He had the best sense of humor.
In the 25 days since my dad passed away, that is the one thing that everyone who knew my father tells me, after their condolences. “He was so hilarious!” “He had the best laugh!” “He was the funniest guy!”
And he really was.
Tall and proud, my dad was a big man with a thick head of wavy black hair, twinkling eyes, an infectious laugh, and these amazing chubby cheeks with the greatest dimples ever. To meet him was to like him instantly, since he was always so warm and accepting, and of course, a big joker.
My earliest memories of Daddy are ones filled with the innocent wonder that only the young possess. He was like a king to me, this perfect, big man who could swoop me up in a bear hug so big and strong, I wouldn’t be able to see through his embrace. He was so big and strong and powerful, that I just assumed he was my own personal jungle gym and swing set. A typical Daddy’s Girl, my favorite spots were usually on his lap or up on his shoulders, though getting “swings” from him when I was super little was always a favorite for me. (Sadly, he took a stand and told me “Swings” had to stop when I was seven because my legs had gotten too long and gangly, and I kept kicking him in the face on accident.)
Originally from El Salvador, my dad was a basketball star in his youth. He came to the U.S. on a student visa, and eventually became a resident, then a citizen. When he and my mom were newlyweds, he went to culinary school and also studied hotel & restaurant management, which eventually became his career. And he was GOOD at that. In the 1970′s he worked for Ray Marshall, a famous restaurateur at the time, and owner of the popular Acapulco/Los Arcos Mexican Restaurant chain. My dad was Mr. Marshall’s right hand man, and opened and supervised most of the locations across the nation.
Anyone who has worked in or is related to/married to someone in the restaurant business, especially if they’re the GM or a chef, knows that the hours are ridiculous. Because Daddy was such a big honcho and had so much to do in all the restaurants he eventually opened and managed, I didn’t see him very much. He worked very long hours and his days off were limited. But oh, those few moments that we had together were like gold to me!
Wednesdays and Thursdays would become my favorite days, because it meant getting picked up by him so we could go on our “dates”. We’d see movies together because my mom’s not really into theaters, or we’d go to Bullwinkle’s or Chuck E. Cheese’s for an afternoon of pizza and arcade games. He’d spoil me rotten and find ways to win extra tickets, just so I could get the best toys to bring home. We’d laugh, we’d play… it was the greatest.
Holidays were the same way. They were hard because we wanted him to be with us all day, but when you run a restaurant, your home is that restaurant. There are no such things as holidays, really. But once he could get away and join us, things like Thanksgiving and Christmas were just as awesome with him. Full of great food, laughter, and poking fun at the way he’d fall asleep during the football games, only to insist he was watching with his eyes closed (a universal dad moment).
Though I spent a lot more time with my mom growing up, my daddy always drove me to school, no matter how busy or tired he was. This probably explains why I lose it and burst into tears every single morning since he passed… mornings vividly remind me of him. That was our getting ready time (my mom worked super early), and when I spent the most time with him, now that I think about it. And oh, how I miss those mornings. I miss the stupid, silly getting-ready songs he’d compose while he’d make faces as he shaved… the ridiculous spectacle he’d make out of brushing his teeth…. the almost sacred ritual that was his morning coffee routine… the way he’d chase me down to give me a kiss so he could leave a dollop of shaving cream on my nose…
(Oh God, this hurts…)
Summer vacations were also awesome times. For the first 14 years of my life, we spent every summer vacation in Colombia, where my mom is from. Naturally, there was no way my dad could spend all three months with us there, but for the two weeks he was able to take off, the whole family had a blast. All my mom’s relatives adored my dad and his spontaneity, his sometimes crass sense of humor, and that hearty, contagious laugh. He loved the way everyone doted on him, and all the amazing food they’d serve him. For if there was one thing that man loved, it was food.
Once I got older, we decided to try vacationing in other spots, and San Felipe, Baja California, became an instant favorite. Not only because it’s a gorgeous area of the world with some of the most incredible fresh seafood out there; but because the journey alone was enough to make you lose 10 pounds just from laughing so much. Between my dad’s refusal to ask for directions, my mom’s perpetual desire to carjack trucks that were loading tomatoes or strawberries to and fro, and Daddy’s interpretation of street signs once we were no longer in the U.S…. I’m trying not to bust out laughing right now, it was all so ridiculous!
Yeah… we had a lot of fun.
Sadly, my parents split up when I was about 21 or so. I didn’t take it well at all. As an only child and a daddy’s girl, of course I wasn’t going to accept it. And for a good two to three years, I didn’t talk to him. I couldn’t. I felt too betrayed, too disappointed by the man I’d always had on such a high pedestal.
But I guess that Daddy’s Girl love never dies, because I did eventually forgive him. We had a couple long talks, a few good cries, and we reconnected. He got remarried, but we still did our best to talk on the phone as often as possible, and he’d come visit me regularly at school. It wasn’t the same as having him with me all the time, but it was still nice to be able to run to him and be swept up in a big bear hug like a 7 year old, even if I was 22.
They moved to Guadalajara after a while, as that’s where his second wife is from and decided they should live. This also didn’t sit well with me, since it meant even more distance between us, but we dealt with it as best as we could. There would be times when weeks or months would pass without us being able to contact each other, but we always, always managed to find a way to stay in touch. There were times when they’d visit the U.S., times when he’d decided he’d had enough of Mexico and wanted to come back home, times when we plotted ways for me to be able to visit. But we could never make it happen, because money – or the lack thereof – always got in the way. Once the recession hit and poor girl became Poor Girl… well, let’s just say I had a gut feeling I’d never have a chance to hug my daddy again.
I’ll never forget when he had his first stroke. I was in San Francisco for a food blogging conference and got a message from my stepsister that he was “gravely ill” and that he’d fallen. I freaked the hell out. The way they described what had happened, I knew it was a stroke and not just a fall, and that his diabetes had started to take a turn for the worst. I felt helpless, my hands tied, because at the time I had neither a passport, nor the money to afford a plane ticket to see him. But like my mom and everyone else said, there wasn’t much that could come of my visiting him, so I became a slave to my phone for a while, checking in constantly.
When they told me he immediately knew he had two daughters and that he’d actually been asking for me, I knew he was going to be okay. When I finally had a chance to talk to him for the first time after the stroke, I asked him how he felt and his mumbled response was, “I feel like SHIT, hija. This is bullshit!”
OMG. That is SO my dad.
I knew he’d be okay after that.
He recovered slowly, but surely. And though he wasn’t exactly the same after that stroke (the most impatient man on Earth suddenly has to wait for his mouth to catch up with what his brain wants to say? Trust me, you’ll hear about it!), he was still my Daddy. Still silly and funny and ever-so-slightly more foul-mouthed than before.
Case in point: when he realized my stepsister (who is 23 years my junior) was now… a woman. While she and her mom were having a keen old time rejoicing the changes of womanhood, my dad called me to freak out about it. “What am I going to doooooooooooo, hija?! It was bad enough when it was you and your mom… now I have to go through this again? What did I ever do to deserve this?! That means she’s going to start DATING soon! This is ridiculous!”
In my dad’s world, all little girls should stay about 3 years old, for the ultimate daddy-daughter experience.
The last couple of years have been very rough for him, for me. As with many diabetics whose disease has taken over, he started having more complications – namely, renal failure. He was hovering okay on his own for a couple of years, but after a while, dialysis became inevitable. And he was PISSED about that. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard him sound so angry, so bitter, so… done. It was very difficult to hear, but by that point, I’d already become his listening ear, the one person he could vent to with no judgment or unsolicited advice.
I hated being so far away with him starting on such a difficult journey. I’ve always wanted to be a doctor, so I’m perpetually curious about whatever treatments are being done for me or my loved ones. In a perfect world, he would have been here and I could have been at his appointments with him, to help better understand what he was going to be dealing with and help him cope. I would have known all the ins and outs, could have asked questions like, “Why isn’t he being put on a transplant list?”, etc., etc.
But the world is not perfect, and I had to sit back and accept that this wasn’t something I could control. I was too far away, too broke, and despite the love, no longer a daily part of his life, which made it difficult to have any input in what was going on. And that’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I hate not being in control, not knowing every detail of what’s going on… to have to accept that I couldn’t be was very hard to do.
And that’s probably why watching his swift decline over the past few months was so difficult for me. I had to sit back and let it happen, which is not in my nature. While my strong, vibrant daddy changed into a sick, tired-looking older man (who still rocked that amazing head of hair), I had to sit there with my hands bound by the lack of money to do anything. I couldn’t buy a passport, I couldn’t buy a plane ticket, I couldn’t afford to take the time off work, or find a cat sitter, or even the meds to keep me healthy enough to make such a trip. I had to sit and watch him wither, with the only support and happiness I could give him relegated to Skype. And whatever was in my heart.
I always felt guilty, wondering if any of that was “enough”. I guess I’m weird and feel like things like that matter more in person, fully knowing that love transcends all. And so, if you’re still with me, I want you to pause and grab a box of Kleenex. Because you’ll need it for the rest of this post.
In June & July, we had a few video chats over Skype. Since I never have enough money to keep my phone on all the time, and he was too weak to have phone conversations that lasted more than 5 minutes, Skype was a good way to at least “hang out”, even if all I did was babble incessantly so he’d crack a smile. He was so tired and weak that he’d often fall asleep right in front of me, but he’d indulge me with a grin here and there, and a flash of those awesome dimples.
On the Fourth of July, which is his birthday, we had a fun chat. He’d been told by his primary MD that he didn’t look the 70 years he’d just turned that day, and that he was stable. But I knew better. I could see it in his face. There it was, middle of summer in friggin’ Mexico, and he was bundled up to his neck in sweaters and blankets, he was that sick. He was dying… that was obvious. He’d told me several times he was done, he was too tired, he was ready to go. But still… he’d asked his wife to give him a nice clean shave and comb his hair all fancy, because he knew he had a “date” with his hijita (little daughter/little girl in Spanish).
Nothing was too good for his hijita, no matter how shitty he felt.
That was the last really good conversation we had. In August, I got a message from his wife saying that he’d asked to have his last rites read, and that they’d be calling a priest. Instant panic was mine, so I got in touch with them again over Skype. I didn’t want our last conversation to be on a laptop, but I’d rather have that than nothing at all. I couldn’t believe what had happened to him in just a few short weeks; I didn’t think he’d last the week, he looked so awful. But he hung on…
And then in September, things tanked. He caught pneumonia towards the end of August and that got worse in September. By this time he was completely bedridden, as dialysis was more of a formality and he was in the last stages of renal failure, so fluid build-up in his lungs was always an issue. He recovered from that as best as he could, but he was getting worse and worse. It was just a matter of time, and getting to the point where I was praying that God would take him, so he’d no longer be suffering.
His wife tells me he had one good day where he was lucid again, laughing, talking, the whole nine yards. When she told me that, I knew it was around the corner. I knew because I’d seen it happen with my kitty Hana just six months earlier. There’s always that last push, that last bit of life that’s lived right before the very end.
That was on a Wednesday. Phone and internet issues prevailed, so I wasn’t able to get in touch again until the following Thursday, when I’d gotten another message that he was the worst he’d ever been. They weren’t joking. When I saw him like that on his side, an unnatural shade of grayish green, face half paralyzed, eyes closed to barely slits, because he was clearly suffering too much to actually be sleeping… I lost it. I did. I never liked crying in front of my dad because he didn’t like seeing his hijita cry, but I did. And I know he heard me.
But I know he also heard me tell him how much I loved him. How he might not have been a perfect man but he was the greatest man, to me. And I told him that I understood if he needed to go, I knew he needed to rest and wanted him to be okay again.
I mentioned this on Facebook and asked my friends and readers for prayers that night. I was overwhelmed by the love and kindness that came from so many of you, and I can’t thank everyone enough for that. But there was something that one of my friends mentioned that night that changed everything for me. She’d asked me if I’d told him that I would be okay if he went. Not whether it was okay for him to take a rest, but if I would survive without him.
There’s a world of difference between those two.
Now, I’m not an overly religious person, but I do believe in God. I felt this was a gift from above, the gift of clarity, of realization, and a little bit more time. I was going to have one last chance to tell him what I should have said before. I also believe that those who are dying can be very stubborn at the end, hanging on until they’ve been able to talk to, or hear from that one person that would make it okay for them to move on.
For my Daddy, I was that person.
Friday, October 4th, I went to work as usual. Checked in with the fam earlier in the day and knew Daddy was still hanging on. We found out the reason he was no longer able to speak and couldn’t move, eat, etc., was because he’d had at least two major strokes within a few days. The doctor said he was basically so gone and unconscious from the renal failure, it wasn’t immediately apparent when he’d had the strokes. It explained why he looked so awful and why he just wasn’t responding anymore. Anyway, I told his wife I needed one more Skype chat, no matter how badly he was doing. I knew this was going to be the last conversation we’d ever have, and I needed for him to have the peace of mind of knowing that I’d be okay, so that he could finally move on.
They brought the laptop to my dad’s bedside and my heart shattered into a million little pieces. I didn’t know that the dying could look like that, or just continue to get worse. One thing was seeing it in a cat; it’s quite another to see it in your own father. I took several breaths to steel myself, then…
“Hi Papa… it’s your Kipy…” (that’s the nickname he used for me since I was a wee tot.)
I could see that he’d heard me because his eyes twitched and his mouth started to move a little. I laughed happily because he knew it was me, and went on, using the extended version of that nickname. It was one of my favorite things to hear him say. And one of his favorite things to say, because the minute I started saying it, he started to move his tongue to the singsong rhythm. Tears rained down my face – he knew me. He heard me.
I told him what he’d been waiting to know: that I would be okay when he finally passed. And it was interesting, because as I talked to him, it was as if I was walking myself through the reasoning process, realizing that yes, I would be okay. Someday. I knew I’d cry for days and told him as much. But when I said I would still make it through the days and that he didn’t have to worry about me not continuing with my goals, I wasn’t lying. For the first time in my life, I felt confident in my future and that it would be okay, because I knew I’d have my dad to guide me.
I knew he was listening. I could tell it in his face, the way his eyes twitched, the way he stopped attempting to “talk” the minute I told him so because I could talk enough for five people. All of a sudden…
I couldn’t believe it! No one in his room could! He’d actually been able to make a sound and tried to respond, even though he’d basically been unconscious for days! It was the first and only time he’d been able to do so since he’d taken a turn for the worst, and I couldn’t have felt more special and loved. Even in his last moments, he would do whatever he could to tell me he loved me.
The last thing I told him, apart from the 7398 I Love Yous, was that I would take care of myself. I can’t remember exactly when he started adding this to our farewells on the phone, but he would always end with, “Take care of yourself, hija.” I’d be saying “I love you!” and he’d be shooing that off, saying, “Love you too, hijita, but TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF.”
Alright, already. ; )
I know I need to, because I do have serious health problems now. I know he was a little surprised that I had this whole PHN crap now, and I owe it to both him and myself to do whatever I can to stay as well as possible. He was also a bit mad at himself for not having managed his health a little better when he still had the chance, and he became a real advocate for trying to take better care of oneself. I know he hated his dialysis, the millions of pills he had to take for his diabetes, his heart, and everything else; but he made the best of his shitty situation, created his little routines, found out what worked for him and what didn’t.
And that’s exactly what I’ve been doing these past two and a half years of PHN fun; I guess I just never realized how much like my father I actually am.
When we ended the video call, I felt an enormous sense of…. not relief, but like a large weight had been lifted from me. Sure, it helped me to have had the chance to say what I needed to say. But I was happier because I knew he’d heard and understood what I’d said. He didn’t speak with words that we can understand, but he got it. I knew it was the last conversation I’d ever have with my father (and I consider that a conversation), and I felt it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever experienced.
That was around 7 p.m. Friday night. At 7:30 a.m. Saturday morning, my Daddy passed away.
And through the immense grief, sorrow and pain that I felt, I also felt tremendous love. He’d waited for me. Everyone else had already told him what he’d needed to hear from them, but he wouldn’t rest until he’d talked to me. He’d waited to make sure his little girl would be okay before he moved on. He’d loved me the best after all.
I’m actually sitting at a busy Starbucks with tears streaming down my face like a total moron as I write this, but in all honesty, I don’t care these days. While the frequency of my crying attacks has decreased, I still can’t control them. Especially not when I’m recounting the story of my Daddy and how he eventually left this world. But I don’t care. This is my reality right now, it’s only been 25 days, and I miss my Daddy so much I can almost feel his giant tummy against me as his big arms wrap me up in a dream hug. The hole in my heart is so huge, there are times I can’t breathe.
When I have minutes on my phone, my mom and I share funny memories of him and it’s like salve on the wound that is currently my heart. He and she were it for me when I was growing up; to hear my mom talk about him makes me feel so much closer to him, and to a childhood I really loved. Because of them.
Even though he’s gone from this realm, I know Daddy is still with me. I’ve felt him. I’ve experienced a few really interesting (read: good, for once) things recently, and I know they’re because of him. He’s my guardian angel now and I can feel him beside me, walking just a little bit behind, looking out for his little girl.
I miss you, Papa. And I will never forget you. I’m sorry you’ll never be able to walk me down the aisle, and that we won’t be able to choreograph our father-daughter dance. I wish you could hold my first book in your hands, and read the inscription that would have been dedicated to you. But I know you’ll be the one to help me reach my goals as a writer and beyond… and maybe find that one special guy that you always feared would someday sweep me off my feet and take your little girl away from you.
But no matter what, Papa, I always did, still do, and will forever love you. And I will always, always be your little girl.