“Come live with us, Dad.”
“Why are you so good to me?” It was a question born from a father’s deepest impulse to be loved.
Maria had her hands full as wife and mother of three children. With her dad’s entrance into the extra bedroom, things ganged up on her even more with separate servings of breakfast, lunch, dinner, pill giving, and laundry. She read to him, walked him to the bathroom, comforted his homebound body whenever she could.
I’d known Maria since we’d sat close in a religious seminar back in the 80s. Both of us Catholic, both called to spirit the parish, both putting up with stoney pastors.
I hadn’t seen her in quite a while, so we arranged that in return for her driving up to Sanford, I’d put together bowls of tabouli, humus, with loaves of pita. We’d savor lunch. Scents from Florida’s waterway wafted close as we shared bits of our lives. Our visits had been too few.
“Dad kept asking: ‘Why are you so good to me?’ For a long time, I couldn’t answer him. I just smiled at my thinning father, still my mentor, still smiling back. I wanted him to know he wasn’t my burden but my gift. He was the one who, more than my mother, had given me his best hours, reading to me, walking me to school, holding my hand.”
Now, it was Maria’s turn to give over herself. Still, he wanted to hear why.
Breezes sustained us as Maria voiced the intimacy they shared those last days: how she held him when breath was short, held him during the night or rushed for needed medication.
I listened with mind and heart, full of feeling for my friend, witnessing the all too common switching of roles: child becomes parent to the father.
“But Maria, why?”
Maria revealed from her dad’s final prompt words that just bubbled forth surprising even her. “Because, dear Daddy! Because you gave me my first bath, taught me the alphabet, read me bedtime stories. Mom would preach to me, but not you. You did the cooking, the mopping, always something for others. You taught me that I could do the same. You taught me the joy of giving.”
Hearing this, I felt tears that wanted to fall. Here’s a tale that’s so much bigger than one person’s experience. I have to tell this story. It’s perfectly universal.
A long silence enveloped us under the changing summer light.
“Maria, did your answer satisfy him?
“Yes, he never asked again. He felt the truth of it.”
We let the lapping waves on the sea wall take over. I wrapped leftovers, then hugged Maria tight and long.
I biked, no floated up Park Ave’s under bearded grandfather’s oaks, half laughing, half crying. This Maria really cared, the kind of care that could heal the whole world.
Back home, my heart travelled to my own dad’s last days. How I wheeled him around hospital corridors, fed him ice cream, reminded him of how good he had been to me, my first bike when funds were limited. As with Maria’s dad, my father and I were saying goodbye the best we knew how.
The sun leaned toward the West as I packed away my wheels. Still, Maria’s last words haunted me as she had reached a curious conclusion. “Maybe that’s why he took three years to die. Maybe he needed time to know that he’d been an okay dad.”
My goodness, God, thank you for these most precious of life’s ending stories.