My dad died five years ago yesterday.
I wasn’t there when he took his last breath. My mother’s best friend from high school flew into town, and like a guardian angel, put me up in a hotel, allowing me my first good night of REM-cycle sleep since the surgeon had instructed us to “get our affairs in order.” I was sixteen years old, and while high school seemed like a prison to some, it was the only place I could feel like a teenager. At home, I was a permanent on-call nurse, sharing shifts with my mom. She’d carefully change his feeding apparatus, while I cleaned his vomit stained sheets, all the while trying to fight my own gag reflex. We’d switch the next night, and so went our routine for the next 8 weeks.
One of the nights when my mom was asleep, my dad fell in the bathroom. I ran in, reaching my arms out to him, wanting so badly to fold myself around him, like I did when we were young. With tear-stained cheeks and dark circles beneath his eyes, he looked up at me and yelled to get out. His once strong, robust frame had been switched with that of a skeleton, and on the linoleum floor of our hallway bathroom, he looked like a broken rag doll. He ordered me to get my mom. His shame for how his body had turned on him was palpable, a dagger of desperation and pain. I wanted to pick him up and hold him. I wanted to make him feel safe. I wanted to take off our shoes and race each other on the beach, the way we did when I was 10, our feet pounding against the hot sand. But I couldn’t, so I went to wake up my mom. I wasn’t supposed to see the man who changed my diapers need help out of his.
I can’t remember the last thing my father said to me. I tell people it was I love you. And it probably was, but I can’t actually remember. I can’t even remember the last thing I said to him. I just remember closing the door to the bathroom, so weak from fatigue and feeling like a bullet had gone straight through my heart.
When I was little, I used to rest my head on his tummy whenever he fell asleep on the couch. With every breath, my pillow would rise, and I would lose myself in the lullaby of his snoring. I knew no one could ever hurt me, with my gentle protector as peaceful as I’d ever seen him. I’d kiss his whiskered cheeks and bury my nose in his armpits. He smelled like home. He smelled like love. I would drift off and wake up in my own bed, tucked in like a snug burrito with a note on my nightstand that said, “Princess, I love you.” Nothing could hurt me with Daddy around. And nothing ever did.
I’m afraid of forgetting the sound of his laughter. I’m afraid of forgetting the boom in his sneeze. Five years have transformed into a lifetime. And I can’t even remember the last thing he said to me.