My father died last month.
After two major operations and chemotherapy, his cancer turned aggressive. The doctor told him he had two weeks to live and sent him home to die. I was there every day, along with my mother and a series of hospice workers.
A Korean War veteran and a machinist, my father was not emotionally demonstrative, like many men of his generation. There was nothing special he wanted to say in the end, except that he was not afraid to die. He was lucky not to have been killed in the war. But, as his death drew nearer, and the morphine doses became larger, his reserve began to break down.
"I'm dying," he said, in a plaintive voice, over and over.
"I know," I said, with my hand on his shoulder. I couldn't tell if he knew who I was. His eyes were barely opened. I tried not to cry in his presence.
Sitting in silence, I had a lot of time to think. Prayers memorized in childhood surfaced into my consciousness, but, more often, I involuntary recalled passages from beloved literary works like Hamlet:
"Do not for ever with thy vailed lids
Seek for thy noble father in the dust:
Thou know'st 'tis common; all that lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity."
When I wasn't sitting by my father, I worked on a book review that was nearly due. I sat at the kitchen table, just like when I was a high-school student writing term papers. But it was hard to concentrate. Almost everything in my parent's house triggered memories of childhood, and I was intermittently on the verge of tears over trivial things like water glasses and old appliances.
On the last day, after 10 days of waiting, I could hear my father's death rattle. It had started the night before, along with rapid, deep breathing. I remembered reading about that sound in Edgar Allan Poe, but at that moment, I didn't want to think about Poe or anything so pessimistic as his poetry.
At intervals that morning, I looked up other writers, searching the Internet with shaking hands. I found "Thanatopsis" by William Cullen Bryant; it was reassuring but also too long and literary. I read many other poems, some by writers whose names I didn't know. And then I found Whitman's "Whispers of Heavenly Death" and "To One Shortly To Die."
For the first time, it seemed, I understood those Victorian death poems, not through ideology or form, but through the consolation they provided me. They were not written for scholars, but for ordinary readers, and the imminence of my father's death stripped away the intellectual impediments that had prevented me from regarding literature, above all, as a source of wisdom.
I didn't realize at the time that I was preparing a eulogy. I knew that I could not have read any of the poems to my father, even if he had been conscious. He would have regarded such literary earnestness as sanctimonious, pompous, and effeminate. Poetry belonged to another class, and to women. He would have asked me what was on television instead.
My father and I had become different kinds of people. Yet it was his desire -- along with my mother's -- to shield me from the hardness of the world in which they grew up. My father's hopes for me almost required that I become someone who did not share many of his values. I suppose he could not have guessed that I would become someone so disconnected from material reality, someone who cares about poetry and spends time contemplating his emotions. They had names for people like that in the army and the machine shop.
I remember that Nathaniel Hawthorne likewise doubted that his forebears would sympathize with his occupation: "'What is he?'" murmurs one grey shadow of my forefathers to the other. 'A writer of story-books! What kind of a business in life -- what mode of glorifying God, or being serviceable to mankind in his day and generation -- may that be? Why, the degenerate fellow might as well have been a fiddler!'"
But the intergenerational injuries cut both ways. Working-class families sacrifice to send their children to college, only to have them return full of disdain, judgment, and unearned airs of superiority. Rejecting one's parents -- at least initially -- is the price of assimilation into middle-class culture.
I was always afraid to have my father see the persona I was building at college -- someone who dressed, spoke, and adopted attitudes that had no relationship to who I really was, underneath the effort to pass as a would-be academic. That was compounded when I moved from a regional, Catholic university to attend an Ivy League graduate school. I always spent more on clothes there than I could afford, trying to look like someone for whom academic attitudes seemed to come more naturally.
My father never owned a suit after the age of 40. He always wore jeans, an untucked plaid shirt, and a baseball hat. He was plainspoken and did not care about the taboos and euphemisms of academe. To suggest that he should modify his speech or dress in a certain way would only provoke him into exaggerated rule-breaking. He was who he was; there was no pose. And he was, I feared, indisputable evidence that I did not belong in academe, or anywhere, for that matter, outside the neighborhood where I grew up.
Suddenly, my mother came into the kitchen. "He's stopped breathing," she said. I got out of my chair, and sprinted to my father's room. There was no pulse. He was dead. I closed his eyes, cradled his head in my arms, and cried -- something I could never have done when he was alive.
My father was buried with military honors: the rifle volley, the playing of taps, the American flag, folded neatly in a triangle and presented to my mother. But it seemed like those strangers in uniform were burying someone else, some dignitary from the news. My dad -- who still occupied such an enormous space in my life -- was gone, irretrievably. And it was a mystery how all that experience and knowledge -- all that strength and integrity -- could suddenly vanish from the world.
I was never really sure what my father thought of the life I had made for myself and my family. I could not have asked him. We spoke different languages. I talked to him much less than I did with my mother. Though I didn't know it, he liked to wear a baseball hat with the emblem of my graduate school. He pinned his combat infantry badge just above the college motto, "Veritas."
The night of his death my mother told me that they had had only one child because they wanted to give me the best chance in life they could. My father, in particular, wanted me to escape the circumstances of his life. "That's what he wanted, mainly, for you. And you did it. He was so proud of you," she said.
A few days ago my mother gave me an old manila envelope containing my father's military GED and his tattered diploma from the "Keystone Sewing Machine Repair Institute." He spent his life working at dangerous, dirty, and low-paying jobs so that I could sit at a computer, beneath a wall full of framed diplomas, writing about poetry.
I hope he knows how grateful I am and how much I miss him.