I knew my dad was dead.
Significant events always come with stories, and when I called my sister back she told me the story of how he died. It was a story I would hear many times over the next several weeks, from several people – where they were, how they found out, how it happened. We turn important stories in our hands, listen to them from every angle in order to grasp their enormity.
He was getting out of the shower when he had a massive heart attack and collapsed. My step-mom was in the other room watching TV when she heard him fall. She ran to the bathroom and opened the door, saw him flat out on the floor, towel half wrapped around his body. He’d had heart trouble for years, and she immediately grabbed his nitro pills. She tried to push one into his mouth. His jaw was rigid, his teeth clenched. She couldn’t get the pill in.
She called the ambulance and sat with him on the bathroom floor, holding him and saying, “Joe, don’t leave me.”
When the paramedics arrived, his implanted defibrillator went off and his body spasmed. The little machine inside his chest was trying to zap his heart into a regular beat. The paramedics stepped back. If you’re touching somebody whose defibrillator is going off, you can get jolted too.
They did what they could, but they could not save him.
Gone too soon
I wish he could have seen this place, our property in Martinborough, or at the very least known about it. When he died CJ and I were still living in a tiny flat in Wellington. We’d recently arrived in New Zealand from Japan and hadn’t found this slice of rural paradise yet, hadn’t even considered moving out to the country.
My dad would have found it hilarious, in a good way. I can almost hear his voice over the phone, in a conversation I never had with him.
“Moving to the country.” I’d answer.
“Why the heck would you and CJ do that? I thought you guys like big cities.”
“It’s gorgeous out there,” I’d tell him. “The olive trees are beautiful.”
He’d be laughing hard by then, getting a kick out of another crazy idea from his son – first it was moving to Japan, then to New Zealand, now out to the countryside to be an olive farmer. My dad hated travel, would much rather sit in his La-Z-Boy recliner in front of the TV and watch documentaries about African wildlife.
But he would have understood when I told him about the way the house looked down at the olive grove, out towards the trout stream at the boundary, and up to the hills beyond. He would have appreciated that. He loved nature.
When my sisters and I were kids, he used to take us camping. He’d dig a hole in the ground, stick a roll of toilet paper on a tree branch, and call it a latrine. Driving to Northern Michigan to go camping was the only kind of travel he understood. He would do things like spot a beaver or a cardinal and say, “shh,” and we would watch in silence for a long time.
The day after I received that call from my sister, CJ and I were hurtling through the clouds, bound for Detroit, the words ‘New Zealand Air’ painted on the side of our plane. CJ took care of everything. If you’re ever in a crisis, you want CJ there. His head stays clear. He takes control. God bless him for that.
My dad’s funeral was a blur. There were people there I didn’t know, others I barely recognized – people from church growing up, old neighbors, my dad’s co-workers and friends. Many of them came up to me and said what a good man my dad was, how funny, how kind, how much he helped them at this point or that.
Those things are true, were true. But other things were true too. He was a complicated man.
He loved kids and animals, and he loved cigarettes and fried eggs. He was both supportive and argumentative. He had a fantastic, playful sense of humor and a terrible, explosive temper. He was a great storyteller, and a good listener too. He stubbornly ate and smoked himself to death. He was only 62.
Weekly phone call
In the last year of his life, I called him every weekend. CJ encouraged me to do this. CJ’s a little psychic and I think he knew my dad was going before the rest of us.
Those phone conversations were an incredible blessing in my life. My dad and I developed a fantastic, new rapport during that last year. I discovered I could say anything to him as long as I said it as a playful joke. When he told me, as he did often, that I didn’t need to call him every weekend, I just said, “Listen, old man. I’m going to call you and you can’t stop me. So shut up about it.” He loved that, and he would laugh and laugh.
I don’t know what happens when we leave this world, but I like to think that somewhere my dad is watching. I like to think that he is seeing me with CJ as we chase invading sheep out of our bottom paddock, as I attempt to out-smart the uninvited guests that keep getting into our chicken run.
And I like to think that, wherever he is, he is laughing.