Lessons From My Father

Celeste León 

2019 General Nonfiction Runner-Up


© Copyright 2019 by Celeste León 


Photo of Celeste's family in Florida.

    Photo of Celeste's family in Florida.  Photo courtesy of the author.
Ths is a tribute to my father, and to all the mothers and fathers who make the world a better place.

Birth and death come to us at unpredicted moments. In April 2002, I was in the final stage of pregnancy, filled with both excitement and terror. Certainly with more of the former, but after two miscarriages and an ectopic pregnancy, I was terrified. This baby was full term, which lessened the terror on that score, but in my then 36 years I had never given a baby a bath, or even changed a diaper.

My daughter couldn’t stay in there forever, so three days before my due date, I asked my obstetrician, “Any prediction when my little bundle of joy is gonna’ enter the world?”

He shrugged. “We just can’t predict these things. Every woman’s labor is different.” He went on to tell me about the stages of dilation, the decreasing time between contractions as labor progressed . . . so matter-of-fact as if reciting a grocery list.

Fifteen years later, at age fifty-two, I was in the hospital again, but this time in Hospice where my father had been admitted a week earlier. Dad was heavily sedated and unresponsive. I stepped out of his room to ask the nurse, “Is there any time when my father may wake up and speak, maybe early in the morning? What’s his prognosis?” I couldn’t bring myself to ask how much time he had left.

He hasn’t changed much since he was admitted and we understand he had a rapid decline. He’s starting to show the last signs: the dusking of the skin, the decrease in blood pressure, congested breathing.” She didn’t say it like she was reciting a grocery list. With concern and kindness in her eyes, she spoke softly, adding, “We just can’t predict these things.

The conversation brought me back to that day at my obstetrician’s office. I thought of the irony: the moment of birth and the moment of death are two of the most unpredictable moments in life, the two events that happen only once in lifetime.
My father had been living at home with my mom as his caregiver and had suffered multiple falls. Several occasions warranted a call to 911. Mom, barely over 110 pounds on a good day, was unable to pick him up off the floor. Dad’s final fall resulted in a pelvic fracture. He never stood up again.

Except for doctor’s appointments, my father rarely left the house those last few years. I can’t imagine how someone so active throughout life felt as a prisoner in his home, but since dementia had settled into his brain like the cobwebs fill the nooks and crannies of an old house, he no longer had the words to tell me.

Dad was a great storyteller. My sisters and I loved his tales of growing up in Puerto Rico. How his family was so poor that his only toy was a rusty tricycle. Years after outgrowing it, he still rode it with his long legs dangling over the handlebars to reach the pedals. His family raised chickens for food and goats for milk. Yet his family was rich in other ways. My grandmother gave birth to 15 children and lost her first eight. Dad was the 15th and the last one of the seven who survived. My grandmother’s experience with loss caused her to study the healing arts. Despite no formal education beyond the fifth grade, my abuela Doña Chepa was respected as a wise and a great healer, a curandera for her Puerto Rican village.

My father came to the mainland US after winning the lottery in 1946 and used his winnings to pay for college to fulfill his life long dream of becoming a dentist. Those were the early days of Puerto Ricans moving to the mainland after World War II. My father came alone, hardly speaking English. Never having left his Puerto Rican village, he struggled through college in a world completely foreign to him.

But he made it. He loved being a dentist and I loved the story of his long journey to become one. As a boy, my father was cured of a horrible toothache by a dentist everyone in his village called “el humanitario.” My dad, seven-years-old at the time, thought the old dentist performed magic, and he declared right then that when he grew up, he would become a dentist, too.

More that a decade ago, I began filling notebooks of our conversations that would eventually turn into a novel based on his life. Not once did my dad say he was too tired to answer my incessant questions. He shared the intimate details of his life with the most sincere honesty.

Dad was a family dentist for over three decades. One former patient told me he’d load her mouth up with “dental stuff” and then ask her how school was. It always made her laugh. When she was in the dental chair “processing,” he’d practice golf swings in the air. My husband practices his swing in our backyard between bouts of yard work, so I suppose the adage that a woman marries someone like her father is true (my husband should consider this a complement.)

My father sent his dental assistant to pick up patients if they didn’t have rides. One man said that my dad taught him how to correct his lisp and how much he enjoyed sitting in my father’s dental chair and hearing many stories, particularly those of Dad’s time in the Army. So that’s where I got my affinity for storytelling.

When patients couldn’t pay, he’d barter for trade. For one family with eight children, he accepted landscaping in lieu of dollars. Lilacs bloomed every spring and the smell of lilacs always takes me back to my childhood. I learned dedication to my patients in my work as a physical therapist and author from my dad’s examples.

Dad was there for my “firsts” in life. The first time I rode a bike, he ran beside me and caught me when I tottered. He sat beside me the first time I drove a car as we circled an empty parking lot. On the first day he and Mom dropped me off at college, he chastised me for filling our station wagon with my stereo components, cartons of record albums and suitcases of clothes. “I came here with two suits and one suitcase,” he chastised me, his frown quickly replaced with a smile. He and Mom walked me down the aisle at my wedding.

There were times when my father embarrassed me. I remember when a high school friend dropped me off at home after a day at the mall, there was Dad, cruising around on the ride-on lawn mower chomping on a toothbrush hanging out of mouth. It took me years to admire his eccentricity, to realize that his quirkiness was a large part of his charm.

I rarely remember my father raising his voice while I was growing up even though he could be very strict and on some occasions would take off his belt and wind it up to threaten my sisters and me with a beating. That would always send us scampering off from whatever mischief we were getting into.

In my adulthood, 3,000 miles separated us; my parents in Florida and I in California, but the distance seemed closer since I called frequently. Every conversation began the same way. “How are you, Dad?” I’d ask.

Fantastic!” he’d exclaim, “And how are you, sweetheart? And how is that little princess of a daughter and that fine husband of yours?”

There was no precise moment when that began to change. Yet I do recall a conversation when Dad turned eighty-nine. “Sweetheart, it’s tough to get old,” he said, his voice weary.

And one night a few years later, I received the phone call I’d been dreading. “You better come soon, Celeste,” my mom said as her voice broke. “Dad’s on his way to Hospice, they say maybe only two weeks . . .”

It sent my mind reeling. Yes, he’d been declining, yes, he had sustained a pelvic fracture in that final fall, but the plan was for him to go to rehabilitation center and get strong enough to return home.
I packed for my flight from California. As I threw random tank tops and shorts into a suitcase for September in Florida, I said to my husband, “I’m gonna’ tell Dad it’s okay.” My voice broke like Mom’s had. “If he needs to go, it’s okay…”

I arrived at my dad’s bedside the next day. The hospice nurse explained, “They say the last thing to go is hearing, so talk to him. He may just hear you.” That woman was an angel. I believe all hospice nurses are.

I sat close to my mother on the armchair built for one and read from my book. Mom quietly sobbed beside me. My parent’s sixtieth anniversary had passed six months earlier, yet they didn’t celebrate with a three-day cruise as they had for their fiftieth. Due to his dementia, the day came and went without my father remembering.

Two nurses came in the room to reposition my dad. He moaned. His eyes fluttered. I leapt up and folded my hand in his. “If you can hear me, if you know I’m here, squeeze my hand,” I whispered. And then he gave me a tiny squeeze back.

Can you blink? Blink if you can hear us,” my mom pleaded. And he gave us a tiny blink. Yet he was unable to respond again. The only sounds were his shallow breaths and the hiss of the machine that streamed oxygen through the cannula in his nose.

And then I told him what I had come for. I told him if he needed to go, it was okay, he had led an exemplary life, I loved him, and my sisters and I would be there to help Mom. My vision of this conversation before I left California proved true.

Mom never gave up hope. She knew the inevitable, but a little part of her thought he may wake up and recover. Perhaps it was her first stage of grief.

That night in my parent’s home I slept fitfully. I thought my mom and I might get the phone call. I prayed Dad could hold on as my sister was on her way the next day from Indiana. But Dad couldn’t quite hold on. At 3 AM, the rank of angels increased by one.

The nurse who made that call said my father passed peacefully in his sleep. I still weep at the thought he died alone in his room. But I’m quite sure he wanted to spare us the pain. He left this world as selflessly as he lived in it.

I believe Dad had been waiting for me and that he began his final journey after I arrived. For the years I spent writing his story, our lives intertwined. Several times, I wrote a scene for my book about his life as I imagined it took place before he gave me the details. On each of these occasions, he confirmed I described all the details correctly. Spot on. Perhaps memories are inherited.

For months after his passing, I was distracted and would cry at unpredictable moments. Now I am able to tell this story.

Recently a friend asked me a question about her dental problem. She knew that I worked as my dad’s dental assistant during college breaks. I wanted to call my dad. After Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, I was desperate to call my dad to pray for my cousins. These are the times I miss him the most.

Dealing with death reminds us of our own mortality, and perhaps even more so when it’s the death of a parent. I wonder if my daughter will be at my bedside to hold my hand.

Friends assure me my dad was lucky to live to ninety-two, a full life. They are well intentioned. They are right. As I write these words, I am fifty-four and was lucky to have my father for so long. Life is unpredictable but a few things I know are certain. My father taught me valuable lessons. He taught me how to drive, how to persevere, and how to be a better person. Ultimately he showed me how to live and die with dignity. I envision a time far in the future someone discovers a yellowed and tattered copy of my book. And that person will read about my father’s life and I believe he or she will also learn a lesson or two from him.

His story will outlive me. And I love that.

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