Year 2

Two years ago, there was a phone call – “There’s something wrong with your father – his breathing is labored, and he’s not responding to touch or sound,” and then, approximately 12 hours later, he quit breathing. I watched it happen. I was on the phone with my brother, who was incredulous, “Well, can’t you get them to stop it?!?” And my voice – only it didn’t sound like me – “He’s dying…there’s no stopping that.”

It’s fuzzier now. Two years later.

I don’t remember everything like I used to.

It’s been two years, but the anxiety still creeps in.  The sadness started a week before this day rolled around. It’s not as horrific as it was last year, but it’s still there nonetheless. I was told that your body reacts to grief. These “anniversaries” are inside you. You’ll be walking down the street, and you feel something is wrong and realize, “Oh! Today is THAT day.”

So…I knew it was coming. I tried to prepare myself better this time around.

I’ve been preoccupied with this non-discrimination ordinance in San Antonio and the utter lack of compassion I’m reading from those who oppose it. I find myself really missing my dad on this issue.

My ultra-conservative father would have found this type of dialogue so non-helpful.

Here’s the deal: my dad and I never spoke about the fact that I was gay. To him, it was an unimportant piece of who I was. I was smart, and I could make him laugh. These were the important pieces. Who I loved – although clearly important to me – didn’t matter to him. I mean, he wanted me happy, but he wasn’t concerned who was contributing to it. This was true for my whole life. He didn’t want a relationship with my partner; he wanted a relationship with me.

A discussion around someone’s private life didn’t interest my father. Hal Cox, the serial husband, knew he had no business telling people whom they could and could not love. A man who had been married and divorced four times was always so shocked by the discussion around gay marriage – “Let them be as miserable as the rest of us” was his favorite argument. Umm…thanks, Dad…?

Now, two years after his death, the tide has changed. More and more people are talking about “the gays.” More specifically, they’re discussing my sex life. That’s really what it is. The people who are so anti-gay are mostly concerned about the things that happen within the confines of my bedroom (or the kitchen or the couch – let’s face it, straighties, gays are a lot like you.)

My father would be mortified. I am his daughter. Not only did my sex life never enter into his mind, the fact that other people are concerned with it would have made him so uncomfortable.

However, this societal swell of gay talk would have forced us to have a conversation.

I never talked to my dad about being gay because it was unimportant to him.

But who I am is important. And before my father died, I was never able to be fully authentic with him.

While being gay is not something that defines me, it certainly makes up who I am. And while my sex life is not now, nor will it ever be, your business, whom I love is important. Because the person I love makes me better and happier and more open and centered. And really, that’s kind of important. And while it is entirely too sappy – my father would quickly deflect and change the subject – it is important to know about love. Perhaps, if we led with that, we would be less inclined to preach hatred.

ImageSo, on this, the two-year anniversary of his death, I am saddened that he is gone – there is, and likely always will be, a hole in my heart where he was. I know he still sees me as smart(ish), and I probably still make him laugh (and his was a good laugh), but I am also certain that he sees me happy (or gay…see what I did there?) and fully authentic.

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September 3

Today, marks the birth of my best friend’s sons. They are 19.

I met these boys when they were two, and while I could recount countless, horribly embarrassing stories about them – ‘cause I knew them when they hated wearing clothes – I will, instead, focus on their amazingness.

One year ago today, I woke up hungover. Severely hungover. I was in my best friend’s guest room.

It was the morning after my dad’s memorial service. It was a simple service at his golf club. I was asked by his friends to lead a story-telling session. Then, it was like pulling teeth to get people to speak. I told several stories, some of them I’ve written about here. Finally, some people spoke – more to make me feel better than to share. I remember feeling like I was alone and out on a limb – my stories making sense only to me as the wine started to really kick in. Then, just as I would get a little nervous, a fresh glass of wine would appear in my hand – my family and friends making sure I was never without. Liquid courage.

I was driven home that night by my best friends. They took my contacts out, put me in bed, then just stayed with me while I cried. A lot. Something I hadn’t really done yet.

The next morning I woke up. My entire being ached. It was the remnants of alcohol, but also the feeling of permanence – he was gone.

I got up, slowly, and went to the bathroom to shower. But I couldn’t do it.

What if I got in the shower and didn’t feel better at all? In fact, what if I got in the shower only to get out to find that my dad was still gone?

I sat on the edge of the tub, fully clad in my pajamas. That’s when one of the twins, an 18-year-old man-child, walked by the bathroom.

“Morning, Mollycox,” he grumbled as he shuffled past, trying to walk the sleep off.

Then, just as suddenly, he reappeared in the doorway. He looked at me, took in how I’m sure I appeared, and came over to me. He perched himself on the side of the tub next to me, put his arm around me, and said simply, “I love you.” Then, got up and left.

I went back to bed and was awoken by his brother a couple of hours later. He was going to work – on his birthday no less – and wanted to say goodbye. He kissed me, said “I love you,” then left.

On their 18th birthday, they gave me the gift of understanding – “We know you’re hurting. We’re so sorry. We love you.” It gave me the strength I needed to rise that day and shower.

So, on this, their 19th birthday, I will not tell the stories of how they would speak in a bizarre language only they could understand; or how one time, the fit they threw at a store was so over-the-top that security wanted to know if they could help; or how even after being at school all day, they would come home and strip naked before they would hang out with us; or how jumping naked on the trampoline brought them incredible joy; or the time that their dog, Froggy, got a lit cigarette caught in his hair, and we kept screaming “Stop, drop, and roll, Froggy” while their mom chased him around with a hose.

Oh…wait…I guess I just did. I guess they’ll provide the understanding, again, when they realize that I am the one who also provides embarrassment.

Moments

Mr. Lopez mows my lawn. In fact, he’s been mowing the lawn at my house for 35 years, when the couple who originally owned my house still called it “home.” I moved in a little over a year ago. Mr. Lopez showed up about six months after that and informed me, in broken English, that he could take care of my lawn. He’s been doing it ever since.

Every three weeks Mr. Lopez shows up, and if I need him sooner than that, I call his cell phone. His wife, who speaks English, answers. She always asks, “Is this the lady with the dogs?” I affirm; she takes the message for him; he shows up.

Over the summer, Mr. Lopez didn’t show for nearly eight weeks. I really wasn’t too concerned. We were in the midst of a drought, so grass was not growing, and my house was under construction, so half my yard was covered with wall remnants and paint cans.

Finally, one morning he showed. I watched him approach my front door; he looked different. There was something about the way he was walking. His body was on my walkway; his mind was not. He seemed heavy.

I greeted him outside as I normally do. “Hi, Mr. Lopez!”

“Good Morning. Sorry. Haven’t come.”

I guess I should explain. I understand Spanish much better than I can speak it, which doesn’t say a lot. Mr. Lopez, on the other hand, speaks English better than he understands it. This was what our six months together had taught us – broken, half-phrases worked.

“Is all OK?” I asked.

“My wife. She is dead.”

No complicated turn of phrase. Simply. “My wife. She is dead. “

Then, he crossed himself as tears welled up in his eyes, and he looked up at the sky.

“I’m so sorry.” And then, the tears started.

“It is better. Now she is better.” Again, he looked to the sky.

His tears flowed now. I was crying freely, as well. We held hands.

I said, “My father died about a year ago.”

“Oh. Su papa.”

I nodded.

Standing in my front yard, grief transcended language. The connection over sadness always seems to make sense.

My neighbor, the hippie one that lives with his mom next door, came out then. I saw him see us. He waved. Add this to the list of other shit he’s witnessed from me:

  • Knocking myself unconscious on my garage door;
  • Climbing his fence at 2:00am in grandpa pajamas to retrieve my dog who had jumped his fence;
  • Crying in the corner of my backyard after I slipped and fell while taking out the trash; and now,
  • Holding hands and crying with Mr. Lopez in my front yard.

“We’re having a moment!” I shouted out to him. He just shrugged, got into his car, and drove away.

The moment passed. Mr. Lopez began his work; I came inside.

There’s a quiet understanding between us now. Grief has a way of making people friends.

One Year Later

I have tried, on multiple occasions, to sit down and write about my dad’s death – writing has always been a means for me to work through something – but, for some reason, I always get stuck on his last 24 hours. It doesn’t flow like other memories tend to do. So, instead, I’ll start with this…

Sometimes you take a shower, and the world becomes a better place. You get in feeling shitty; you get out clean and refreshed. But sometimes – on the rare occasion – you get in feeling shitty, and you get out still feeling shitty, only now you’re wet.

The day my dad died was when I discovered this second kind of shower.

I got into the shower miserably sad, and I got out miserably sad. Only now I was wet and I had to fucking dry off and put on fucking clothes and do my fucking after-shower routine, and really, I just wanted to be sad without all the other stuff.

It was Tuesday, August 23, 2011. My dad had just died. I returned home alone. I was very aware of the silence. I showered.

Then, wet and sad, I found myself sitting on the edge of my bed, which at that point was just a mattress on the floor in my house that was still under renovations. I can’t recall how long I sat there. but I was replaying my dad’s last 24 hours.

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I showed up at the assisted living residence that he had been living in since July 1 – you can read more about that here – just before lunchtime. After two strokes, my father had been reduced to the mental capacity of a five-year-old. The moments of lucidity were few and far between, but when they happened, they were magical.

That day, I found him in the barbershop they had on site. He was getting a haircut. He made eye contact with me through the mirror and smiled.

Since his first stroke, on June 2, 2011, there was something about the way he smiled every time he saw me – as though he had been waiting his whole life to see my face. Every single time he saw me. And I saw him two or three times a day, every day.

To be fair, my father had one of those smiles – it was warm and mischievous and charming all at the same time. When he smiled, his entire face would light up. So, to have that smile directed at me two or three times a day, every day, was both breathtaking and overwhelming. It was in those moments that I knew he loved me. We had never really said that much in my house.

But I digress.

The final touches were put on his haircut, and he stood up. His six-foot frame towered over the “barber,” a tiny woman who informed him, as he searched his empty pockets for money, that she “would bill him.” He smiled at her, then nodded at me, and told her I was there to pick him up because he “couldn’t find his car.”

His attention turned to me as we walked out of the barbershop.

“Hello, Baby.” Every time.

Smile, then “Hello, Baby.” Then…wait for it…”You wanna see the tree in my room?”

————

Right after we moved him into the residence, I took him to Home Depot. He informed me that he wanted a tree for his room. I found a small bamboo tree in a small pot. We put it in his room, and every day, every time I would see him, he would ask if I knew that there was a tree in his room or if I wanted to see the tree in his room. I asked around. He never mentioned the tree unless I was there. Somehow he connected that tree to me.

It’s in my house now. I am madly trying to keep it from dying. I’m not doing so great at that, but I’m holding out hope.

————

So…”You wanna see the tree in my room?”

“Sure, Dad.”

We walked, arms linked, down the hallway to his room. Ruby, one of the aids, was standing in the kitchen. He stopped me, then leaned against the wall. Crossing his arms, he beamed that smile of his and said to her, “How’s it going ?” It was perfect, quintessential Hal Cox – charming, slightly inappropriate, and full of confidence.

And that’s where it stops. I can’t remember anymore of that day until the phone call at around 9:00pm.

“Molly, we can’t get your father to wake up. He is unresponsive. Should we call an ambulance?”

I think I was at dinner. I was heading over to see him after, but I got this phone call from the nurse on duty, so I hurried over.

He was in his bed, his breathing erratic. He was completely unresponsive.

“Is the ambulance on the way?” I asked. They assured me it was.

I won’t bore you with all the details, but my father had his third and final stroke that night. It was in the direct center of his brain. The doctor said there was nothing that could be done. I remember standing outside the emergency room with my brother – the good brother – as we discussed the DNR and made the conscious decision to let my father die. But he didn’t. Not right away. He held on.

He was moved to a private room.  I sat in a chair next to his bed after the rest of my family had gone home just desperately wanting him to open his eyes and smile that smile and say, “Hello, Baby.” I can hear his voice saying it now – drawn out, slow, then an upward lilt at the end.

He died mid-morning. Just like that. The life literally just left his body, and his light went out. No more smile.

—————

So, it’s August 23, 2011, and my dad has just died. I returned home alone. I showered. I’m sitting on my mattress on the floor, and I’m thinking of the last 24 hours, and I am overcome with grief and sadness and life and emotion and, and, and….the silence is deafening.

I drank that night with the express intent of numbing all feelings, and I continued to drink every day, all day for the next 5 months.

But I digress.

On this, the one-year anniversary of my father’s death, I am, once again, overcome with grief and sadness and life and emotion…but the silence is OK. I’m not interested in numbing anything.

I intend to sit in it. Feel it. Then, I may even tackle a shower. And should I get out just feeling wet, I’ll try to remember how good it feels to simply feel.

Father’s Day

I woke up from what had to have been the most vivid dream I ever had (before or since). It was an Ambien dream filled with death and fear and vivid colors. The nurse had warned me that it might happen, but I remember waking up in a panic. And there he was.

I don’t know how long he had been sitting at the end of the bed, but when I awoke with sweat running down my brow and crying in a panic, he didn’t panic. My mom would have panicked; she wasn’t there. My dad just asked, “What’s the matter, baby?” I can hear it vividly in my head right now. His voice. His inflection. It’s as though my mind recorded it, and I can play it whenever I want.

I was in the hospital. Had been for several weeks. My mom stayed with me every day. My dad checked in when he could. That’s not a judgment…that’s a true statement. In that moment, when I awoke in a panic, in a lot of pain, barely able to keep my eyes open, that simple phrase, “What’s the matter, baby?” was what I needed. No panic. No fear. When you’re sick, the last thing you want to have to do is to ease the fear of others. If you’ve ever been sick – particularly in the hospital – you know that this is what you end up doing.

I won’t bore you with the details of why I was in the hospital, but know this: I thought I was dying; no one could figure out what was wrong. I’m fine now.

In that moment, when I awoke in my panic, I wanted to not take care of anyone. He made sure I didn’t have to. He listened to my incredibly long retelling of every vivid detail of my dream without interruption. I was better when I was done.

This was 2004.

In 2011, my father had a stroke. Now, he was in the hospital. Again, I won’t bore you with the details, but know this: an incredibly stubborn, independent man was reduced to the mentality of a 5-year-old. He was unable to take care of himself. At all.

We moved him to be near me. In the first place we moved him to, within the first 16 hours, he had wandered outside to the busiest street possible four times. We were told that for his safety he’d have to be moved to a secured facility. There was only one that took Medicare.

It took a few days to get him in, and when we did, I was mortified. The facility – the only secured facility in my entire city of over 1 million people that we could get him into – was literally a scene out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: people wandered aimlessly from room to room; there was the pungent smell of feces and urine; the halls echoed with the moans and wails of people who were lost in their own minds.

There was absolutely no way he was going to stay. I made two phone calls: one to the secured, private facility we would ultimately move him to, so I could secure his apartment for the next day; and one to my brother to discuss our options.

It was decided that because it was nearly 7:00pm, we would leave him to sleep there, then transfer him to the new place in the early morning.

I couldn’t believe he was staying in this place overnight – that I was letting him stay in this place overnight. I sat on the bed in his room, trying to hold back tears…not doing a great job of it. He was looking out the window. He turned and looked at me. Saw me. There was a moment of lucidity, I think. Then…

“What’s the matter, baby?”

I lost it. He hugged me, providing the comfort only a parent can. I cried into his chest. I apologized for leaving him there overnight; I apologized for not checking the facility first; I apologized for not really knowing how to maneuver the entire situation.

He listened to my incredibly long apology without interruption, letting me cry and beg for forgiveness. The patient was forced to ease my fears. Then, nodding towards the window, he said, “I think we’ll have to cut back that tree tomorrow if we want it to be ok for winter.” The moment was over; I still felt better.

In August of 2011, he died. Just like that. I was with him. Watched as the breath left his body.

On this, my first Father’s Day without my father, if he asked me his question, I would answer with a simple, “I just miss you, that’s all.”

Image

Hal Cox, 1941-2011