It’s become somewhat of a tradition for me to repost this every year. My father passed away in November of 2003, but Memorial Day was his favorite holiday. In a sense, this isn’t just my way of honoring him, but all the brave men who have served and died for our country through the years.
At our house Memorial Day was the one time of the year you could count on lighting the grill, rain or shine. I know Dad never considered it “his” holiday, despite the fact that he’d served in Vietnam. In fact, I don’t know what my dad felt about his time in Vietnam. He never spoke of it, and I suspect like so many soldiers who came home, he was torn. What he was never silent about was his admiration for the men and women who serve our country on a daily basis and Dad spent this day honoring each and every one of them.
Dad has been gone now for 12 years. I wrote this for him after his death and in his memory, I’m sharing it with you:
In Loving Tribute to My Father (David Oliver Rietz)
Through modern technology, the time of death can be pinpointed to the precise instant. But you don’t need wires and monitors to tell you when someone you love takes a final breath; there is no more accurate monitor than the heart.
I arrived for the long wait just in time. My father was drifting into blackness — welcoming it, even — after a brave, painful struggle with cancer. He could still hear me, I know, though barely. Pain and drugs now fogged his brain, which had been so keen and lucid only hours before. His eyes, too, were hazing, and I could hear the seconds ticking away like an iron clock in my head. Time, as daddy had lamented to me only three weeks before, was running as thin as the paper skin covering his illness-ravaged hand.
That hand … my toddler hand had sought it … squirmed out of its steely grip as a 5-year-old … dared not touch it as a too-modest teen. And now … at 41, I was again that 5-year-old standing before my daddy — but instead of squirming free, I was afraid to let go, lest I never have the opportunity to hold that hand again. He was my daddy and I was his princess … and I had come to say goodbye … alongside my brothers, my sister and my mother. We shared a communion in that twilight-shaded room where silence was king and tears quivered down cheeks as quietly and timidly as fearful subjects before the tyrant Death’s booming voice. But my father had not raised a coward; as afraid as I was to breach the silence I knew this would be my last chance to speak what my heart was shouting. “I love you, daddy,” I said with a quiver in my voice. But I suspected he knew it. He blinked. “I’m proud of you, daddy,” I continued.
It was what I would have wanted to hear, and, after all, everyone said I was just like him.
We had a connection, daddy and me — a connection that I hadn’t always relished. Like an obsessed sculptor with his subject clay, he’d attempted to mold me in his image while the pieces stubbornly fell away. At first, he’d persisted in tacking back an arm here, a leg there, but the constant rebellion wearied him and he finally threw up his hands, all the while shaking his head over his perfect vision gone awry. So I worked and reworked the rebel clay, sometimes ecstatic with the results, sometimes horrified, until I settled on a fitting image — one that seemed entirely my own. But as time eroded my handiwork, melding my vision with that of the sculptor’s, I discovered that while the masterpiece bore its own unique features, the image hadn’t metamorphosed into something so very different from its beginnings.
Three weeks before, with tears in his eyes, a gaunt-faced withered man, my father had apologized for being so tough on me. I shushed him. I was what I was because of him — good and bad. I told him so. And I was damned proud.
More than anything, I was proud of the white-haired soldier lqying now so still before me, whose hair grew in silky defiance to the chemo — thick and beautiful. He was brave, my daddy, and honorable and proud. He fought with true grit, never raising that white flag. He fought until the smoke cleared and the multitude of enemy cells at long last held him at rifle-point, bayonets aimed at his head … and lungs … and kidneys and liver.
It’s clear to me now that my father heard his own “Taps” playing long before the rest of us were ready to accept his fate — our fate. And still, as the merciless cancer attacked like 10,000 bloodthirsty bayonets, he raised his head against the onslaught … until my mother was strong enough – and brave enough – to give the final nod. Even in utter defeat he was proud. He didn’t spit in the face of the enemy — death — but stood, bloodied and battered, gave his name, rank and serial number, and with incredible dignity, extended his hand into a farewell salute that moistened every pair of eyes. He apologized to his doctor for not making it out alive.
So I stayed by my father’s side as his mind faded to black and his body gave up his ghost. My heart wrenched as the monitors heralded his final moments with shrieks that frenzied my soul. And the turmoil of his final breaths left me utterly confused … selfless and selfish at once … wanting him to go, wanting him to stay … begging him to die, willing him to live.
In the end, I had no say at all.
I knew the instant he let go of my hand to reach for the hand of God and I gave him my blessing by whispering his favorite verse, The 23rd Psalm. It had been his mother’s favorite; now it was mine.
I’ve come to realize that mourning is never easy and never done. Every day I miss my father more. Last night I fell asleep with a pang in my heart and fat tears in my eyes.
I dreamt. The first dream was both wonderful and terrible at once: For an immeasurable, beautiful time — it could have been a fraction of a second or an eternity — but for the span of a single dream I was with my dad again and I was joyful in his presence. Although he was suffering still, he was with us. He hadn’t made that dreadful decision to refuse treatment for dignity’s sake. He was safe at home. We didn’t complain as we cared for him and daddy didn’t complain that we had to. We were even grateful for the opportunity to help him use the toilet, because we thrived in those instants when his smile and good humor were like the sun to our withering hopes. And then he fell — in my dream — in the bathroom — and cracked his head. Like the young man who had once so long ago skated a champion performance only to fall, pick himself up, brush himself off and skate into the spotlight without a single complaint for the swollen ankle or scrape on his knee, he allowed us to lift up his desecrated body and even offered a lighthearted quip for our troubles. At least he was still with us, I said in a silent prayer of gratitude. And we walked him, step by painful step, to his bed only to watch him stumble and fall headfirst against the dresser, smashing the mirror with his face. I watched in horror as the blood seeped into the cracked glass like a scarlet web. He didn’t stir and the only reflection peering back at me in the crumpled mirror was my own … accusing. I was suddenly no longer so joyful, because my father was in pain and I fully realized the selfishness in my desire to keep him.
Shaken by the vision, my eyes flew open. The pain I’d fallen asleep with only hours before was amplified as I closed my eyes again … still to dream.
This time I envisioned another place with faces I didn’t recognize. My father appeared before me amidst strangers and stood smiling, wearing his favorite gray and blue plaid flannel shirt. And he said the most inane thing — something I was hardly in danger of forgetting. He said with a mischievous grin, “Hey Tanya … I’m pissing.”
I blinked and thought … God, I must be dreaming. Only in a dream would my father say something so bizarre. And it wasn’t as though he was actually doing it; he merely stood there grinning. I shook it off as unintelligible dream fodder and dreamt again and still again and again … of places where my father would never be … and each time, he appeared in his blue and gray flannel shirt and said, “Hey Tanya … I’m pissing.”
Christ only knew what that was supposed to mean, because I certainly didn’t. My father had been a sailor, but his salty tongue had always been reserved for “the boys.”
Then I dreamt of him one last time: I held the keys to some strange car in my hands — a black sports car of indistinct design. And just as I was about to unlock the door, my father called to me. He was standing at my back in the middle of a verdant lawn. The sun was shining brightly, reflecting off the silver in his hair. And he said, again, to my continued bewilderment, “Hey Tanya … I’m pissing.”
I just stared at him, embarrassed by his vulgarity despite my suspicion that it was merely a dream.
He asked, beaming still, “Do you know why?”
I shook my head.
He said, “Because I can.”
The dream was just about done, I realized, but I needed a hug from my daddy. Without a word, he put out his arms to welcome me into his embrace and I hurried into them, savoring the warmth and safety he radiated, dreading the instant I would awake.
The moment came and I opened my eyes. I turned off the alarm and got into the shower, shaking my head over the nonsensical dreams. But as the water rained down upon me, I realized suddenly what my daddy had been trying to say …
In his final days — months actually — he had been urinating blood. In fact, his urine hadn’t been clear for over a year before his death. It was his only real complaint, though he had so much to complain about. And in my moment of epiphany, as the shower washed away my tears, I flashed on the bright red blood in his hospital bathroom, where my mother had emptied his tubes. I flashed on the last days of his life when the nurse had checked his catheter for a sign that his kidneys had begun to work … and I continued to check the catheters in vain when the nurse, resigned, no longer bothered. In the end, not one drop left the prison of his body.
“Because I can,” he’d said to me.
In my heart, I believe it was my father’s way of telling me he was whole again, that he was well. Where he lives there is no more suffering, no more pain. Somewhere, he’s standing in his beloved back yard … alongside the puppies we buried as a family … with the water trickling down from the fountain into the pond he built with his hands. And he’s wearing his favorite flannel shirt … and smiling at me.