Friday, June 30, 2006

When the shoe is on the other foot

My dad will be turning 84 next month. He is in amazingly good health, his mind is still pretty damn sharp, and he still cuts his own grass, shovels mulch, and all that other manly-man stuff.

My dad has always been bigger than life to me. Most of my early childhood he was over in Vietnam working for the U.S. government, so I didn't know him as Dad - I knew him as Julian. I would hear my mom telling the neighbors that Julian was coming home, and I would run through the house yelling, "Julian's home!" over and over again. He was in and out of my earliest memories so much that it's hard to remember my first concrete memory of him.

One of my fondest memories was the year my mom took my teenage brother to Hawaii with her. I was probably five or six years old, and my poor dad was tasked with taking care of me all by himself. Keep in mind, since he was in the military he was gone a lot as my siblings were growing up, so I'm not sure exactly how much on-the-job experience he had in the care and feeding of a five-year-old girl. My mom had meticulously prepared spaghetti sauce, casseroles, and similar ilk and frozen them all so we could have good meals while she was away. Instead, Dad took me to McDonald's every night that week and let me have a Happy Meal with a strawberry sundae for dessert - and became my hero for my lifetime.

Most people who meet my dad comment on how easy-going and kind he is. He is all of that and more. He is deeply spiritual. He is smart as hell. He has a quick and dry wit. He is a great father.

So tonight, when I called, the hair on the back of my neck stood up. We talked for about ten minutes - he did most of the talking, but something was very odd. His speech was slower, more slurred than his normal soft Southern drawl. His speech was totally off and out of character for him. Immediately, my mind began to race - had he had a small stroke? Was the peripheral neuropathy he's suffered from for several years now affecting his speech?

I hung up and called my sister. She called and checked on Dad and as it turns out, he had been working at my aunt's house today in the heat doing some handyman repairs for her. I imagine he was probably pretty exhausted from the heat and the list of chores. She feels like he's okay - and since she's a former nurse, I know that if anyone would sense something being wrong, it would be her.

I know that at 84 years old, his end will eventually come. I'm just not ready for it. And I don't think I will ever be ready for it. I am so used to him taking care of me that it's hard for me to put the shoe on the other foot and be the caretaker at this point. When he was diagnosed with prostate cancer several years ago, I was devastated at first until I realized that my dad had never let anything beat him in his entire life. Then I knew deep in my heart that everything would be okay. There was one day when he was visiting that I glanced at him across the room and saw how much weight he had lost from the radiation treatments - so much that his pants were cinched around his waist with a belt and they were still on the verge of falling off of him - that I had my first glimpse of my dad as human versus mythical hero. It was a very, very hard moment.

He will always be my hero and my rock. I just hope that I can be there for him and be his rock when he needs me to be.

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