It has been said that a boy doesn’t fully grow up and enter adulthood until his father dies. If that is the case, I grew up two days ago.
My dad’s passing did not come as a complete surprise. A month ago my sister called to tell me that he’d suffered a major heart attack and the attending physician told her that, “Anyone who needs to say goodbye needs to come sooner rather than later.” The next day I got on a plane and flew down to Phoenix.
It was the first time I’d been to the group home where we’d moved him shortly after my last trip to Phoenix in December. All I can say is I hope that when the time comes and I find myself in a similar situation that I end up in such a warm, welcoming place.
When I arrived, Dad was weak, but in good spirits. Surprisingly, he actually looked better than the last time I’d seen him. And despite the fact his chart read “actively dying,” he was eating like a horse. I called my friend Cindy—a lifetime nurse—and told her about this and she said that was pretty common; that the body was rallying for one last hurrah. She had seen this many times before and said it could be anywhere from a few days to a few weeks until he passed on.
My sister and I mended the rift that had opened since my previous trip, and—since apparently no one had actually told Dad how serious his heart attack had been—had “the talk” with him. We told him that if he wanted to go, he could. We would both be all right, that he raised two great kids, and that we loved him. In typical Arthur fashion, he looked at us and said, “What if I don’t want to go?” We laughed.
My dad worked as chief architect and designer for Hallcraft Homes during the peak of their business in the 1970s. His residential designs changed the face of Phoenix—if only through the ubiquitous presence of the homebuilder in the valley. Today you cannot drive anywhere in Phoenix without seeing his work, even if his name is totally unknown by the people living those homes. (Ben’s grandparents actually live in one of his designs.)
On my second—and last—day in Phoenix, on the way to the group home I took a detour through what I consider to be the high point of Hallcraft’s reign; a subdivision called Biltmore Highlands. Our family had even considered moving there—going to far as to actually pick out one of the homes—as I was about to start high school, but for one reason or another it never came to fruition. I don’t know if it was overall cost of the house, or the school district we’d be moving into, or the fact we could get a bigger home for the same amount of money elsewhere, but ultimately we ended up moving to a new place (in another Hallcraft development) on the west side about a mile south of where we were currently living.
I’d driven through the Highlands back in 1998 and was surprised at the changes, but for the most part the homes were still instantly recognizable to me and my heart swelled with pride knowing that my dad had designed them. But driving through the streets that morning was more of a shock. Major remodelings since 1998 seemed to be the norm, and in fact, entire homes had been razed and replaced with horribly ugly McMansions. What surprised me the most, however, was that the house we’d initially chosen to move into remained virtually unchanged. Yeah, it had been painted, front doors replaced and a small wall had been erected out front, but otherwise it looked the same as it did back in 1972:
Alternate timelines, bitches. The mind reels at how different my adult life might’ve been if we’d moved there instead of where we ended up.
I got to the group home before my sister that morning, so I had some quality one-on-one time with Dad. We reminisced about everything from his days in the Navy during World War II and the Korean War to those days at Hallcraft to his brief stint in San Francisco. I said everything I needed to, and it seemed he did the same. Tears welled in both our eyes as we said goodbye several hours later, knowing that this was probably going to be the last time we would see each other.
I flew back to Denver that afternoon, knowing that the next time the phone rang and my sister’s name appeared on the display it would be that call.
Several days passed, so I called her and she said that Dad had made an amazing comeback; he was even out of bed and sitting out on the home’s front veranda. I called him a few minutes later and he said he was tired but feeling good.
And that has been the situation until last Tuesday. I realized it had been a week since I’d last spoken to him, so I called that night. He again reported feeling a bit tired, but my god, he sounded amazing; stronger and more vibrant than I’d heard in months.
So it was a bit of a shock when I got the call from my sister at 8:30 the next morning. She never calls me at work, so even before I answered I knew what what had happened.
She said he was fine before breakfast, but when they returned to get his dishes he was gone, laying there peacefully with his eyes closed.
I’m not flying down this time; Dad had the foresight about ten years ago to get everything set up beforehand with the Neptune Society (something, ironically I’m going to do for myself with some of his life insurance money) so neither my sister or I would have to deal the actual disposition of his body. My sister will keep the cremains at her house until next fall, when we’ll all gather to scatter the ashes in southern Arizona as he’d requested.
My dad had always been an excellent father. Though I know over the course of my life I caused him untold financial and emotional distress, he never stopped loving me. When one of my cars blew up, he was there with credit card in hand. When I lost my job in San Francisco in 2002, he opened his doors to me. I don’t know if that was strictly the father in him speaking, or if it was because—some thirty years earlier—he’d found a kindred spirit in his son.
In 1976, when I came out to my family, several days later, my dad took me aside and came out to me. Like so many men in the 1950s, he had become—as Bette Midler might say—”trapped in an act, not of his own design.” While there was no doubt that he loved my mother, he was still a gay man living a double life, and my coming out allowed him to finally let someone—family—know who he really was. I can’t even begin to imagine the weight that fell from his shoulders that summer, but I know from that point onward our whole relationship changed. He was no longer simply the authoritative father figure I’d grown up with; he was also rapidly becoming my friend.
And maybe that’s the reason I’m finding that his death is hitting me much harder than when my mom passed several years ago. I don’t know if it’s because Alzheimer’s robbed us of much of who Mom was long before her passing, or if in addition to losing my dad, through his death I also lost a really good friend.
March 23, 1926-February 20, 2013