Happy Birthday to My Dead Father
Francis Dodson Hessey would have been 92 this month, had he not died in May of 1989 at the way-too-young age of 70.
I never really got to say good-bye, unless you count my last visit with him two days before he passed. Emaciated and cold, he could barely sit up in the bed to eat. So I crawled in next to him, held him up, and fed him a few bites, even though his false teeth were too large and sort of rattled around in his mouth. He could still talk, though.
“You have a job, Jilly?”
“Of course, Dad.”
“You have a car?”
“Yes, Dad. Your red Turismo. You gave it to me six months ago when you couldn’t drive anymore. Remember?”
“You have a nice place to live?”
“Yes, Dad. It’s the condo you and Mom put the down-payment on for me when Farrah and I moved here from LA. Remember that? It was a beautiful thing you did for us.”
A fresh can of Ensure sat untouched on his tray.
“Drink this, Daddy. You really need to get some fuel into you.”
I held the can to his lips, and they trembled as he took a swallow.
He slept after that. His first night in the nursing home. There was no Hospice back then, and the VA Hospital expelled him after five days because he was dying. Don’t even get me started on that. The cancer had spread to his brain, but he still had intermittent periods of lucidity. When not lucid, it was pretty awful. The last few months of his life we watched him disintegrate, mind and body.
I remember thinking, after that last visit, how odd his questions had been, until I was later told by a therapist that very often, when people are about to die, they “take inventory” on their loved ones, so they can feel at peace about their well-being.
His “taking inventory” on our last time together remains at the forefront of my mind, because it was clear he loved me.
Truth be told, I had spent quite a few years being angry with him, even hating him at times. Having had a front-row seat on the roller coaster ride that was his marriage to my mother, I pretty much had to completely detach from both of them for a couple of decades. Bad behavior, cheating ways, and too much alcohol for too long? Well, that very briefly sums up the bad stuff.
When Frank was gone, and he was no longer there to piss me off, I began to feel little nudges of an odd, unfamiliar feeling. Something called “forgiveness.” And it made me feel like I’d lost weight. With that, my brain’s barricaded doors suddenly unlocked and flew open, and waves of wonderful memories of my father flooded in.
♥ being little and carried to bed on his shoulders, as his loosened trousers always fell to his ankles and caused him to lumber and trip his way down the hall while I squealed in delight.
♥ being six, watching Disney on Sunday evenings with my family, Dad in his green leather chair, ceremoniously lifting up his right butt cheek and farting explosively into the living room air, resulting in the usual admonition from my mother, and hysterical laughter from my brother and me.
♥ being eleven, in the den taking swing dance lessons from Dad to the sounds of Glenn Miller, the Dorseys, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald spinning on the turntable.
I could go on but I won’t.
The thing is, I think I finally might understand Frank Hessey, twenty-two years after his death. Here’s a man who started out poor as a kid, borrowed money for college and paid it all back, became a career officer, a fighter pilot, a good provider for his family. Here’s a man who had exceptional good-looks, an incredible brain, guts, and a killer sense of humor.
Here’s a man who fought in three wars.
Here’s a man who had “shell shock.”
Here’s a man who could not thrive in every-day life after that.
I would love to hug him, tell him how sorry I am for having been so angry with him, for not understanding, for being so fucking clueless.
Well then…perhaps he’s listening. I hope so.
Happy Birthday, Dad.