A few weeks ago, I took my dad to the hospital for brain surgery. It was considered “elective surgery” (yes, there’s such a thing as elective brain surgery…who knew?), so it was an oddly bureaucratic check-in process. We had to meet with a few clerks before he was assigned a room.
The final clerk yawned her way through my dad’s paperwork, refusing to make eye contact with us. That is until my dad exclaimed: “I don’t want to be resuscitated! Do! Not! Resuscitate!”
He said this in so merry a manner that the clerk stared at me agog. “Is he joking?” she asked.
“No,” I sighed wearily. “He wants to die. In fact, if you have a gun, feel free to pull it out and shoot him.” My dad nodded enthusiastically in agreement.
“Ummmm,” she said carefully, “I’m not authorized to do that.”
“Well, there’s still hope that I won’t make it through the surgery,” my dad said, patting my knee in solace.
My dad was diagnosed with brain cancer about eight months ago. He has been wistfully planning for his death ever since. My dad, who has always put responsibility and loyalty to his family above his personal happiness, wants to wrap the end of his life in a neat bow so my brother and I won’t have to tidy any lingering mess from his 84 years on Earth.
My mom, who died of cancer a year and a half ago, was just the opposite. She made a lot of noise in life, and she had no intention of leaving it quietly. She was a demanding, pain-in-the-ass until the end, and in many ways, that was easier to deal with than my dad’s stubborn refusal to inconvenience me. It leaves me forever guessing what I can do to help him through this final transition.
My mom once told me that there’s a peahen and a peacock in every relationship. The peacock is the flamboyant center-of-attention that is slavishly attended to by the unappreciated peahen. In their 50-year marriage, my mom was the peacock. She was a brilliant, glorious, maddening attention-suck who we alternately worshiped and feared. My dad, by contrast, was loving, dependable and ever-present.
When I was terrified to be left alone at nursery school, he was the one who sat in the back of the classroom until I felt confident to be on my own. At Indian Princess campouts (a dad-daughter version of Girl Scouts), when the other dads would sneak off to a backwoods strip club, my dad volunteered to stay with us girls in the cabin. He insisted on driving me to my first job in northern Minnesota, and couldn’t hug me when he left because he didn’t want me to see him bawling. He got my brother and me out of countless jams; taught me to love red sauce and Sinatra; and slipped me tens of thousands of dollars when my mother wasn’t looking.
He has only one negative trait: the inability to accept help from loved ones. I want to feed him, comfort him, love him. But he refuses my offers because he doesn’t know how to take—only to give.
As we were waiting for the paperwork at the hospital, I heard a song start over the loudspeaker. It was an instrumental version of “Edelweiss.” When we were in Indian Princesses (he was Crazy Horse and I was Silly Filly), he wrote a theme song for our troop to the tune of “Edelweiss.” Over the years, he’d sing it to me whenever I was sick or feeling blue. It always made me feel better.
I glanced at him and saw him smile as he recognized the tune. Then, quietly, I sang the lyrics he wrote to the song, and he listened. Finally, he let me give him something and it made us both feel better.