Always Your Daughter
An editor honors her father, and the memory of all fathers who live on in the hearts of readers on Father's Day.
Editor's Note: Fort Lee native Ann Piccirillo is currently the editor of New Milford Patch.
If I had known that what he was about to tell me would be the last words my father would ever speak to me, I might have said something powerful in return. But having lived three years with the fact that my father was dying did nothing to prepare me for the moment of his death.
“I will never leave you,” he said as his hand reached out to hold mine from between the solemn void of the hospital bed rail.
“You are always my daughter. In your hardest moments and your happiest hours, I will always be with you. You will never be alone.”
And then he was gone. As quietly and magically as he had appeared in my life 20 years earlier, so quietly and magically the slow drip of morphine slid him out, leaving me with those words to guide and carry me into my fatherless future.
I was a freshman in college when I walked into my family’s living room and found my father gripping a red handkerchief to his mouth, coughing violently, his body wracked with spasms as he gasped for breath. The paramedics were called and came, but it wasn’t until my father’s suddenly frail-looking body was strapped onto the stretcher that I realized the handkerchief he had been clutching to his lips had been dyed red from the clots of blood torn from his lungs with every savage cough.
My father was expected to die that day, but his heart would not comply. As I sat beside him in the ICU late into the evening, I felt the comfort of a young child as he took my hand and held it tightly within his own warm familiar grip.
“I love you,” he said softly, his breathing still labored, but his eyes holding mine in a firm embrace. It was the first time I remembered hearing those words come out of his mouth. Not because his love for me was ever in question. No, just because words like that did not come easily to the reticent men of his generation.
“I love you too, Daddy,” I told him, because I did. So much, in fact, that I knew that I could not leave him there all alone in the cold discomforting glare of the ICU’s fluorescent lights. But the nurses told me I had to let him rest – one lung was not functioning at all, the other was severely scarred, and the recently discovered heart murmur that he had been born with had done its final damage. Operating was no longer an option, which made a transplant also out of the question. I backed out of his glass-encased room, moving slowly, my eyes refusing to leave his. I was afraid to look away because I was convinced that I would never see him alive again. I fell asleep that night in the hospital chapel praying to every saint, every statue, that he would live through the night.
He did live through the night, and through the following 1,092 days, though with more time spent being transported in ambulances to hospitals than at home. I was forced by the circumstance of my father’s illness to assume the role of his medical-confidante. I did not want that role, nor did my father want to cast me that way, but, well, there we were talking about his death through the thin veil of his life. Although he made me promise never to put him on life support, he didn’t know how to relinquish the fight for his life, and even though people kept telling me I had to let him go, I didn’t know how to do it either. I struggled everyday with this question: How do you say, without regret, without remorse, that it’s okay to let vanish that life that sparked your own?
During the worst moments of my father’s ordeal, I sometimes envied those children whose fathers were lost to heart attacks, car accidents, strokes, anything that happened quickly and carried a pain that did not drag endlessly on. Or so I thought at the time. I learned that the pain of death is just as devastating no matter how it comes about, and is never surmounted, easily or otherwise.
And I soon recognized that a sudden death would have deprived me of those long delicious days spent talking with my father, filling those sterile hospital rooms with wicked peals of laughter sparked by the vivid colors of his recollections.
During those long talks I learned that my father lived a fascinating and enviable life. For years before he married, he had traveled the world as a professional golf caddy; he fought in the Philippines and Japan during WWII and spoke of the horrors of the A-bomb; after the war he was a merchant marine whose stories brought to life the beauty of Cuba before Castro; he owned a pool hall that the all-mighty Monsignor of the local church made it his mission to close down; he owned a dry cleaning store that did little in the way of cleaning clothes, but was legendary for its high-stakes poker games; he organized countless unions and fought tirelessly for what he believed was right. In the quiet spaces between his pain, I learned all about the man I called my father. I listened without comment. For even then, at the nascent age of 20, I knew that his stories would infuse me with the courage to live my life as boldly and fearlessly as he had.
Once in the pre-dawn hours of an April morning, while on a rare visit home from the hospital, he was so thin and too weak to walk to the bathroom. So, as best as I could, I lifted him in my arms and carried him to reserve what little strength he had so that he could stand alone to pee like a man, because at that stage of his life (or, more aptly, at that stage of his slow death), standing on his own to pee was all that he had left of his dignity, and I was determined to preserve it.
As we made our way back to his bed, he was exhausted, out of breath, and in a great deal of pain, but he put all that aside to smile at me. “Thanks for the ride, Sis,” he said, “but next time I think I’ll take the bus. You’re a little bumpy.” And with that, the tension was broken by our uncontrollable laughter.
It was more important for him to make me laugh than to succumb to the failings of his own body. He redeemed that moment with laughter because he refused to have his daughter live with the memory of his weakness, and instead imparted to me his unquenchable strength.
Another time, while lying in his hospital bed, sustained only by a thin plastic tube of oxygen, his emerald green eyes grabbed hold of mine and he told me, “I can’t make this world a kinder place for you. But I showed you commitment and I gave you strength, and in that empty space between commitment and strength--that’s where you build your character.”
“Most importantly, know this--whatever happens, life can never break you, because you are my daughter. Rely on that and you will come to find that you are stronger than you know.” These words were spoken many years ago, but in times of my deepest sorrow I hear them like it was yesterday and through their resounding echo, I regain my strength, right my world, soldier on, and smile.
My father’s voice has been gone from this world for just over a quarter of a century. And yet, as one year follows another, I still find myself looking for him when my soul needs a soft place to land. In those moments when I need him most, when I just don’t want to be anybody’s wife or mother or caretaker or problem solver, when I just want to be his daughter, I follow his memory to the places that he loved most – the cliffs of the Palisades or the banks of the Hudson River, where every rustle of leaves and breath of salty air carries a trace of his memory.
Every Father’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day and on his birthday, I visit the cemetery where he rests and I pour a bottle of Irish whiskey upon his grave, to honor the man who gave me life, good humor and, most of all, the gift for knowing that no moment in life is ever truly ordinary.
I toast him to remind myself that I have a father who is with me every moment of every day. After all, I came into this world as his daughter – that relationship did not stop with the last beat of his heart. Nor will it stop with the last beat of mine. I am, always, his daughter.
To all my fatherless friends gathered with me on this page today, you are always his son, you are always his daughter. Our fathers may have departed this earth, but they will forever live deep within the quiet recesses of our hearts.
In the words of my dear old Irish dad, here’s a toast to your own departed father on this Father’s Day:
“May the roads rise to meet you, may the wind be always at your back, may the sun shine warm upon your face, the rain fall soft upon your fields, and until we meet again may there be a generous bartender waiting to serve all us heathens in heaven.”
Thomas Francis Meyers, I hardly knew ye.