Daddy was dying. The bone cancer, now complicated by pneumonia, had sent him to the hospital again. I stayed in a hotel nearby for three days. When the doctor said he had stabilized, I returned home to work on some writing deadlines.
A day later, my brother Tom called. Daddy had taken a turn for the worse. You’d better hurry, he said, if you want to see him. Bob cancelled his meetings in Seattle so he could pick me up at the dock after the ferry delivered me to the mainland.
As I rode across the waters of Puget Sound, the irony of taking a boat to get to Daddy’s bedside was not lost on me. He loved the water and the ferry represented for him the fun of rivers and oceans and his greatly anticipated summer vacations.
Except for a brief stint at the Grays Harbor Chair Factory, Daddy spent his whole working life at the Graystone Company. Sometimes, when he got home from the day shift, the plant boss would call, asking if he could fill in for someone that evening, and he would go back to work the graveyard shift. I never heard him say, “No.”
His job consisted of mixing stone, sand and cement, metered in exact amounts, and loading it onto the ready mix trucks, adding just the precise ratio of water. Some mornings, Mama had to kneel down and lace up his work boots because the pain from lifting the 100-pound bags of cement prevented him from bending over.
Daddy in still life
In second grade, we made crayon drawings of our dads for Parents’ Night. Our teacher said to leave off our names because our moms and dads were going to guess which one was ours.
Mama later said, “As if we would have had any trouble finding yours.”
My portrait showed the head, shoulders and chest of a man. He wore a bill cap and his piercing blue eyes stared out from a face that appeared to be covered with a film of gray ash. On the pocket of his blue work shirt, I had written “Mel” in loopy letters.
It was unmistakably, without any doubt, Daddy. It was the lens I saw him through when he trudged through the back door into the kitchen every night, covered in cement dust, lunch pail in hand.
His lessons about persistence and commitment came back to me later, when as a single parent, I would work with refugee children during the day and—on my own graveyard shift— teach English to their parents in night school. I did it so my daughter would not have to stand in the free lunch line at school, with that red ticket that told everyone that she was one of the ‘poor kids,’ singling her out as surely as the big bright “A” Hester Prynne wore in The Scarlet Letter.
Riding in boats
Each year, Daddy counted on the kitchen wall calendar the days until his union-negotiated vacation, crossing off each day with a bold “X.” He would gather us kids around the fire on winter evenings, showing us brochures of the Oregon coast, telling about all the things we would do in July. It wasn’t too early to plan.
It was only six months away.
We got up at the crack of dawn to leave for Oregon, Daddy and Mama in the front and we three girls in the back seat. By the time the Dramamine Mama gave me for my car sickness wore off, we were in line, ready to board the ferry for the trip across the Columbia River to Astoria.
We were itching to take the stairs up to the top deck, where they sold the taffy, hot dogs and worthless trinkets we couldn’t wait to spend our ‘vacation money’ on. Outside, the wind whipped our hair and the seagulls cried as we leaned over the railing to sniff the saltwater air.
Daddy’s last ferry ride
Now I tiptoed through the hallway of the hospital’s 7th floor. It was unnaturally quiet, as if it held a ward of sleeping babies. A young orderly passed me, tossed a towel in the air and grinned.
The woman in the room next to Daddy’s was out cold, lying on her back, mouth open. She had stringy white hair, a breathing tube in her nose, and a white knit blanket draped over her, like she was a statue awaiting the restoration workers.
I stopped, jolted by the incongruent images of the old woman in a death pose and the promise of the teenaged wedding couple in the black and white photo on her nightstand. The young woman wore a white dress and a dark suit jacket with flouncy lapels. She had long, wavy hair and flirty eyes. Her husband leaned toward the camera, as if to say, “Look at me. I won the prize.”
The old woman slept on, oblivious of the young woman and her beaming groom.
I stopped at Room 715 and peeked in. Daddy was lying in bed, clutching his sheets, looking from side to side, as if he didn’t quite know where he was. My brother Tom and my two sisters were seated in chairs at his bedside.
“I want to go home,” Daddy said. “Are they ever going to let me go?”
Tom motioned me over to a corner. He’s getting morphine shots for the pain,” he whispered. “The doctor said it’s all he can do.”
The hours went by. Daddy had bouts of fitful sleep. When he was awake, he seemed determined to tell us stories: of growing up on Maury Island, digging clams and picking barnacles off old boats. He peered up at the ceiling and smiled as he described the colors of the shells that washed up on the shore, as if he could see them.
At a little past ten that night, his breathing became more labored and he struggled to sit up. He pointed to his oxygen mask. I pulled it down so he could speak.
He said, with clarity, “Why isn’t the ferry leaving? Maybe I should go ask the captain what the problem is.”
Tom and I exchanged glances.
Daddy became more agitated. “I mean, I’m ready. I’ve been waiting. Why is it taking so long?”
I took Daddy’s hand, “ The ferry will be leaving soon, “ I said.
“Oh, okay, “ Daddy said. And with that he seemed to relax.
I stroked his hand. The wall clock ticked away the seconds in excruciating detail.
I was eight and we were on the ferry again, crossing the Columbia River to Oregon. Daddy held my small hand in his big one as he pointed to Astoria, which was looming larger as we got closer.
“Look,” he said. “It’s the other side.“
The other side.
In Daddy’s mind, was it code for where he was going now? I brought Daddy’s hand up to my face and kissed it.
“I love you, Daddy. Have a safe trip,” I said.
His breaths became shorter and faster and then they stopped.
Daddy took his last ferry ride three years ago last March. He would have been 92 this Father’s Day.
Happy Father’s Day, Daddy.
You finally reached the other side.