As You Lay Dying

I forgave you, Dad, and asked you to forgive me.

Your heart attack occurred early in the morning on November 30, 1994. I was aboard the USS Tripoli, returning to the states after a long six months at sea when I received notice. The Chaplain came to my stateroom to inform me and leave me a copy of the Red Cross message. The message said you were in a coma, and the doctors did not expect you to live. The letter also stated Mom needed me and requested my presence at home. Three days later I walked off the ship in Pearl Harbor, spent the night at Mom Ono’s house, and flew home to Tampa.

The somber reunion with Mom didn’t contain the same happiness and joy of our previous reunions, of course, but she put on her brave face, welcomed me home, and squeezed my hands and kissed me the same loving way she had always done. Her hip still bothered her from the hip replacement surgery several months earlier so she used a walker to get around. I remember the letter you wrote to me describing how she had broken her hip roller-skating the previous May when she jumped over a little boy who fell in front of her. Sixty-four years old and roller-skating – just like Mom, wasn’t it? The situation struck me as ironic: the two of you met in 1947 when you collided while roller-skating at a rink in San Francisco. You married two short months later. Now, Mom faced your likely death.

I wanted her to lean on me, and she did in many ways, but the walker supported her sore hip much better. We drove to University Community Hospital the day I returned home; the drive took only five minutes. Had you received CPR right away you might have survived, but she couldn’t move very fast without pain and could only look on as you lay dying in the driveway, just a few feet from the flagpole flying the flag you proudly served under for so many years. Fortunately, the newspaper deliveryman drove by and saw you lying there. He stopped and ran over to perform CPR while Mom called for an ambulance. You finally breathed again, but too much time had elapsed: we learned at the hospital that you suffered brain damage from lack of oxygen.

An ambulance brought you home the next day and I had you put in my old bedroom, the walls still wearing signs of the deep purple paint you let me use on them when I turned fourteen. My old room seemed so much smaller than I remembered. I cared for you for the next nine days, administering medicine and doing the small things one does for people who can’t care for themselves. The hospice nurse came every day to check on you, but I know she was also checking on Mom and me. For nine days, I rarely left your side for long, Dad. I didn’t want you to die alone.

I took care of you and thought of all the times you took care of me. The times you and I traveled to the Air Force hospital in Wiesbaden when I needed tubes put in my ears. The appointment with Doctor Waters when he checked your hearing, too, and how you jumped when your ears popped; Doctor Waters and I both laughed. Then I remembered how you let go of my bike at just the right moment in the park in Holland, and I sailed away without training wheels for the first time. What a feeling! How you held my hand as we window-shopped in the snow that night in Driebergen. I remembered your pride when I graduated from boot camp, and the pride you felt at the Pentagon when Admiral Kelso pinned me with my Chief’s anchors.

While you lay dying I thought of the ways I wanted to remember you. I tried to take rubbings of the tattoos you had as a young Sailor during World War II. I imagined you got most of them in San Francisco or Pearl Harbor. There were crossed cannons, of course, since you were a Gunner’s Mate, palm trees, a clipper ship and, my favorite, the hula girl. She was a great favorite of my friends, too, who loved it when you flexed your muscles and made her dance for us. The rubbings were not successful, though. To this day I regret not having clear photos of your tattoos.

Sometime during the nine days you lingered between life and death I began talking to you. I remember holding your hand and telling you how much your criticism had hurt me as a teenager. I told you I was thankful you had not been physically abusive, but the criticism had left scars that didn’t heal like physical scars. I told you how, in my teens, I became painfully shy and self-conscious, felt others didn’t like me, and judged me. I expected girls not to like me so I presented a negative attitude toward them. That kind of attitude is easily felt, and a turn-off. But, I still had girlfriends throughout my teens, and you liked them when I brought them home. I had lots of male friends, too. I was actually quite normal on the outside. Inside, I knew people liked me, but I couldn’t understand why. I didn’t like myself. I became a follower instead of a leader. I looked for people like me and fell in with them. The odd thing is, I knew deep down what was happening, that only I could change myself, but I just couldn’t do it.

Then I joined the Navy. I still had a negative image of myself, but I gradually came out of my shell. I managed to do well in the Navy and had a successful career despite my poor self-image and lack of self-confidence. I did well on my enlisted advancement exams and promoted on time. I earned the respect of my peers and seniors for my work habits and skills, always received the highest performance marks for my speaking and writing ability, and went to work on time every day. To my amazement, I earned supervisor of the quarter honors in 1986. To my astonishment, I was recognized by the Naval Safety Center for averting an aircraft mishap and loss of lives. I even earned a Navy Achievement Medal for my performance from 1986 to 1989.

From then on, as I wrote in my letters home, I received regular recognition, including selection as the 1992 Sailor of the Year for my squadron, VP-11; Sailor of the Year for the base, NAS Brunswick Maine; for the Patrol Squadron Air Wing for the east coast; all aviation commands on the east coast and, finally, as the Sailor of the Year for the entire US Atlantic Fleet, the first Sailor from the P-3 aircraft community to receive the honor.

But, you know what, Dad? I was afraid. I was afraid someone would find out I didn’t deserve the honor, someone would find something in my past that would reverse all the honors bestowed on me and I would spend the rest of my career shamed and shunned. I felt like an imposter. I was afraid I would be found out! For what, I didn’t know. I still thought I was no good. All the times you told me as a young teenager I was a lazy good for nothing, no good, and would never amount to anything – well, those words went deep and lived in my heart for years.

I know you were proud of me, though. Mom told me how you talked to strangers on your road trips, showing them my photo, and telling them about my achievements and how proud you were of me and what a good man I had become. But the two of us could never talk to each other. The last time we saw one another before you died we argued and I left the house mad. I had just received my commission as an Ensign and proudly wore my officer uniform home. And we argued. Again.

However, over the years I came to understand you thought you were doing the right thing, you were trying to make me behave, conform, try harder to be good, succeed, not be a lazy good for nothing. You tried the only way you knew. But, it was the wrong way dad. I wasn’t perfect, I could be lazy, but I didn’t deserve the criticism.

As you lay dying, I thought of your life. I thought of you and what made you the person you became. I began to understand what war had done to you. I realized a man cannot see his shipmates blown apart and their body parts splattered all over him, and not feel anguish. I understood the guilt you felt after the gun tub you left so you could assist in another received a direct hit from a Japanese aircraft moments later and killed the men in it. I understood then an eighteen year old boy has a long life ahead of him and will remember every day for the rest of his life the horrible slaughter that occurred around him, and will hear over and over again the screams of the wounded and dying, and will see the lifeless eyes staring unseeing toward heaven. I understood, too, your guilt over living while those around you died.

Then, Dad, I asked your forgiveness for being ungrateful for your sacrifices, of which there were many. I begged forgiveness for the time I told you I didn’t want to go canoeing with you, that you should have thought of that when I was a kid – my cruelest moment toward you. I said I was sorry for cussing you out at the dinner table.

We were far from rich, but we had food on the table, clothes on our backs, and gifts for birthdays and Christmas. You worked so many jobs to provide for us. I apologized for not recognizing what you did for us. I never hated you, Dad. I never felt anger toward you. I just felt hurt.

Your death, Dad, came at 12:08 a.m. on December 11, 1994, three days after my thirty-fifth birthday. I had just left your side to check on Mom and see if I could do anything for her. I knew immediately when I went back to my old room a few minutes later that you had died. Death left its trademark, a ghastly ashen pallor, on your face. I wept as I stroked your cheeks and kissed your forehead. I begged you to live and come out of the coma. But, you were gone. I told you how sorry I was that you had died alone. I told Mom you were gone and held her while she cried into my shoulder. After a few minutes, I called the hospice and spoke the words “Code Blue” and hung up the phone. Then I walked outside and lowered your flag to half-mast.

 

 

11 thoughts on “As You Lay Dying

  1. Will Pennington

    The healing started while I took care of dad. This essay helped complete it. I explored dad’s anger in another essay, and found out what war does to a young man of nineteen years when he sees his shipmates die around him.
    Thank you for your beautiful comment.

    Like

  2. Lyn

    Oh my! This beautiful post gripped my heart and squeezed it, then reduced me to tears. My Dad died when I was fourteen. I never really got to know him deeply, but he gave me my love of books.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Will Pennington

      Ohh, I’m so sorry you lost him so young. I didn’t know my dad until I shed my selfishness and really looked inside him. My essay, Eighteen Thousand, Two Hundred and Fifty, completes my journey to find my dad.
      My dad, too, gave me my love of books. I never knew him to be a writer, but I think this gift comes from him as well. Dad was sensitive and introspective, but worked too hard his whole life to follow the dreams he must have had as a kid.
      I appreciate your comment very much. Thank you.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. lifewithjackie

    Beautifully written, Will. I took care of my father the last year of his life. He was always at work, trying to give us what he never had, so I was never able to spend time with him. I am so grateful for that last year together.

    Liked by 1 person

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