My Last Words With My Father

Image: Molly Costello

Author’s note: I am writing this for myself, to ensure that I remember. I am writing this for my family, when they can bear to read it, and for my father, whose eulogy I gave but only vaguely remember. I am writing this because I love words, and always seek comfort in them. I hope these words will be of use to others, but in the absence of such hope, I would still write them.

When our loved ones make their final departures, our minds fill up with “last times.” Our most recent memories of sharing meals, of arguing, or laughing at the same joke, all become last times. I had to cancel my last breakfast date with my parents because an old spinal injury was flaring up. If I had known I would be losing my father within the month, I would have gone no matter what. But the “last time” we had plans, I cancelled, because I didn’t feel well, and had a lot going on.

There were some good last times as well, and others that tore me apart. But each one was wholly necessary.

The Long Phone Call

Two months before I lost my father, we had a long talk on the phone. It wasn’t the last time we talked on the phone, but we did talk for over an hour and a half that day. Our chats were never brief, but even for us, that was a long call. I wondered afterwards why I had stayed on the phone so long. My father hadn’t been intent on doing so. My mother had just casually handed him the phone, after I called to check in with her, as she sometimes would.

I feel like, somewhere inside, some part of me knew that a crisis was coming, and that we needed to hear each other.

I talked to him about my job, about my organizing and the Medicare for All campaign. It was something I was working on at the time and something my father felt strongly about. He took care of my disabled mother, and knew that they would always carry medical debt. My parents managed, over the years, but they also watched loved ones forgo advanced treatments for major illnesses, embracing death, rather than putting their families in debt. They witnessed a life-deciding ratio at work: likelihood of success vs financial burden. And they watched people die as a result.

I know my dad was proud of me for working on the issue.

I talked with him about the last event I had organized. It was a vigil to save the ACA, and for all victims of medical neglect. I told my father all about it, in much greater detail than I normally would. He supported my work, but wasn’t heavily involved, as we had different visions. He had raised me to have a militant personality, but didn’t expect it to be directed at authority. Protest blockades made him uncomfortable, to say the least, and I know he was irritated when we shut down the mouth of the Eisenhower expressway in downtown Chicago. But he actually seemed quite glad when he heard that we used it as an opportunity to help get abuse survivor Naomi Freeman out of jail. My dad believed in self defense, and preemptive self defense, and he felt strongly that Naomi and others in her position should be freed — and in some cases, commended. He always thought that, and I always respected it. Now, advocating for criminalized abuse survivors is a big part of my work, just in a bigger, more radical way than my father would have imagined when he taught me to protect myself and others.

During that long phone call, I explained what I thought was most important about the health care vigil I had organized. The speeches were compelling and Atena Danner’s song was incredible, but there was also a moment in the event when people talked to strangers, and made specific commitments to the cause. I told him I’d learned how important it was to organize those moments, where people shared their thoughts with strangers. It’s so easy for people to become regular protest attendees, I explained, who come to events all the time, but never develop relationships. Organizing is about relationships and it has to involve affirmations of belief and commitment. It’s such a simple principle, but is often neglected. I saw it so clearly that day, and felt good about it. It was just one event, I told him, but it was part of a larger webwork of organizing, a mobilizing of heroic communities. Later, my mom showed him a Facebook video of my speech.

He got to hear about all the work that was happening to make something he believed in a reality, and he got a glimpse of my little part in it all. He also got to see the Republicans’ most recent attempt to repeal the ACA fail in a spectacular fashion. While that fight is once again at a critical stage, I’m glad he was able to witness that hopeful victory.

When Things Were Hopeful

The next big conversation we had was the last day I saw him fully awake. Within days, he had started to make a comeback from the stroke. He had been moved to a rehabilitation ward. After only one session of speech therapy, he sounded like himself again. His early physical therapy sessions went well. If anything, the staff told us, he was a little too eager. But he was going to do great, they said. He was smiling toward the end of our visit. He let us take a photo of him with a plush cat I brought him, and he took a silly selfie with my sister, in which he held up the plush cat and made a noise like it was hissing. I told him we should go to Devil’s Lake, when he was feeling better, to see the leaves change. He always loved the woods. 

He was so happy to see my sister and I. He asked me about casual things. Was I having my Halloween party this year? Yes. (My father loved Halloween.) How was work? It was great. (My father loved that I had a union job, and that I was writing professionally.) He asked about my partner. Things were great, I told him, and Charlie was doing well. How was my bad back? I was making progress, with more physical therapy ahead. Still in pain, but not nearly as much, and I was optimistic.

It was all true. For months I had been thinking, if my back would just heal a bit, my life would be so on point. Sure, I would still live with the injustices we all live with, fight them, and take on everything that comes with that, but in my relationships, and my work, I felt right. My world has since spun off its axis, but I’m glad he knew things were good. Because there were times in my life when my father was afraid for me. Sometimes, those fears were warranted. I am grateful that he got to see me in a good place, for some time, with my biggest problem being dealt with.

I told a friend, artist Dan Bellini, that I don’t have a many recent photos with my father. Dan painted this watercolor for me to make up for that.

I am glad he knew that I’d be okay. And I’m so glad I have those memories of him, my sister and my mom, after the stroke, before things got worse. Everything happened so quickly, and when my mother said that my father had looked afraid, that two tears had rolled down his face, when he went into respiratory distress, I was inconsolable. I couldn’t stand the thought of him frightened in his last moments of awareness. I know that many people die afraid, both because death itself can be frightening, and because, like my dad, some people simply love life, despite all its shortcomings, and don’t want to leave the people they love, no matter what. I understand that position well.

At The End

I spent time with my dad after he was subdued by drugs. It had all happened very quickly. His brain was bleeding, and they wanted him still. Even then, for a while, there was hope. Until there wasn’t.

I was with him at the end. I talked almost the whole time, in those final hours, but I’ll never know if he heard me. When the stroke happened, during a routine procedure, he could have just slipped away. As much as it wrecks me to imagine him afraid, before the drugs kicked in, days later, as he was rushed to the ICU, I am grateful that I got to see him again, looking happy and hopeful. I’m also grateful that I got to hold his hand and reassure him as he was passing, because if there was any chance that he could hear me, he was going to hear my voice as he left us. I hope that, somehow, all those drugs managed to soothe him, while still allowing my voice to get through. I knew what to say, in those moments, and how to say it, because I knew him. He was my dad.

As my dad’s heart rate dropped, I talked about my childhood, the good times we’d had, the lessons he’d taught me and the big ideas we used to talk about. I was wrong, I told him, when I was younger, and he’d asked me if I thought people who were wholly good existed. At the time, I’d said yes, but I told him, as he was leaving us, that I had been wrong. No one was wholly good or wholly bad, because being a decent person isn’t a fixed condition. It’s a moment-to-moment decision. I’d learned that our “goodness” was just an ongoing project — a chain of decisions we’ve made, and continue to make, that define us at any point in time. We are both the sum and the moment. And by that measure, I told him, he was such a good person. He had done the right thing so often, and done so much good for others.

After recovering from his active addiction to alcohol when I was five, my father helped a number of others quit drinking. At his funeral I was hugged by a young woman whose family my father had helped. Anything we needed, she told me, anything we needed at all. My father had done so much for her husband, she said. My father had been a friend to her husband during difficult times. That kindness was repaid at the end of my father’s life. Her husband, who I now consider a friend, was at the hospital in those final days, looking out for my mom when my sister and I weren’t there. In my father’s final moments, the young man offered to leave. But I could feel how much my father had meant to him, and I could sense that this moment was, in a way, his too. He sat quietly as I spoke to my dad, comforting my mother as needed. She had said a great deal to my dad before I arrived, and was mostly making room for me to speak. I think she could tell I was ready to help see him out of this world. I was working hard to keep my voice just right, and to say all the right things. I think she wanted to let me get that right.

It’s hard for us to talk about those moments. We are both still prone to breakdowns and fits of tears. My sister is the tough one. My father knew that. He had talked with her, years ago, about how to start resolving his affairs, so she did exactly that. My father knew she could handle it, because he knew her. She was his daughter.

As hard as it was, I know it was a gift to be with him in those last hours. I know I said everything he would have wanted. I knew I could keep my composure, for his sake, and I did. I knew I could make sure he heard the words my sister would have said, if she had gotten there in time, which she did not. She had further to travel than I did, and got stuck in the morning rush. But because I was with my dad, I got to comfort her when she arrived, telling her that I knew I told him what he needed to hear us say. Then I got to fall apart and be rescued by my sister, who held me and told me, “I’ll handle everything else.”

The Missing Piece

My last conversation with my father wasn’t real in any physical sense. He was gone, and I was being ripped apart inside. One of the only people — perhaps the only person — who could see me through this kind of pain was never going to call again. We would never go out for breakfast again and swap stories about our lives. I would never get to hear him laugh again. So, I thought, if he’s the only person who could make me feel better, maybe I need to think about what he would say. After all, I knew him. He was my dad.

I couldn’t bear to imagine him talking to me about his own absence, so I at first imagined what he would say to someone in my position, like the adult child of a friend of his who’d passed away. I could see it clearly in my mind. The table they were sitting at. The sound of their voices. It was all pretty easy to picture. Then I imagined someone my age, who had lost their dad, who was, for the sake of this thought exercise, very much like my own father, or rather, exactly like him. I imagined this emotional stand-in laying their heart at my father’s feet, talking about the suddenness of it all, and how their father deserved more time. I imagined what my dad would say.

He would say that was all true, and that it wasn’t fair, but that this young person’s father had a good life, never suffered a long illness, and had his family with him at the end. He would say that, even though his friend deserved more time, he’d had a full life.

I imagined the young person asking my father about his dad being frightened before he was intubated and given a massive cocktail of drugs — about being afraid that the last thing he was aware of was fear. To this, I had no doubt of my father’s response. I could hear it in my mind quite clearly, word-by-word:

“Well, he’s not afraid now,” my father would say gently. “That happened,” he would acknowledge, “and then it was over.” My father could say things with a gentle finality that somehow took the edge off, grounding you in a new place, with a new truth, that you simply hadn’t been willing to rest in. “He didn’t want to go,” my father would acknowledge, “but his life was not his death. His life was good, and you don’t know that he couldn’t hear you at the end. They say that people can hear you when they’re in that state. I don’t know, but if he could hear anything, it was you and your mother being there. That’s something. Something a lot of people don’t have.” He would tell this young person that even when their father was afraid, their mother was there to comfort them. He wasn’t alone. He was comforted by his wife of over four decades, whose devotion to him had never wavered. “And I really wouldn’t assume he couldn’t hear you,” he would say. “But either way,” he would conclude, “he knew you loved him, and he was proud of you.”

My father would have said all of that very slowly, checking his own emotions along the way, and confiding in someone else later. I felt sure of all of this, but I still couldn’t let myself imagine my father saying these things to me, in first person. But what I could imagine saying to him, directly, and wanted to say, was that I was so proud of him, as a person, and that so many people felt they knew him, through me and my work. That all his friends loved him, but that his life reached so much further than all of that, into my sister’s work as a nurse, into my work as a writer and a street organizer. And I knew what he would say.

He would say he was always proud of us, and he would probably apologize for mistakes I forgave decades ago. I would tell him there was nothing to forgive anymore. I would tell him that I was going to be okay, and do good things for people. He would say that he knew that I would. He would tell me to take care of my mother and my sister, and I would tell him I would.

He would tell me to be careful and take care of myself, and to always tell people I love them if I really feel that way. Because things change quickly, and that’s the only thing that stays the same. He would tell me it all goes by fast, and that you can’t just talk about doing things. You have to do them. But that’s a lesson I learned from him a long time ago. I’ve tried to live it, and I’ve tried, like he taught me, to learn from missteps without punishing myself. I wish I had seen him more, but if I told him that, he would remind me that I couldn’t of known what was coming, just as he couldn’t have known. He would tell me that seeing me, that day, when I brought him that plush cat, and he took one last selfie with my sister, was a gift to us to us all, and that I should hold onto that.

We buried him with that plush cat and his favorite book. My sister also left a dreamcatcher in his casket, to honor his heritage and ensure he dreamt well.

I know there’s nothing unique about talking to people who’ve left us. But it’s pretty new to me. The sky hangs lower for me with him gone. I know eventually, other things and other people will help hold it high again, but I am not the same. My life, my whole family’s lives, have another before and after, and I am not sure who I am on the other side. I am not sure how to be who I was without him in the world. But I will do my best. I promised my dad I would, whether he could hear me or not, and I would do anything for my dad.

Author’s note part II: My mother is chronically ill and disabled. Within days, she lost her beloved husband, her primary caregiver and her medical insurance. If you would like to help sustain her life-giving care while we sort this out, you can do so here.