I’m a strong, independent, outspoken woman today because of—and despite—the lessons I learned from my old-fashioned father.
I’m 34 years old and no one has ever just walked up to me and said “Hey, did you go visit your dad on Father’s day?” until June 16, the day after Father’s day this year.
I was at the grocery store shopping for pudding, applesauce, and various other soft foods I was allowed to eat while recovering from oral surgery. A man with sweet eyes and a warm face was stocking produce. I was looking at bananas and thinking about the experience of having to eat like a baby, with my food mashed and soft. The prospect of doing that much longer felt depressing because I love to cook and consider myself a bit of a foodie.
After saying hello and asking how I was, the stocker turned to me and asked me. “So did you go see your dad on Father’s Day?” His question took the air out of my lungs. I could tell by the look on his face that the look on my face must not have been good.
When I was able to catch my breath I said it, out loud, to someone I don’t know, for the first time since the funeral. “My father passed away last August.”
He immediately looked uncomfortable. The look on his face was the ever classic “Of all the people I have to strike up a conversation with…” look. I just turned and wandered away from the produce section. I heard him mutter, “I’m sorry” as I walked off without my bananas. And I said “It’s OK” to no one in particular and noticed a few people looking at me strangely.
I didn’t realize how difficult Father’s Day this year would be. No one told me that holidays my family never made a big deal out of would be so hard. Usually Father’s Day consisted of my dad barbecuing and drinking beer. But it was never one of those “wake up early and secretly make him breakfast in bed, then present him with perfectly wrapped gifts that turned out to be what he always wanted” kind of days.
In my mind, all I had to do this year was survive it. And I thought I had. I had it under my belt only to go to the grocery store the next day and have a total stranger show me that, although I might have put it under my belt, I was wearing emperor’s clothes with that belt. Not comfortable emotional clothing for the grocery store, may I just say.
I have cried many times, most often in the middle of the night, but sometimes in the shower because that’s where I have the most privacy in our house. I have felt the tears well up in public and fought them off so as not to have to explain. I’ll cough and say “allergies” if someone looks at me funny. A song will come on at work and I’ll sit at my desk and cry, hoping no one has a question for me in that exact moment. For the most part, I’ve lucked out.
I’ve been surprised at how long it’s taken to keep my composure about certain memories. I decided that the fateful grocery store trip had to be a signal from the Universe that it was time to talk about him, and how he left this earth.
I still relive the moment that I walked into his hospital room after not seeing him for months. He had lost a lot of weight. His hair was falling out. His eyes were yellow from jaundice. It was a shock to to see a man I had always seen as strong and unbreakable this way. It was just him and me in the room and I wanted to run away and embrace the feelings of not being strong enough to handle this.
I knew what I had to do, even though I was scared to because it meant facing reality: Just sit with him.
We talked about my daughter, my marriage. He asked me to read through a small mortgage insurance policy he had purchased to make sure he was covered. And he told me that one doc had told him that there might be some treatment they could perform to treat the cancer that I could tell just from looking at him was already too far gone.
I desperately wanted to believe that doctor, though. I could hear in his voice that he desperately wanted to believe it too. That it wasn’t too late for him. But every time I looked at him, I knew it was not true. So I read through his policy, explained where there might be issues. I talked to the hospital social worker to make sure his hospital stay would be covered under charity care. And after as much of the family as we could fit into the room gathered around him, we received the news from the doctor; he had only a few weeks to live.
The words the doctor used to explain exactly what would happen, how it would happen, burn in my brain. I cannot repeat them. I hugged him and looked him straight in the eyes and asked him to tell me what it is that he wanted us to do for him—funerals and cremations were not things we ever talked about. Everyone around me was crying. And then I spoke to a hospice nurse and made arrangements for charity hospice care.
I drove my dad from the hospital back to our family home, where he would breathe his final breath. I received the detailed instructions from the hospice nurse about the morphine and the other medications that he would be given in liquid form. I had my husband bring my daughter so that she could say goodbye to grandpa. And then, knowing my daughter had to start kindergarten on Tuesday, just five days away, I left.
I wasn’t there when he died. It was much sooner than the doctors said. Instead of a few weeks, he only had a few days left once he was home. My daughter and I attended the funeral the day before her first day of kindergarten.
When he was alive, my dad and I seemed to communicate in extremes. As I grew up and prepared to leave home, I rebelled against my parents. What teenager doesn’t? But my dad in particular seemed to raise those rebellious feelings in me. He was old-fashioned. He didn’t like it when I got tattoos or piercings. He didn’t like it when I cursed. My dad once told me that he was so sure I wouldn’t make it through my first year of college he had placed a bet on it.
Then, as I got older, he showed up for my graduation. He told me that he was proud of me. He supported me in leaving a very bad marriage, even though he didn’t exactly seem to believe in divorce. But in those moments alone with him at the hospital, I was his daughter, his child. A child thinks her dad can slay any dragon. Even cancer. Even death.
I miss him. I miss the way he always barbecued his chicken a little on the overdone side because I loved the little crispy parts. I miss his oil-stained hardworking hands. The hands of a man who had been a mechanic all his life; it was the way he kept a roof over the heads of his seven children. And I miss the way he would mumble begrudgingly that he loved me, because I finally figured out that when he bothered to actually say it, he meant it more than I could ever have known.
I wish I had gotten the chance to thank him. Because I would not be the outspoken, independent, strong woman I am today if he hadn’t tried to teach me to be a subservient young lady, and if there weren’t enough of him in me to know when to rebel.
Maria Peña is a mother and feminist working in higher education. She serves students with disabilities, is an academic advisor, and participates in campus sexual assault intervention efforts. She has worked in public health, maternal and child health and in the movement to end domestic and sexual violence, which she continues to be involved in currently as a member of a statewide committee to prevent sexual violence in Texas. Maria enjoys writing poetry and prose in her spare time, reading, and spoiling her rescued Great Dane, Mina.