Tuesday, February 3, 2009

My Father's Parting Gift

I inherited my father’s temperament, which is to say I don’t wait well in lines, don’t suffer fools gladly and don’t like to be told what to do.

But as my father grew older, I found his behavior increasingly unattractive and worked hard to get my own temper under control. I centered myself with a combination of prayer, music and the occasional glass of whatever had been fermented for my drinking pleasure.

As his health grew worse, I was well-prepared to understand that his death would be the normal progression of things. He would get sick and he would die and we would miss him and life would go on.

All of this eventually happened, but not in the way I envisioned. Plagued by heart trouble since the age of 48, he would, I surely thought, have a final heart attack and die. But just as in his own life, nothing ever went quite as planned.

Instead, he caught a cold. The cold turned into pneumonia. The pneumonia turned life-threatening, and he needed to be hospitalized so he could be on a respirator. For reasons that are unclear to me this day, his doctor, sedating this frail little 73-year-old man, put him too far under, sending him into a coma from which he could not be aroused.

A day went by. Then two. Then my mother called and told me to come home but things were looking grim. I got on a plane and was there quickly, and when I saw him, I knew he would never wake up again. The doctors knew it too, but because he showed some brain activity, they couldn’t just turn off his respirator because there was no advanced directive for health care.

And so we waited. Day after day, we sat by his bedside—first my mother, then my sister, then I. It finally became clear to me that I needed to do something—anything—besides hector the doctors so I decided to plan his funeral. I called the funeral home and started putting things in place, but there was one piece of documentation I couldn’t find: his naval discharge papers.

When I asked my mother, she looked blank and said she thought they were in the safe deposit box.

Easy enough. I was listed on the box and would have no trouble gaining access. If only she remembered where she put the key. She didn’t, and I had no idea where it might be. So I marched down to the bank to ask them to drill through the box. It was at that moment that I knew my father’s legacy to me may have been prayed and sung and drunk into submission but that this was but temporary.

I approached the teller, a doe-eyed young woman whose name was Tiffany and Heather or Bambi or one of those unfortunate names that followed doe eyes into the business world where they either wanted to be taken seriously or taken away, somehow, whether by a handsome, rich prince or a pharmaceutical.

This Tiffany or Heather or Bambi clearly fell into the latter group. I approached her and told her that I needed to get in the safe deposit box but that I did not have the key. She sighed. “It will cost you $50 to have it drilled through.” I was fine with that, I told her. “We’ll have to call someone to come and do it. It will take three days.” I was fine with that too, I told her. She sighed deeply and tsked slightly. She asked who were the signatories. My mother, my father and me, I replied. “Don’t they know where the key is?” she asked with a slight whine in her voice. “My mother can’t find it,” I said, tipping toward that line that I didn’t want to cross. I waited a beat, hoping T or H or B would close out our proceedings.

But she didn’t. “Why,” she said with that slight whine, “don’t you just ask your father?” All the rage—the rage at him for getting sick, the rage at the doctors for making a mistake that now held all of us hostage, the rage at myself for not being failing to fix any of it—came boiling over.
T or H or B never knew what hit her. “You idiot!” I screamed. “Don’t you think I’d ask him if I could? My father is in a coma. In the hospital. And I need to get into that box so I can plan his funeral. So if it’s not too much much trouble, how about you call the locksmith and get that box open for me?”

All of this, of course, was punctuated with profanity--any noun that could be modified, any verb that could be intensified.

Life in the bank stopped. People stared. Mothers with their children turned away. Tellers froze. Tears welled up in T or H or B’s eyes. I didn't care. I turned, shouting over my shoulder as I left, “I’ll back at 3 on Friday. Have the box ready.” I slammed out of the bank.

I got in the car and sat, shaking and purple with rage. I peeled out of the bank and drove home, setting a land speed record for the short trip.

Throwing the car in park, I grabbed the keys and opened the front door, where my mother greeted me. She was smiling for the first time in days.

“Guess what?” she said. “I found the key to the safe deposit box.”

I was stunned. And now I faced this terrible choice: Would I wait the three days, spend the money and get the box opened that way? Or would I crawl back and say how sorry I was?
In the end, practicality won out, and I crawled back, apologizing. I don't remember now what H or T or B said to me—indeed, even if she was in the bank when I returned.

Looking back, I now believe, maybe because it's easier or maybe because I want to, that he didn't like that part of himself either. But in any case, it was his parting gift to me. I am better for it. I think the world may be too.