It’s been 26 days since my dad died. It’s been 26 days of waking up every day hoping that losing him has all been just a bad nightmare, and thank goodness, I can call him now and hear him say, “How’s life in the frozen tundra today?”
But I can’t. He’s gone. And it hurts. Like a primal, raw, curl into the fetal position at night, dry sobbing pain. Only worse. A complete, ugly, want-to-vomit, overwhelming feeling of drowning in emptiness.
He was 74.
He had his first heart attack at 45, and we almost lost him then. But thanks to modern medicine and his strong will, he’d made it almost another 30 years. (After that bypass surgery back then, he quit smoking cold turkey and never looked back. I can’t even stop drinking Dr Pepper.) But if I hear one more person tell me how happy I should be that we had him in our lives for way more than doctors had ever predicted, I may punch them in throat. Twice. Three times. Maybe more.
Because you know what? I wanted 20 more years.
I know I’m in the anger stage of grief right now. You should probably stop reading right now if you don’t want to witness that.
Even though I’m smart enough to know that it does no good, I want to blame the hospital in San Antonio. If only he hadn’t gotten pneumonia or MRSA. After all, they knew he was at risk for both. If only they’d had better technology and infection prevention practices. If only the nurses hadn’t been so understaffed, someone might have been on top of his status, and stopped it, reversed it. Maybe if that one nurse had alerted the doctor on call just a few hours faster.
I want to blame his surgeon. What the hell happened during his procedure? He was never the same. Why did you go on home and relax for the evening when my dad was suffering and in pain? Where the hell were you?
I want to blame his cardiologist. Why didn’t you act sooner to replace my dad’s pacemaker? Why did you let him get so weak? Why didn’t you DO SOMETHING?
I want to blame the doctor treating his Laryngopharyngeal Reflux Disease. He told you he was getting weaker and weaker. He told you he needed help. You said you’d cure him. You didn’t. You lied.
I know doctors make mistakes. But why weren’t doctors working harder to save his life? Why didn’t just one of those doctors who are now sending their effing bills care enough to figure out how to help him live this time? He’d had some close calls, sure. But even they were all “surprised at his rapid decline.” Paying bills, taking work calls, and making jokes one day. Then a few days later, gone.
I know he’s just a statistic to them. A readmission. A hospital-acquired infection. A never event. A blip on their mortality radar screen.
But he was my father, dammit. And I wanted more. I wanted them to do more.
More, more more more more.
I wanted my son, who worshipped his grandfather (hat and boots and all), to have more time to soak up his rancher/teacher hybrid values and quick wit. For my son to not to have to cry when he reads Hank the Cowdog books now, because Pa was the one who always bought those for him.
I wanted more time to ask him questions. To get his advice. To hear his laugh. To talk football or weather with him. To hear stories of his father and mother and grandparents. College stories. Army stories. Stories about the land he grew up on and tended.
I wanted to hear him say he was proud of me.
I wanted him to be at home when he died, with his dogs near him. Not in some sterile, cold, stupid, dumb medical facility.
I wanted. Anything. Everything.
Oh, I know. I’m not the first person to go through this. I know, I know, I know. And it’s not like I lost a child, right? Or lost him in a tragic, horrible, accident or crime. It was just the circle of life. It happens. We move on.
You know what I say to that? (I probably shouldn’t write that here.) Just suffice it to say that none of that helps right now. It just doesn’t.
And I do appreciate all the well-meaning friends who tell me it gets better. I really do. That the memories will sustain me.
But right now, I don’t want the damn memories. I. Don’t. Want. Them.
I want him. I want our anchor. I want the sturdiness that his simple presence brought to the world.
I want him back, so he can continue to help veterans and their families in his job as a veterans services officer for the county.
I want him back so he can help my mom remember things she needs to remember, but sometimes can’t.
I want him back so his old dog, Jodie, doesn’t look like she’s lost her best friend.
I want him back to help me figure out why the hell my tomatoes won’t grow.
I want him back to figure out what kind of ants these are that are likely moving my home off its very foundation.
I want him back to laugh at the stories I tell about my kiddo and what crazy smart thing he’s done today.
I want him back by Aggie football season. I want him back by Thanksgiving. By Christmas.
Because all of those things seem pointless without him.
He would likely hate this, by the way … what I’m writing. He’d say “That’s the way it goes, kid. You win some, you lose some.” He’d expect me to push through it all, pull myself up by those stupid imaginary ducking bootstraps.
Other well-meaning people also tell me that he’ll always be with me. I do appreciate the sentiment. But remember, I’m angry. And I don’t think so. I mean, this was my dad. Everything was black and white to him. He wouldn’t be one to hang around. He’s already gotten the job done here.
And then there’s that whole heaven thing. I wish I believed in it, I do. I wish I could say for sure that he’s now happier than ever before. He’s back with his parents, his good dogs, his horses, his friends who passed away before him. Sunshine and tequila and unicorns. It all sounds nice. But honestly? It also just sounds like a good story. And no, I don’t want a lecture on Christianity right now, either.
I had to write his obituary, you know. In like 12 hours, to meet the small-town newspaper weekend deadline. (You can read it here, if you want.) I’d have rather written my own.
I don’t like what I wrote now. It’s not enough. It’s too ordinary. It doesn’t capture all that he was. It told the story of a really good man who touched a lot of lives in a small town, but it didn’t tell you so many of the more important things.
It didn’t tell you that he loved peanuts. And a good steak. And any kind of pie my mom makes. That we argued about politics and gun control and gay marriage. That he voted for Ross Perot and I never let him live that down. That he said “I love you” at the end of every phone call, even when he was dying. That he expected straight As from us kids and grandkids. Expected it. That he used to drink Evan Williams whiskey while playing dominoes or sitting in his recliner, holding court. That he used to play volleyball with his Pearl beer cap on backwards, while holding said beer. That he loved Big Bang Theory and Simon & Simon. That his barbecue was legendary. That he would take off work when I came home to visit. That he would take my kid fishing in 100-degree heat, even when he felt like warmed-over cowshit. That he had a party van in the 70s complete with a rocking 8-track stereo and swivel chairs in back. That he could hug and love on a dog all day, but he wasn’t a hugger when it came to humans. That he could get mean when he was working cattle. That he was never sadder than the day he sold them all. That his own father died when he was just 16. That he left a to-do list for my mom titled, “After My Death,” to make sure she got what was coming to her from life insurance, retirement, the Army, etc. That he really and truly loved teaching science, until too-many rules and tests changed how he had to teach. That he had the patience to help my son build a birdhouse at age 7, but got far too impatient with me when I was trying to learn how to mow the yard when I was 9. That he introduced me to Larry McMurtry books. That I never heard him use the F word. That he hated asking for help of any kind. That using a cane was hard on his ego. That he had a way of looking at you that could make you laugh out loud. That he liked Merle more than Waylon and Waylon more than Willie. That he always shined his boots before going dancing at the VFW or KC hall. That he loved to swim when he was younger. That he smelled good when he taught us girls to two-step. That he could grow anything from seed. That he was stubborn. So stubborn. Unbelievably stubborn.
I’ve read all the research, by the way.
One day, they say, I’ll wake up and I won’t be so angry.
And I really do hope they are right.
Because I just heard my son repeat one of my dad’s favorite phrases while watching/playing video-game football on Madden 25 (“Looks like there’s some extracurricular activity going on out there”) and now I’m in the back bedroom. In the near-fetal position.
Writing through my fury.
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