Saturday, February 18, 2012

Losing King

On Tuesday, it will be two years since my dad left us to head up to heaven.  I wrote the following essay months ago, for a contest.  I couldn't post it at the time because it was considered to be "published".  I didn't win.  Ppppppppfft!  The topic was "When did you first understand the true meaning of love?"  I wrote about losing my dad.  I had to limit it to a certain amount of words, so it will seem short to those of you who know how long winded I usually am!  I'll probably add more to it at some point, but for the time being, here it is:

Understanding the meaning of love is a tall order, and it comes in so many forms.  To me, the biggest love of all is to be the recipient of God’s love.  However, back down here on earth,  it manifests in different ways.  I truly don’t think anything can compare to the love between a parent and child, and I don’t think this is ever as clearly illustrated as when the chips are down. It would be easy for me to write about the love I have for my own children.  However, I’d like to write about the love that existed, and still exists, between my father and me, Arthur “King” Stuart.

I’m the youngest of three, and we had always been extremely close and had a special connection. My parents divorced when I was around three, and he became my confidante, my touchstone, and my friend.  At the end of 2000, he was diagnosed with Emphysema while visiting our family.  

Over the next decade, his health continued to decline significantly.  The last four years of his life were spent imprisoned is his bedroom, attached to oxygen and a catheter 24 hour a day, unable to walk and only leaving the house for doctor’s appointments. He had a full time nurse for years, so he was well cared for. However, the rest of the house and his room didn’t stay clean.  During one visit, I went out and bought a special vacuum for hardwood floors and spent nearly 5 hours cleaning his tiny room of approximately 100 square feet.  While he slept, I moved furniture, scrubbed the walls, and ended up completely covered from head to toe with years and years of pet dander, dust, and dog hair.  As I cleaned, tears streamed down my face and I was thankful he was sleeping.  At the end of another visit, I came by his house to say goodbye before leaving for the airport, but he was sleeping.  I gently tapped him until he opened his eyes, and he said, “Oh, this is like waking up to an angel!  You’re so beautiful!” He was such a sweet soul, and so kind.

My father and I shared a twisted sense of humor, and I asked him more than one time, “Daddy, haven’t you had enough of this?  Would you like us to just smother you with a pillow, or slip something in your Coke?”  He’d laugh, and explain that sometimes he felt ready to go, and other times he didn’t.  He finally ‘fessed up that he was staying alive for his children.  I explained, and knew this to be true, that not ONE of us was enjoying seeing him suffer.  We’re all adults with our own lives and families, and he didn’t need to stay for us.  As the years plodded along, we three siblings had to accept the fact that he could hold on like this for 5 more years, or he could go the next day.  There was no way of predicting it, but it was clear it was going to happen and he was not going to recover. This realization was torturous, and every time the phone rang from LA, I cringed.  

It got to the point where he really couldn’t handle a visit or a phone conversation much longer than 30 minutes, because he wouldn’t have enough breath to talk, and wouldn’t have enough oxygen in his brain to maintain an adequate amount of focus.  He was, at one time, on 37 different medications, the side effects of which often appeared worse than what they were trying to treat.  For example, a steroid he was taking resulted in his appearing as though he’d been beaten severely, or was masquerading as a very clever, graphic Halloween decoration.   A solid pattern of purple and blue bruising was present up and down his legs and arms, and I was afraid to touch him.  He preferred for visitors to sit on the left side of his hospital bed, which unfortunately also held the bag of urine from his catheter. He’d also be gripped by coughing fits that would produce unspeakable stuff.  It wasn’t pleasant. For this man, who had always taken great pride in his appearance, all of this was hard for him to take.  The last time I saw him in person, about 2 weeks before he passed, he lamented to me, “Honey, I look like a cadaver!”  I responded with, “Well, dad…yeah, you kinda do!”  And we both laughed.

Near the end, he’d said on several occasions that he just wanted to make it to 80.  He also wanted to see the recording of his younger brother’s memorial, who’d passed in October of 2009, but dad wasn’t able to attend.   He finally saw the video with my sister, and turned 80 on January 21, 2010.  A month to the day, he ate his lunch, took a nap, and peacefully passed in his sleep on February 21, 2010

The weeks that followed were a blur of preparation and planning. He’d made it clear that he wanted the reception after the service to take place in his home.  As a matter of fact, he attempted to plan it himself until I pointed out, "Daddy, you're going to be dead.  We got it." We took care of the remains, arranged his memorial at church, called over 90 people to inform them of his passing, and tried to contact as many alumni as possible in a little less than two months.  Dad taught speech and debate in high school for 37 years.  He was a revered, absolutely beloved teacher, and in reaching out via Facebook, I was overwhelmed with the responses. His old students came out of the woodwork, many of whom graduated from high school before I was even born.  “King was the reason…I’m an attorney, I’m a public speaker, I didn’t commit suicide, I knew I had someone who would listen…”   When the time came for his memorial, his home was it was in no shape for visitors.  Cleaners were hired, but did a lousy job, so my brother, husband, and I spent hours the day before the service re-cleaning the house.  The bed he’d died in had been removed by then, but the hardwood floor underneath the bed was covered in goo, the origin of which I don’t even want to think too much about.  However, as I was down on my hands and knees, scrubbing away the last of my father, it truly didn’t bother me.  In fact, it struck me the same way it does when you have a young child who vomits on you.  In the back of your mind it’s disgusting, but what’s more important is caring for that ill child.  The putrid nature of what I was scrubbing away did cross my mind, but what was overwhelmingly more important was making sure that his house, his castle, would sparkle the next day to honor him amongst his friends and family. The day of his memorial came, I spoke, I wore a great dress he would’ve loved, and I lived through it. It remains a blur.  One thing that I will never forget is the crowd of my friends who emerged to be there that day.  These dear people, many of whom traveled from different states, were undoubtedly there to support me. But they were also there because they loved HIM. That’s the kind of person he was.

My dad gave me my love of the theatre, my sense of humor and ability to laugh at absurdities, and loved me unconditionally.  He taught me the joy of laughter and being silly, and the importance of listening.  He taught me courage by example, by facing up to personal truths about himself that most are afraid to admit to themselves, let alone others. My dad picked fresh flowers from his garden and put them in my room when I visited from college.  My dad called me "darling." We adored each other, and what’s even better is that we both knew it.

At the age of 41, I believe I now understand the meaning of love.  Love isn’t all flowery and beautiful,  loving someone can be gruesome.  Love is doing anything for someone who needs you. Love is present every day.  Most incredibly, love is something you can feel, and it remains, even when the physical being is no longer here.  I miss him terribly, but I feel his love every day.  What’s more,  I know it’s real.

Rest in peace, Daddy.