Monday was my 39th birthday, and instead of partying and celebrating the anniversary of my birth, I spent the day in a hospital room alone with my father, watching and waiting, until he ultimately took his final breath. What a rare irony, for a man to die on the same day that his son was born.
He didn't want a funeral, didn't want a wake, didn't want a burial. Many people are surprised when they learn this. Only I, as the person who spent the last six years with him, know and understand the reasons why.
My father was a very sentimental man. Many viewed him as a hoarder, or a pack rat, but I remember countless times when he would pull something out of a drawer that looked like old rubbish, and then proceed to tell me a story about its origin, who he was with when he got it, what happened that day, etc. Most people thought he cared about things, but I know that the only thing he ever cared about were people.
People were the most important thing in his life. He always had some question to ask about the last thing you had mentioned. He was always interested in the people around him. And whether it was a matchbook or a broken coffee mug, or the name tag off of a uniform from a job you no longer have, he would save any tiny reminder of the people he knew and cared about.
Most people never understood that, and none ever returned the sentiment. In spite of having very little, and spending his entire life managing an obscene amount of debt, he would give anything to the people he cared about, and do whatever he could when anyone needed help. Few ever returned the favor. (I have the proof, because he saved things from everyone who did.)
When my mother divorced him and took us kids and hid hundreds of miles away, he found us and moved to the same city just so he could make every possible attempt to be a father to his kids. When his wives cheated on him and left him, he continued to help them with money and favors and protection from the losers they'd turned to. When his sons turned their backs on him, he continued to look out for their well being. But ultimately everyone he cared about eventually left him on his own.
Everyone except me. When his prescription drugs cost more than his monthly retirement check, I lived in a basement in a house of 10 people so that I could send most of my paycheck to him. When that wasn't enough, I found an apartment in the city large enough for us both and asked him to move there with me so that he could live for free and be closer to high-quality medical care. I've lost relationships and missed opportunities to travel or move because it was more important to me that I care for my father and be with him. And in the last six years, very few days ever went by when he didn't make sure I knew he appreciated it.
There is no memorial service, because as far as he was concerned, I was the only person he had in life. The only one who never gave up on him. Barely able to breathe, suffocating on cancerous fluid in his lungs, his final conversations with me consisted of him asking me about the things going on in my life and telling me about his memories with me when I was just a baby. It was the people in his life who mattered, and right up until his final words, that was abundantly clear to me.
What I learned from my father, more than anything else, was that the people around you are the most important thing you'll have in your life. When everyone else did him wrong, he kept caring. When everyone else took advantage of him, he kept giving. But when it was all coming to an end, he didn't fool himself about who they were or what they had been. He wasn't a fool, ignorantly giving to people who didn't care... he was a wise and forgiving man, always giving everyone one more chance.
Few, if any, will remember him the way that I do. I can only hope to be as wise, caring, and forgiving as he was.