Photo of Celeste's family in Florida. Photo courtesy of the author.
is a tribute to my father, and to all the mothers and fathers who
make the world a better place.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
Puerto Rican village.
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.
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.
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
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.)
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
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
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
quickly replaced with a smile. He and Mom walked me down the aisle at
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
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.
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.
he’d exclaim, “And how are you, sweetheart? And how is
that little princess of a daughter and that fine husband of yours?”
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.
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 . . .”
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
details. On each of these occasions, he confirmed I described all the
details correctly. Spot on. Perhaps memories are inherited.
months after his passing, I was distracted and would cry at
unpredictable moments. Now I am able to tell this story.
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.
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.
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.
story will outlive me. And I love that.
author's name in
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