By Patricia Camburn Zick @PCZick
My father never leaped over tall buildings.
But he would have tried if I had asked him, and four decades after his death, he remains a hero to me.
But when I think of my father, even today, it is tinged with sadness because only in his dying moments did he come to the realization that what he had right in front of him made him a success in the eyes of those who mattered most.
In the days before his death, he knew he had only a short time left with us, and he made the most of those hours. He called my four brothers and me, along with his wife of forty-three years, into the dining room we had converted into his bedroom. The room, not more than nine-by-ten feet, could barely contain the hospital bed and the accoutrements of a dying man, let alone my tall brothers.
But he wanted us there, and he wanted us to touch him. All of us. I stood at the foot of the bed with one of my brothers. When my father saw us there, he lifted his head from the pillow with difficulty.
“You two down there, grab my big toes,” he commanded.
He then told us that he loved us all and always had. But he said he wished the rest of the family could be there. And he meant our spouses and his grandchildren. The only grandchild present that day was the one I carried inside of me, barely visible during the fourth month of my pregnancy.
I found out I was pregnant exactly one week after we found out my father had liver cancer. My first husband and I had been married only a year and hadn’t planned to start a family quite yet. But that was not to be.
In fact, I thought my nausea when my father received his death sentence was the result of my great sorrow as I contemplated losing my father, the first man in my life and in my heart.
The day I found out I was pregnant, we drove to the hospital immediately to give my father the news. He didn’t say too much, but right after we told him, his cousin walked in the door.
“I’m going to have a granddaughter,” he told her.
From that moment on, I never considered that I was carrying anything but a little girl inside my womb. I told my father one day during his last summer—one month before he died—that I had picked out the name for the baby.
“We’re going to name her Anna, after your mother,” I said.
His eyes filled with tears, and he turned his head away from me. “I never cared for any girl’s name but Patricia Ann.” My name. And that was the last he ever talked about my pregnancy and his seventh grandchild.
At first, I was hurt by his refusal to talk about my child. But then I realized that my father’s refusal came because he knew he would never see my daughter. He would be gone from this world before her birth.
After a few weeks in the hospital, we couldn’t bear walking into his room to find soiled sheets and food caked on his face, lying there all alone too weak to do anything. So, we decided to bring my father home to die. We took vacation time from our jobs, and we all stayed with our mother through his final weeks.
One day my father called me into the small room and asked me to read his favorite Psalm to him, the twenty-third. I needed help remembering, so I opened the Bible from his bedside table and began to read. I choked at times overcome with the beauty of the words and their meaning now that my father lay dying. When my voice faltered, my father’s voice came out strong and sure as he spoke the words from memory.
His pale face lay against the pillow, and with eyes closed, he said the Psalm in his old voice, the one before the cancer, the strong authoritative one. He gave me the strength to continue reading.
The year before, when I came home to tell my parents that I was getting married, they both hugged me and began talking excitedly about the wedding ceremony. I wanted to be married in my parents’ home in the garden where my mother grew flowers of extraordinary proportions.
My mother mentioned my father giving me away. And I, fresh out of college with newfound feminism beating on my consciousness, said, “I don’t belong to anyone. No one has the right to give me away.”
My father didn’t turn away fast enough for me to miss the bullet I shot through his heart. Never have I wished more that my tongue and brain worked in unison. However, I never regretted what I said on my next visit home.
“Dad, would you walk me out to the garden on my wedding day?” I asked.
My father never made a whole lot of money, and he never found a job that made him happy. But he always worked, and he kept a roof over our heads. And even though he slaved long hours for other people, he never forgot he was a father.
He attended every game my four brothers ever had a chance of playing during their high school years. And they played them all: football, basketball, and baseball. Some of them wore out the courts and fields, and others wore out the benches. But my father attended every game, home and away.
And while my brothers will say that my father spoiled me, I will say that I always had my father on my side. When I was sixteen, I took my father’s 1962 Chevy station wagon out for the evening. Even when I came in the house and told my father the car had four flat tires, he never got mad at me.
“Must have been bad tires,” he said. “You don’t know how it happened?”
“No, Dad. I just heard something funny about a block from the house,” I told him.
I didn’t lie. I just didn’t confess that an hour earlier, with fifteen friends stuffed into the back, we’d taken a joy ride through a recently harvested cornfield. He never questioned me again, and I never told.
But two years later when I got my first car, he took me out to the driveway before he would let me drive away.
“Open the trunk,” he commanded. “Now you’re going to learn to change your own tire.”
And I did.
My hero. He never flew through the sky or changed clothes in a phone booth, but he didn’t have to do those things. He just had to be my dad.