Tuesday, June 22, 2010

You Think You Know Them

Father, 2007

My father died in his own bed in his own home in late July of 1995. We couldn’t have done this without the help of several home health aides who came to help during the last two weeks of Dad’s life. Dad hadn’t liked the idea of having “strangers” in the house. But after realizing that my sister and I alone couldn’t provide the level of care needed, he reluctantly agreed to allow one aide in for a couple of hours. The first one didn’t work out. The second woman, though, was a charm. She day she came and got to know Dad was the last day he had many lucid moments. Dad was a lifelong flirt. Fran knew how to throw it right back at him. They were like a loving couple. Fran became very protective of Dad.

Dad died of prostate cancer. He lingered for weeks longer than anyone could explain. He began hallucinating. Then the hallucinations lengthened and eventually connected to one another and overtook his verbal consciousness completely. Sometimes he revisited moments of regret from his youth and tears would roll down his cheeks. Other times he laughed and talked to people who weren’t there.

About six weeks earlier Dad had been in the hospital because his kidneys were failing. Death was said to be imminent, perhaps in hours. But even after his kidneys stopped functioning, he hung on. A thoughtful nurse finally pulled my sister and me aside and asked, "Are there any unresolved issues?" We didn't think there were. But we still marched everyone we could think of past his bed just to be sure. No change.

The nurse then carefully asked, "Could there be any other children you don't know about?" We were confident there weren't any extra children, but canvassed the older relatives just the same. No resolution there, either.

Against the odds, Dad survived to come home from the hospital, where family and neighbors looked out for him until he required more professional support. One day we were jokingly describing to Fran how the hospital nurse had asked us if our father had any other children we didn’t know about.

Fran was momentarily quiet. She is a strong, tall woman, a Navy wife and mother of several children. She grew up in Memphis, where her father ran a successful business and her mother was said to be the first female African American oncologist in the South. Her mother died young. When her father was dying, Fran’s husband was out on sea duty. She gathered up her young children and returned to Memphis to take care of her father. She enrolled the kids in school there, cleaned up the big family home and generally got things in order. When her father died she made all the arrangements and cooked and cleaned when her brothers and their families came to town for the funeral.

The day after the funeral, the house was a mess. Fran and her brothers put their good clothes back on and went to the lawyer’s office for the reading of their father's will. They were startled to learn that the old man had left everything to a child they never knew he had. The child, by then a grown woman Fran's age, was the result of a brief fling. Later on one of Fran’s uncles admitted that he'd known about the infidelity, but not the child. Fran's father had supported the child--she lived with her mother in California--and paid for her college education.

Fran said she left the lawyer’s office, went back to the house and packed her bags, stopped by their schools to pick up the kids and drove straight back to Virginia without so much as pulling the door to her father's house closed behind her.


  1. Touching. I guess you've reminded me of my mom's death. She didn't exactly go gentle into that good night. I read something once that said we leave this life much as we lived it. I think there's some truth to that. You really fleshed these characters out for me. Thanks for telling us their stories.

  2. Wow, what a compelling story, Chris. I'm so mad at Fran's father--- that's proof of your very good writing skills as much as the facts of her story.

  3. Stopping by from a friends blog.