My dad was a busy man. Hyper creative, limitless, possibility-filled and seemingly fearless. He connected, he explored, he invented. He moved around the planet and among the planet’s people as though they were playmates in a colorful playground, ready to partner with him on his next exciting whim.
He was really big, also. So much taller than his maybe 5’10” frame, I remember being confused many times as an adult by this strange sleigh of hands. Maybe this had to do with his early career as a professional magician, a road that got stunted before I was born, after a bout of polio took some of his hands’ agility.
He was deeply handsome, very funny in a savvily deflecting way, possibly more charismatic than was good for him, and he rocked the 70s in France with style, surrounded by world famous artists and movie stars, a year-long tan, and white suits to enhance it. From his visions, focus and talent, he created an increasingly large amount of money with which to play. And play he did, providing his family with much of what the world could offer from the abundant cupboard of first world privileges, money opening exotic and magical doors all the way. Eventually, he managed to move most of us from our native France to his beloved America, where his financial tide turned, and he got to experience a new chapter.
Of course, as his daughter, my story comes from a greatly limited perspective, one which went through some harsh filters, especially as teenagehood took me over.
Yet, even accounting for some bias, I don’t think I am being too subjective when I say that while genuinely generous with the financial prosperity he had created, and the luxuries it had birthed, I believe that my dad’s kind heart was expertly guarded. In fact, I am not sure that I ever was granted full access to it.
Until that last day.
Two years after that August day when he had called me to tell me about “the lump under his armpit,” that August day when I had just found out I was pregnant, I was walking into his hospital room for what I knew would be our last time together, in this lifetime.
That summer had been a big one, with several cross country flights from the Pacific Northwest to Florida (one of which had landed me in the Emergency Room, a few floors below his room. This is a story which I may dare to write one day, with much humility).
On that last trip, I had not been able to spend much time with him, having to be content with staying at his and my mom’s home with my nursing baby, a couple of miles away from the hospital, while everyone grabbed their time with him. I was deeply grateful when my sister in law did me the big kindness of babysitting for precious moments while I scooted over to the hospital for short bursts. At least, I was close. And sometimes, it has to be enough.
My flight was leaving in two hours. I had been gone from my bakery and two of my three young kids as long as I could afford to, and it was time to go.
As I pushed the door to his room, I felt calm, richly full from my toes to the top of my head - and deeply present. In retrospect, I see this moment as a huge privilege. Not all “last times” announce themselves in advance, allowing us the choice to lean into the celebration, the closure, the grief. Yes, I was blessed.
Yet, seconds after I had sat on the chair next to my dad’s bed, a nurse walked in, quite cheeper - and announcing loudly that it was time “for our bath.”
I had exactly 20 minutes.
Twenty minutes that were supposed to last me for the rest of my life.
I had not planned anything specific for these 20 minutes, nothing fancy or particularly meaningful but dammit they were mine. I had worked really hard for them. I had nothing but them, and I wanted them so badly that I was scared by the emotion that was rising from my heart on its way to my mouth - and if necessary my hands. The calm was instantly gone and I was ready to go to war, to do whatever it took to defend my 20 minutes.
As it turned out, there was no need. In the midst of my panic, I noticed that my dad was addressing the nurse - while reaching for something underneath his hospital gown.
What could he possibly have stashed underneath there? Hadn’t he been naked for days, stripped of any earthly tool? Was he going to perform one last magic trick?
I watched. I listened.
My dad took off his oxygen mask, gained about 50 pounds, grew a good 18 inches, doned a really dashing imaginary white linen suit, and looked the nurse right in the eye, saying: “There are $500 right here in my pocket that say that my daughter and I get some alone time.”
I stopped breathing. I was appalled. I was now at war on two fronts. He was bribing the freaking nurse. This was exactly the kind of stuff that had made me want to die as a teenager.
Except of course, he wasn’t.
Or was he?
Did he really think he had $500 tucked between the top sheet and his naked body? I will never know.
What I know for sure is that, for one last time, it worked. His charm, his confidence, his handsomeness won. He had taken over, and he had won. His last magic trick had won me the biggest prize.
The nurse looked at me. I still wasn’t breathing. She shook her head, wheeled her cart around and said something about being back. Then she closed the door and I exhaled.
There were about 13 minutes left, and I wasn’t sure what to do with them. At that moment, they felt as important as the whole rest of my life, yet I had no script.
So we were quiet. Just being. Just breathing the same air, sort of.
Until he started to talk. What he said to me was: “You know what? I have finally figured out what really matters.”
I leaned a little on my chair, readying myself for one last joke, one last irreverent, emotion-evading, heart-protecting clever deflection. Whatever was coming, I would take it, it would be enough. It would be glorious. I would be grateful for it. It would be mine forever.
Then my dad proceeded to blow my mind, blow my heart, my 35 years of knowing the man.
Looking straight ahead, my dad said: “What matters the most is the love of our friends and our family. To love and to be loved.”
Bam. Just. Like. That. He had said the L word.
I would like to say that I remember our last kiss, our last touch. That I remember walking out of his room one last time. I would like to say it, but I can’t. Because all I remember are these words. My inheritance.
I must have made my way home. I must have baked several cakes before The Call came, a few days later.
He was gone.
He was 67 years old
Today, my dad would turn 85.
Please help yourself to his words, to my inheritance.
Essential Happiness Retreat
January 10 to 20, 2019
Guadeloupe, French Caribbean
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I write because this is the way I am able to taste life more deeply.