This year's topic is: "When did you first understand the meaning of love?"
I immediately thought of the story of my dad, comforting me, as I sat beside him in those days before he passed away.
I submitted my essay, but not because I think I will win or even be a runner up - they make it pretty clear they like essays that aren't about cliché topics, which mine totally is. I submitted it because when I saw the essay question I knew I had to write what I had to write; and it has been festering inside of me desperately needing to get out ever since. I can't claim it is good writing, I can only claim it is true.
In honor of Father's Day, I think it is only appropriate to post it here too.
Real Simple Life Lessons Essay Contest – “When did you first understand the meaning of love?”
by Coasting anon
The room was quiet except for the humming of the oxygen machine. My mother had taken my five month old son, out into the hallway so I could have some time alone with my dad. We’d had a great visit. Dad seemed lucid and talkative and in good spirits. It made me wonder why I was even there. Two days prior, my mom had called to tell me that dad’s health had turned for the worse and that it was time for me to come to Pennsylvania to be with him. I was starting to think it was really just a false alarm.
Dad was a great, big man with a heart to match. He was born at the height of the Great Depression in Brooklyn, NY to immigrant parents. He learned early on to work and work hard. But somewhere along the way, he learned to love fiercely and wholeheartedly. When my parents met in a San Jose poetry bar in the sixties, it was his never-failing love for my mother that crossed boundaries and opened the door for him – an older Jewish man who never graduated high school – to marry into a well off, Protestant family.
My father worked hard to rise up to the standards of his new family and provide for my mother and eventually my sister and I. He spent years toiling in hot, non-air-conditioned delivery trucks delivering meats to local restaurants; learning the nuances of the restaurant trade along the way. Eventually, when I was in fourth grade, he summoned up the courage, and enough investment money, to start his own restaurant. The work was as grueling and stressful and all consuming as it was gratifying and validating.
I am one of the lucky ones. There has never been any doubt in my mind how much my father loved my sister and I. He made it adamantly clear. Unfortunately for him, it was rarely appreciated while we were growing up. Many times his devotion to us was expressed by his fear in letting us go off and do our various teenager activities. My mom combated that by skillfully waiting to tell him we were on the youth group ski trips until after we had already boarded the bus. But most often, he expressed his love toward us openly and honestly. A declaration here or there, most often at the most embarrassing times for a teenager, that he and my mom loved us and would always support us and be there for us and how proud they were of us. It was nauseating; enough so that at one point, my sister declared he no longer had to say the whole thing, rather he could just say, “Cliché #1” and we would automatically know what that meant.
Through the years, he watched his daughters grow and mature and eventually move off to college and become their own persons. Through all of it, he always made it so very clear to us how proud he was of us. Eventually, as we started our careers and moved about the country we started to truly understand how special it was to grow up never doubting how loved we were; not that we ever stopped teasing him about it.
Life continued on for all of us and the classic events that are a part of most everyone’s lives filled our years; engagements, marriages, births, career successes, divorce, retirements, deaths. Through all of it, my father’s unfailing love for us shined like a beacon guiding us home.
My son was only a month old when my dad went in for scheduled knee surgery. The surgery went well; everything was routine. But the next day, his lungs failed him and he went into cardiac arrest. Over the next few months, his health would get markedly better and he would be transferred to a lower care facility where his health would spiral downward until the insurance company would finally agree to send him back to the higher care facility where he would rebound. It was a vicious circle and as he continued to spiral, his health continued to suffer.
And so it was that when my son was five months old, I found myself sitting with my dad in his nursing home room in the company of only the drone of the oxygen machine as I held his hand and prepared to say goodbye.
We’ve all seen this moment on TV or in a movie. A grieving family member is given a chance to say goodbye to a dying loved one and prophetic words of love and wisdom are shared over the swells of emotional music. But there was no music in the nursing home room - and I didn’t know what to say. This was a man that I loved dearly – no matter how much I protested that from my teenage years through my twenties. This was a man who loved me fiercely – no matter how many times from toddlerhood to adulthood I tested that love.
So there we were, together in silence. I held his hand as I sat beside him at the bed. There were so many things to say; too many – and yet nothing important enough for this moment. All I could do was fail at holding back my tears, bow my head down next to him and liberally sob, “Oh, dad.”
Dad placed his large, heavy hand on my head and whispered, “It’s ok. It’s ok.”
Dad died on Wednesday, December 15, 2009. Nine days prior to his 76th birthday. Four months after the knee surgery that was supposed to enhance his life. Five months after his second grandson, who looks a lot like him, was born.
As I’ve watched my son grow and learn and become a toddler over the last two years, I have started to understand the great love that my father had for my sister and I. It was more than keeping us safe from harm, more than being proud of our accomplishments, more than working tirelessly to provide for us. I look at my son and I think that I could never bear to see his heart broken; I wonder how I can possibly make that happen and I know that I can’t. I think of my father, as he lay on his death bed. I think about how scared he might have been and yet to the end, he was still comforting, loving, fathering me. I think about how he must have felt, knowing he was about to be the one to break my heart, and I realize the true meaning of love.