The Universal Notebook: What was left of my father
My father would have been 90 had he lived just four more days, but in the end he had nothing left. One more breath, one more heartbeat, let alone one more day, was just not possible. He expired on Feb. 6 with my brothers and me at his bedside.
Dad was a good man, in many ways the very model of a 1950s husband and father. He was affable, dependable, hardworking and practical, though not heavily involved in child rearing. He was a company man. He sold life insurance like his father before him for most of my young life. Then when I was in high school, the salesman became the sailor.
Dad had entered Maine Maritime Academy right out of Deering High School and served in the U.S. Merchant Marine during World War II, and the U.S. Navy during the Korean War. When he decided to go back to sea he discovered that he had let his ticket lapse and had to start all over as an able-bodied seaman, doing hard physical labor on tankers at age 41.
Studying on his own while out to sea for months at a time, he worked his way back to second mate, first mate and finally captain. He was licensed to skipper any vessel on any sea anywhere in the world.
Mostly dad captained tankers, but he also sailed banana boats up the Amazon, research vessels off the coast of Africa, and once even took a cruise ship he called “The Love Boat” around the Hawaiian Islands. The last time he went to sea was when he came out of retirement to take an old freighter out of mothballs to carry trucks and equipment back to Europe after the first Gulf War in 1991.
Dad should have had a lifetime of adventures at sea to reflect upon in his old age, but a series of strokes a few years ago wiped away his memory such that he didn’t even remember being in the Merchant Marine. Still, he wore a baseball cap with the name of the last ship he commanded, the S.S. Del Valle, until it became formless.
My mother hated that hat. So I bought him a WWII Merchant Marine veteran ball cap that he wore the rest of his life. The last full sentence he ever spoke to me, in fact, was the evening before he died. He roused himself from illness, old age and narcotized sleep just long enough to say, “I want my hat.”
After my mother died last July, dad went downhill pretty steadily. The one thing he did enjoy up until the week before he died was going out for a ride. That hadn’t been possible when my mother was alive because of her condition, but it was easy enough to just wheel dad out to the car and drive him around for an hour or so.
He’d sip a chocolate milkshake or a hot chocolate and watch the world pass by. Usually he had no idea where he was, but he would perk up whenever we passed a landmark he recognized, such as the old marine hospital at Martin’s Point, Bowdoin College, or Deering High School, and the house where he grew up on Ludlow Street.
The last few days of his life he was too feeble to stand, let alone to take out. He had wasted away to just 115 pounds of skin and bone. I told him I used to have a dog that weighed more than that. He smiled wanly and drifted off.
Each day when I went to visit there seemed a little less of dad. Almost everything I thought added up to my father – his appearance, his knowledge, his memories, his past – was gone. In the end, all that was left was the love.
Each time I left the nursing home, I kissed him on the forehead and told him, “I love you, dad.”
“I know you do,” he would reply weakly. “I love you, too,”
And then he, too, was gone.