Essay: Bye, Dad

 Regina (Fazio) Maruca ’84 has worked as a reporter, ghost writer and editor for more than 25 years.  She is currently senior editor at The Bridgespan Group, and lives in Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters.

The sliced beef was steamy-hot, slathered in delicious brown gravy, salty and smooth. There were warm rolls, recently emerged from the oven, fluffy on the inside and just a little crisp on the outside.  On the edges of the plates sat little plastic tubs of bright yellow butter, melting slightly around the edges. There were roasted potatoes and steamed green beans. And it was just the three of us together again, at mealtime, like it had been when I was growing up. My mother, Helen, my father, Tony, and me, their only child.

With one honking-huge difference. Tony was dead. In fact, he had literally just died.  My father lay in the bed, eyes closed, his arms and the nursing-home sheets askew. And Helen and I sat on metal chairs between the bed and the wall, eating that beef and gravy and those roasted potatoes and green beans, on white plates that were crowded onto brown trays on a rolling bed-table.

Just a half hour before, I had been fighting with him—wrestling, literally—over the oxygen tubes. I (stupidly) kept trying to put them back in his nose, and he (surprisingly strong) was pulling them out and pushing my hands away, telling me “Let go.” And just about ten minutes before, the nurses had asked us to go into the hall so that they could put in a catheter, to try to lessen his pain.

We were only out there for a minute or two, but when we went back in, I could see from the foot of the bed that something had changed: his body was positioned just as it had been before, only he no longer inhabited it. Helen, nearly blind from macular degeneration and diabetes, gingerly felt her way along the side of the bed, slowly moving her hands over his body all the way up to his head; I don’t think she knew right away. But then she was touching his face, and crying, and the nurses were saying, “I’m so sorry” or something like that—appropriate words, whatever they actually were.

Then another nurse and an orderly come in with the food, and we were all inefficiently pulling the bed-table around from the curtained side of his bed to our side, the wall side closest to the bathroom and the door, and placing the trays down. I sat on the chair, unwrapping Helen’s tea bag, dunking it into the hot water in her cup, adding milk, cutting up her food, handing her a napkin.

We ate without hesitation and commented to each other about how very good it was, how hot, how full of flavor. We didn’t say anything about it maybe being strange to be eating in a room with a dead body.  We didn’t say anything about the inane orderliness of the nursing home to bring the bereaved hot food at the moment of a loved one’s death. And, as we were eating, other people came in and out, checking him, looking at his face and feet, writing things down on their clipboard pads; I have no idea why.

I remember that a few bites in, with one nurse on the other side of the bed, and me and Helen and our table and trays and food on the other, Tony’s bare foot kicked out hard and almost knocked over my tray. The nurse (or was it my mother?) said, “Don’t worry; that happens; that’s perfectly normal.” One of them said something about electricity. I pushed his foot back a few inches and ate another piece of potato.

I prepared for years for my father’s death. Probably I was preparing from the time he had heart surgery, eight years before, when I was 38. I certainly prepared every day since he had gone into the nursing home. I did what I needed to do then (secured power of attorney; paid their bills; moved my mom into assisted living near me and my family; cleaned out the New York house in which I grew up and got it rented). And I was clear on what I would need to do when he died (alert the funeral home; write the obit; select a suit and shirt and a good tie; contact friends and family; pull together a photo album for people to look at during the wake; make hotel reservations; call work; call the banks; call the Veteran’s Administration).

What I wasn’t at all prepared for was the actual moment he died, or the time immediately following. I wasn’t ready for his roommate (on the other side of the curtain, an ancient man named Nate listening to gospel music on his television, a neon pink satin throw inexplicably covering his entire head, calling out, “Is he gone? Did he die? I’m sorry for your loss! I pray for you! I pray for you!”)

I wasn’t prepared for that food. Or deciding whether we wanted to keep his clothes and glasses and the books that sat unread on his nightstand. (When I realized the next day that I wanted the red sweatshirt with “Hong Kong” written on it that I had brought back for him as a souvernir from a trip, I went back and got it, glad they hadn’t yet thrown it out).  I wasn’t prepared for telling my husband or my children.

I wasn’t prepared for my colleagues’ kindness, or for the people who drove hours to come to the wake, or for seeing my cousin John and being so happy he was there.

I wasn’t prepared for having to let go, for real, even though my dad told me to.

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About Sandi Sonnenfeld

Sandi Sonnenfeld is a fiction writer and essayist. Her memoir, This Is How I Speak (2002: Impassio Press), which recounts how her views about what it means to be a woman in contemporary America changed after suffering a dangerous sexual assault, was a Booksense 76 finalist. With the memoir’s publication, she was named a 2002 Celebration Author by the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association, which recognizes writers whose work merits special notice. Sandi has published more than two-dozen short stories and essays in Sojourner, Voices West, Hayden’s Ferry Review, ACM, Raven Chronicles, Necessary Fiction, Perigee, Revolution House and The Doctor TJ Eckleburg Review among others. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Sandi holds an MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of Washington, where she won the Loren D. Milliman Writing Fellowship. She currently resides in New York's glorious Hudson Valley with her husband and the two of the world's most playful cats.

4 thoughts on “Essay: Bye, Dad

  1. Regina, thank you for sharing this powerful piece. There is always something about the connection between food and loved ones. You truly captured the mix of the surreal and the ordinary, and above all, the amazing process of loving and “letting go.” I really like your style of writing.

    • Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments. I’m glad that you read it, and (I don’t know if “enjoy” is the right word) — well, I’m glad it moved you to write. I have since edited it some more – not much. The piece is an account of that part of that day as best as I can remember it. And interestingly, I wasn’t even thinking explicitly about the food and loved ones connection — though it has always been/ and always will be a big part of who I am and who my family is — I think it may be so in any family, but I have strong memories of Sundays at my Italian grandparents’ house – -and they all circle back to the food. — Regina

  2. Thank you for writing this. It’s a very moving piece, and beautifully crafted. I don’t know when you had to let go of your dad, but I am sorry for your loss.

    • Hi — Thank you so much for reading it! And thank you also for your sympathy. It as 2009, and he was a great person. I’m finding that it is only recently that I am able to have that kind of perspective where I can tell my kids old stories about him when I was growing up and laugh. This may sound weird, but in finding that I can “let go,” it is easier to have the memories of him with me. (convoluted, maybe, but true!)

      On the piece, I am really in debt to Sandi Sonnenfeld for her editing skills and encouragement. I think on my earlier drafts, I had included way too many details, and Sandi helped me so much in distilling it/sharpening it.
      Thank you again!

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