On May 9, 2012, at roughly 11:30 pm, my father died.
I’ve had a couple of weeks to get used to the idea, so it doesn’t seem entirely surreal to see those words appear on the screen and yet…well, let’s just say I haven’t quite gotten comfortable with the notion of a world without Howard Limbacher in it.
It’s not like I haven’t had plenty of time to get my head around the idea that he was going to die at some point. The man was 94 years old, after all, and encumbered with apnea, respiratory affliction, diabetes, and high blood pressure. As a result of his circulatory issues, his legs were huge with edema, blistered and weeping fluid like a squeezed sponge as he tottered from place to place, held up by his walker and (I’ve come to realize) sheer will-power. He had bed sores, could not sleep laying down because he could not breathe in that position, was in constant pain from bad knees grinding bone against bone, and humiliated by incontinence. More than once, he spoke of his desire to die and the allure of suicide. (No one would have blamed him had he done it.) He worried about my mother, touched by dementia, and what would become of her if something were to happen to him. The last several years of his life were sustained by his determination to not leave her before he was forced to.
Dad was an intensely private individual even with family, so in many respects I didn’t know him at all. In fact, I’ve gained more insight into the man in the two weeks since his death than I ever had when he was alive, which makes me immensely sad. Details of his life were few, sketched in seemingly on whim or in an unguarded moment rather than by a desire to share his thoughts and feelings. Snapshots of his childhood show a slightly pudgy blond-haired angel of a boy who grew to love his involvement in 4-H. (One of his proudest moments was meeting Eleanor Roosevelt.) He dreamed of becoming a dairyman and owning a farm, but that dream died, a casualty of World War II and, perhaps, other things. He spoke fondly of a few relatives, beloved grandparents, aunts, and uncles he rarely saw. He was intensely proud of his time in the US Army and as a reservist.
We were not close. When I was very small, he seemed a shadowy character not quite present in our everyday life, being always busy either at his job in an Albany bindery (which he hated), or with duties around the house, or asleep in his chair before the television. When overtime was offered, we saw him even less. I was called a “Daddy’s Girl,” but I’m not sure what it really meant. I have a vague recollection of following him around, wanting to be with him and involved in what he was doing, but Dad wasn’t much inclined to include a child in his chores…or anything else for that matter. He taught me to play checkers and helped me build a wooden pot stand for my mother, but not much beyond that. The rare things we did together (fishing, bowling) were done because he wanted to do them. (His constant push for my own perfection in both sports eventually caused me to leave them behind forever.) He never read to me but once (forced into it by my mother when I asked and he refused), never played with me but once (a three-way game of baseball toss during which he threw only to my pal David but never to me, until I left the game in frustration), and never attended a single concert or play or any other school event in which I was involved.
It’s difficult to grow up under those conditions and not come away with the idea that your dad doesn’t much care for you.
He expressed resistance to my growing up — telling me to do so more than once, but not liking it when I moved in that direction. My first foray into lipstick was met with disgust and derision and a refusal to let me kiss him on the cheek. God knows what he thought on those few occasions when I was asked out on a date. When I strove for independence, he squashed me flat. He pried into my private journals and read my early stories without permission on the authority that it was his house and he could do as he liked. If I was in the middle of a television program he didn’t enjoy, he would haphazardly change the channel to something he wanted to view. If I was listening to music and he wanted to watch television, he summarily turned off the stereo. There was no sense of respect. It was Howie’s Way and no other and he bitterly resented anything that interfered with his plans.
What made him this way? I’ve no concrete ideas, only clues. Years ago, when I was living in Pittsburgh, he and my mother came to visit for a long weekend and he told me that his mother was very hard on him, playing the game I call “Kiss Me, Kick Me.” You know what I mean — love you one minute, destroy you the next. Back and forth it went — he was her little darling who didn’t measure up to his brothers, her golden boy who was stupid. (That particular lesson was so instilled in his heart that only a few days before he died he mentioned how stupid he was. That’s a word I hate above all others and it galls me to think he labored under it all these years, unable to break free.) He hinted at physical abuse as well as mental. Who knows what went on? But it left its mark, scars that never healed. It drove Dad inside himself to hide, showing his inner core not at all, only an unyielding exterior. He was hard on me, hard on us all, pushing away all attempts at affection. I was in my thirties before he ever said “I love you” to me (on the occasion of my divorce from my first husband). I near-about passed out from astonishment.
Yet something — someone — unexpected emerged in the three days before his death.
When the doctor called and told me to gather the family, that Dad was in respiratory failure, that this was it, my eldest sister and I looked at each other. “We’ve been expecting this for 20 years,” she said. “But I’m not ready.” I knew what she meant. Dad’s health had been bad for a long time. Often, he was so downright hateful to us that we longed for his passing. Now here it was, the stepping-off point, and we weren’t ready.
Our family has seen a lot of death, and some of us deal with it better than others. A great-grandson estranged from my father for the past year came to the hospital despite his fear and stood at the foot of his grandfather’s bed, tears streaming down his face, unable to move forward. I leaned toward my father. “Dad?” I said. “Luke’s here.”
Dad, already beginning the slide into the pipeline where the real work of dying occurs, opened his eyes. “Hi, Lukey.”
Luke moved to the side of the bed. “Hi, Grandpa.”
Dad’s eyes slid closed, but he smiled. “You’re a good guy, Luke.”
“You’re a good guy, too, Grandpa,” Luke choked out, having finally heard the words he needed to free his heart.
It went on in that way. Oh, par for the course, Dad interjected his share of jibes and jabs, some of them not altogether nice. Even as death approached, he couldn’t quite make an Ebenezer Scrooge sort of turn-around. But he held my mother’s hand and winked at her and they kissed like teenagers. He told us he was happy and pain-free, at peace and ready to go. He gave me his wedding ring to put on a chain for my mother (his wife of almost 62 years) to wear around her neck “So I will never leave her.” She leaned forward then and put a hand on his arm. “Is there any way I can go with you?” she asked with extreme sweetness.
There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Who was this guy?!
Dad slipped away in the wee hours of the night, alone, as I expect he wanted it. His funeral was simple, straight-forward, and to the point. No wake. No embalming. No flowers except what others sent. A plain pine box draped in an American flag. At the veteran’s cemetery in Schuylerville, NY they offered up a gun salute of three volleys, played “Taps,” and presented his flag to my mother. And my niece Ellery — all ten months of her — threw back her head, pursed her tiny lips, and howled like her beagle Gracie. It was a fitting tribute.
Now we move on, reconfiguring our lives around a missing piece that in some ways has always been missing. I’ve had some in-depth discussions with my mother about Dad since he died and it’s a funny thing — before dementia, she probably would have shrugged away his behavior and said (as she did many times), “Well, you know your father. That’s just how he is.” The conversation would have gone nowhere. Now, with her memories faded to sepia, it’s as if some introspective door has been allowed to open. She explained to me that, yes, he could be hard and, yes, he was private even with her — but it was a carapace to protect that soft center where that little boy still lived, wanting to reach out and be loved, and give love, and unable to do so. He was tough, she explained, to make us excel. Unfortunately, he never tempered that toughness with affection, and so it back-fired on him in many ways. setting us apart.
“But he loved you very much,” she told me. “He was so proud of you.”
I started to cry. “Why didn’t he ever say so?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess he couldn’t.”
And that, in the end, is where my real grief (and anger) comes from. It’s difficult to mourn a man I hardly knew; hard to come to terms with a father who, yes, gave of himself in sweat equity, but never said I was smart or pretty or that he was proud to be my dad. I mourn what we could have had…and never did. I mourn what was stolen from us, and the gulf that opened between us so long ago and could not be bridged, no matter how I tried, because he stood on the farther shore with his arms folded across his chest, afraid to reach out, afraid to trust even me.