Taking Care of the Strongest Man I Ever Knew

My father asked me, “How long does it take?”

I felt all the sound, light, air — everything — leave the room; only the weight of those words remained. I was standing at the side of his bed, lightly stroking his forehead. Mom was exhausted, slumped in a chair in a dark corner. He was dying and wanted to know when it would be over. He had seen so much life and death on the farm — animal life and death — for 40 years, he knew when death was near and he was ready for it. But for him to ask me… that took me a minute. I was the youngest and a girl. You didn’t reveal this kind of vulnerability to your youngest daughter.

Four months earlier, I’d come home for a visit and it had been clear to me: Dad was not going to make it. It was upsetting to see him so much thinner and weaker than just a month ago. It was before the dialysis. Before the hospitalization. That January afternoon, he sat in the back room in his fake leather reclining chair next to the big picture window. He wasn’t the thick-muscled, cheerful, red-cheeked farmer I expected to see; he was a thin, frail, sunken man. It was such a shock, I welled up instantly. Before I could disguise my tears, he saw me and said, “It’s nice to have someone cry over me.” Although it was a poignant moment, I felt a fierce, protective rush. What was happening here? Was everyone pretending he was going to be okay?

The next day, a good friend of Dad’s came to take him for a ride. Doug had one of those over-sized, huge-wheeled pickups with a steel step to give a boost up. Dad had done hard physical work his entire life — he stacked hay bales, put cows in their stanchions, hauled firewood, fixed fences, fixed tractors, and twice a day carried and lifted dozens of 70-lbs milk pails without spilling a drop. He was strong and undaunted by challenges, but this day, Doug and I had to lift him into the pickup. Dad, always one to joke around with his friends, said, “Why’d you buy something nobody can get into?” Even so, I felt my father surrender to our help and thought I saw embarrassment on his face. It made me feel sick to see his loss of pride when he’d been so physically strong and independent.

Before I could disguise my tears, he saw me and said, “It’s nice to have someone cry over me.”

Dad had been a farmer for 40 years and a school bus driver for 35. He fit the bus runs in around the milking. His routine: up at 5 a.m., first milking, breakfast, bus run, farm chores, second bus run, “supper” at 5 p.m., second milking, and in bed by 11 p.m. For 35 years. Although a grueling schedule, it wasn’t all drudgery, at least not from my perspective. From eight to 18, I helped “with chores” every night. We all did, Lee, Ann, and I, but I was the youngest by six years so there was a stretch of time — age 12 through high school — when it was just Dad and me. With my older siblings gone, I wanted to prove to my father that I was fully capable farm help, despite being the youngest and a girl. There was an old, dirty radio on an overhead shelf that we listened to while we worked. I’d clean out water troughs; feed the cows, horses, cats and dog; throw hay bales down from the mow; sweep floors and clean gutters. Near the end of the milking, Dad would say teasingly, “You can’t go in until your chores are done.” I would groan, and he’d give me something else to do. This nightly routine of work and playfulness connected us.

Every summer while Lee and Ann were still at home, the family would take a two-week vacation towing a tent camper. We’d drive from New York to Colorado or New Mexico or Vermont – lots of driving – and use the campground guides to rule out any place that didn’t have swimming. Dad kept the swimsuits right inside the camper door so we could immediately go for a swim when we arrived. He always swam with us, and we loved that. On the long drives, we’d listen to 8-track tapes. Dad liked Johnny Cash, Earl Scruggs and Janis Joplin(!). Ann and I knew all the words to “Me and Bobby McGee.” To hear a nine-year-old and 15-year-old belt out a bluesy duet always got a good reaction. Lee would try to read and ignore his little sisters, and Mom would usually be chattering to Dad about where we should stop for the lunch she’d packed. Between bus driving and vacations, Dad did a lot of driving — in all kinds of hazardous conditions — and liked it.

By my next visit home, it was late-February. Dad’s kidneys had failed, and he was getting dialysis treatments twice a week. Mom, Lee and Ann were doing the driving these days. A few weeks later, Dad was in the hospital. A grief counselor had met with us. Mom, me, Lee, Ann and their spouses had been taking turns staying with Dad.

It was an evening when just Mom and I were in the room when he asked me that pivotal question: How long does it take? In that moment, I felt our relationship expand and my understanding deepen. During the eight months I had witnessed my father dying, the child-parent roles had reversed. On the verge of death, I saw my father as a man — with fears, aspirations, regrets — and not just as my father. Maybe for the first time, I had some understanding of the person he was.

The grief counselor had said one of the kindest things you can do for a dying loved one is give him permission to go. I had no answer to my father’s question, other than to tell him it was okay to leave us. I said, “Mom and I will be okay. You go when you’re ready. We love you.” My father died the next day.

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Originally published September 1, 2020

(Image: Isabella Giancarlo)

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