vices.
He was also hilarious, thanks to the kind of reverse empathy the sociopathic and utterly despairing can deploy.
He and I shared an abiding interest in history and a passion for Crazy Horse, psychopathic dictators, European-theater World-War II machinations, and the Revolutionary War. I owe my retention capabilities, my critical thinking skills, and my doggedness to him. If I was never successful at connecting with him, I can hardly regret where the quest has taken me.
We didn’t talk often, because I didn’t often have several hours in which to converse about history and politics over the phone. But one day around 12 years ago I had LASIK surgery. I was sent home and told not to open my eyes for a day or so except to go to the bathroom.
Okay, I thought. Why don’t I catch up on my phone calls?
I called up my father and talked to him for around three hours. History. Politics. But also some personal stuff. He’d been working on his issues, or so he said.
He said, “I think I’m finally able to love.” He said that he recognized that for his entire life, he’d been incapable of loving others.
He didn’t come right out and name narcissistic personality disorder, but isn’t that what not being able to love anyone is? One of the defining aspects of the disorder is that someone who has it almost never can have the insight that they have it. For all I know it was his latest con, or self-con. But I think he really hoped.
Five days later, his heart failed.
Coincidentally, this death occurred at a place that was at the center of our childhood summers. He just happened to be working there. And my brother happened be nearby and heard that someone needed help. He rushed to the scene, not knowing that it was our father.
To be sure, heart disease and strokes run in my father’s family, and given the way he abused his body, it’s probably amazing that he made it to age 73. Still, the metaphors are pretty darn glaring.
Despite the overwhelming nature of the heart attack, my father fought it hard. His coworker saw his paroxysms and ran for help, leaving him lying on one end of a very long dock. When he returned with a police officer, my father had reached the other end, climbed up a ramp, and was in the parking lot, where he was having more convulsions.
Maybe this is just what the body does when it dies, and there was nothing conscious about his struggle. Some people said, At least it was quick. But would you want it to be quick? Would you want to be overtaken by death, without a chance to say goodbye, clear things up, offer your thanks?
I think that’s part of my “night terrors” thing. I had a pulmonary embolism in 2004. For about a year afterwards I’d wake in the night grappling with the immediacy of death. Statistically it’s likely that another clot is how I’ll go. And I would think: please, no. I want to know in advance, a little. Not to linger, not to suffer. But to have a chance to make my peace, express my gratitude, say what needs to be said.
In Who Dies?, Stephen Levine suggests that we all, at the very least, try to become comfortable enough with the idea of death to ensure that our last words/thoughts are not OH SHIT.
For all the warnings and signs I’ve had, I’m not sure I’m there.
You could say he died of a full heart.
It burst with the overturned blue
of the lake beneath the tree-limned
sky. His last meal: hot dog, onions,
Pepsi, thou shalt eat ice cream and chips
in memory of Me. He munched
in the new truck above the harbor
of our childhood, those years of blue-lipped
lessons in heaving, leaf-murked water.
Somewhere there is a steamer sunk
too deep for anyone to find.
The waves tugged the ice-mangled dock.
He was about to fix everything,
he had the wet suit on, the muscles
in his back good and strong.
At seventy-three, the muscles
still so impossibly strong.
Ironman, Olympian, no one
rises up in a massive attack
of the heart. Though you tried.
You staggered and you crawled.
Is it fullness, or emptiness,
if a father says, five days before his death,
finally he is ready to love?
You could say his heart was full
of never having been ready to love.
You could say it was cholesterol,
There are so many ways to love a father.
Seven years old: ski black diamonds, never
letting him out of your sight; eleven:
sneak gulps of his manhattan; thirty-seven:
come upon the scene too late, the giant
purpling before your eyes.
Leave one rose floating near
the far, deep end of the tilted pier,
artery-colored in the lungless lake.
Lonely, beautiful, begging for rescue
from the tourists ever coming to this place,
this harbor of learning to swim.
Originally published in Vermont Literary Review Summer/Fall 2008.