The unexpected goodbye

My father and mother at Stanford hospital, where he was treated for cancer in 2005 and 2006. He was texting me while this photo was being taken!
My father and mother at Stanford hospital, where he was treated for cancer in 2005 and 2006. He was texting me while this photo was being taken!

Several years ago, when I was briefly living in the D.C. area, I dreamed that my late father was sobbing in the car.

I tried asking him what was wrong, but he said nothing. I woke up feeling scared and unsettled. Back when he’d been alive, I’d only seen him weep twice: when his own dad passed away and when he told me it was unlikely that he could beat liver cancer. These are unforgettable moments, sure, but when I reflected on my dad, I didn’t regard him as a man who cried very often, so it was odd for him to do this in a dream.

A few hours later, I received a text from my cousin Kerry. My uncle Brian, my dad’s younger brother, had had a near-fatal heart attack while driving. Thankfully he made a full recovery and leads a healthy life now. But I still believe I had that dream for a reason. It was intended to warn me that something bad was going to happen and I needed to be prepared.

On Sunday night, I had the same dream, only we were at my childhood home, not in the car. I thought about it Monday morning with dread, fearful that another unfortunate event was set to take place. Sure enough, at 5 p.m. I received a text from my family friend Gerie saying that her mother Freddie, who babysat me throughout my childhood, was beginning the dying process. At 88, Freddie is tired of fighting for her life and constantly battling health issues. She went almost a week without eating anything because her body just couldn’t take it. Swallowing water has become a labor, not to mention dangerous since it often goes down the wrong pipe and hurts her lungs. She’s unhappy. She’s ready to move on and say farewell to the pain, even if it means saying farewell to all the people she loves.

Freddie and me, 1989
Freddie and me, 1989

Freddie’s last wishes were to reunite with a select few, and Gerie said I was among the first people she requested to see. Because she’s in a hospital just an hour north of Los Angeles, I drove up this morning, struggling not to feel bad about just how short the drive is and why I couldn’t bring myself to travel up there more often while I still had the opportunity. I’ve been in LA since October 2013, and that’s the last time I saw Freddie. She was living in a retirement home at that point, and I remember thinking then that she seemed really uncomfortable. Well, that’s nothing compared to what she’s dealing with now.

Freddie watched me from age zero to nine, when I was living in Los Angeles. She took me to Tommy’s burger shop, Disneyland, the movies, the playground, you name it. I was pretty energetic, but unlike some grownups, she never met my excitement with anxiety or frustration. She let me be as creative as I wanted, and she even let me spread my entire spaghetti dinner on my booster seat once. It was the only way I’d eat it, and she appreciated my enthusiasm so much that she took a picture of it. The photo is in one of my mom’s scrapbooks, so I don’t have a digital copy, but I do remember the look of pure joy on my face. Unlike so many other adults I’d encountered, Freddie gave me the freedom to be myself, even if it could be disruptive and a little messy at times.

That’s not to say she let me get away with murder. When I had my one and only meltdown in front of Freddie, she didn’t give me a time out, spank me, or lose her cool. She imitated everything I did so I could see just how absurd I appeared. That got me to stop acting ridiculous and never behave that way again, not around her or anyone else. But I did have a problem with the other children she nannied, according to my mom. One day I went to Freddie’s house, pointed to a picture on her fridge, and said, “I don’t like that ugly baby.”

I remember letting Freddie down on a day that was already pretty awful to begin with. It was my dad’s funeral in Santa Cruz on May 17, 2006, and as a thoughtless (albeit grief-stricken) teenager, I thought that would be as good a time as ever to reconcile with my first boyfriend Kevin, who attended the service and started holding my hand at the celebration of life event at my house afterwards. My friend Lauren, who was a vegetarian at the time, insisted the catering didn’t fit her diet, and she wanted to walk to the closest Mexican restaurant as such. My buddies Crystal, Katherine, and Brittany followed close behind her, and soon enough, Kevin and I went along too, leaving our phones at my place so as not to be bothered by our families.

We were gone for an hour, but in that time, Freddie had driven back to SoCal. She’d seen me earlier at the service, but that wasn’t enough. She’d wanted to say goodbye.

“We tried calling you and Kevin but no one picked up,” my older brother said. “Freddie was looking all over for you. Same with Kevin’s parents.”

My heart sunk. I’d ditched my own father’s after-funeral “party” (not sure how to describe it, sorry) to screw around with friends and make eyes at a fellow who’d wronged me in the past. It was selfish, but Freddie didn’t hold this against me. She knew I’d had a difficult enough time watching my father fade away for months and probably just needed a frivolous hangout with my peers. She forgave me even though I didn’t deserve her forgiveness.

Though I forgot about this incident until I began drafting this blog post, it just occurred to me that I finally got to make it up to her for not saying goodbye at the funeral. I said goodbye this morning, but hopefully it won’t be the last time.

With Ian
With Ian

When I walked into Freddie’s hospice room today, she smiled and let me give her a hug. She’d wanted to meet my boyfriend Ian, but he has a tight work schedule, so we promised to try to come up again this weekend (a proper goodbye from me and the real deal boyfriend this time). Freddie deserves to know the person who has brought me the greatest happiness of my life. She raised me, and though I could be more fulfilled professionally, I’m with the right guy now, and that’s what success looks like to me.

I relayed this to Freddie. I told her I’ve felt my writing dreams slipping away at times. Sometimes it feels like so long ago since I’ve published anything — on my blog and other places on the Internet.

“Well I read your book,” Freddie said of my self-published novel from 2013. “I said to myself, ‘This girl is going to make it.'”

I nodded. “In good time.”

A little later, Freddie’s granddaughter Alix arrived from Berkeley. She’s finishing up her first year there, and I couldn’t help thinking of my own freshman year at University of Arizona, mostly because I too faced grief at the start of college. My dad passed away three months prior to the start of fall semester, so my mind wasn’t exactly in a good place that first year. At the time, I clung to a dying high school relationship because I couldn’t lose my then-boyfriend and my father. Looking back, I think he stayed with me as long as he did for the same reason. Regardless, it wasn’t the ideal situation. Undergrad is hard enough without death and, yes, breakups from one’s previous life.

But everyone gets through it. I survived UA and I’ll feel confident in myself as a writer again someday. Freddie always taught the kids she babysat that we could do anything, so the next time I’m crippled with self-doubt or uncertainty, I’ll remember her and keep plowing away. She didn’t teach me to sulk or feel sorry myself when met with setbacks. She taught me to continue on my path, and that’s what I’m going to do.

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