Looking back, Dad knew he was going to die. Yes, we all die, but I mean he knew in spring that he wouldn’t make it through summer. His body began to shut down on our trip to Peru (“Peeru” in Dad speak) in January. He couldn’t walk more than a few feet without stopping. His bad heart would leave him short of breath and full of excess water, complicating the problems already plaguing him from his poorly-managed diabetes. His swollen feet would tingle, he had ulcers on his legs, he would moan and scream in discomfort when he lay down for more than an hour. None of this kept him from chocolate-covered cheesecake in “Mia Flora” and churros at the beach, or put a dent in his determination to take the day-long plane-bus-train-bus trek to see “Maco Paco.”
When we got to Cusco it became clear his body was calling the shots. The elevation pummeled him, reducing his once barrel-chested, proud stance into the huddled arch of a sick and frail man. He passed out the moment he stepped off the plane. When he wasn’t unconscious he could only sit or lie down, unable to get warm or eat, spending the entire first day under the covers screaming at me and the hotel staff to bring more blankets and heaters. He did get up once to yell “Get your head out of your ass!” At dinner time he tried to take a few bites of the chicken sandwich and fries he requested but quickly fell over unconscious while vomiting. I rolled him over onto his side and clawed the food out of his mouth, helping him back to bed when he regained consciousness. This was a shell of the man I played tennis with as a 10-year old, the man who would so blatantly lie and yell “Ouuuut!” when he didn’t want to lose a point to his barely athletic son.
The second day he got up and got dressed in the clothes he wore his entire adult life. A dress shirt with a bulging wallet in the front pocket underneath a pullover sweater (“blover”), sport coat, suit pants and, if the swelling was down, leather shoes he bought in Cairo or Seoul or Bandung, Indonesia. He looked sharp. He stood tall, took the elevator up one floor to breakfast, sipped on orange juice, ate half an egg, and puked immediately. Dad spent the rest of that day in the hospital on oxygen and, the next morning, took a flight back to Lima. He insisted I stay and see Machu Picchu and, when I met him a few days later to head back to Seattle, told me “I think I am an old man now.”
In the last two years of his life he aged thirty. His skin became leathered and scaly, his strut turned to a shuffle, his clothes hung long and wide like they were borrowed from a giant. He had moved back to Seattle from Cairo to be closer to my brother and I but was unable to extract his dollars from Egypt without taking multiple trips back and forth, each airport wheelchair etching another crack in the hourglass. His heart failure would manifest as a stubborn flu that would put him out for weeks at a time. He had a quadruple bypass, then another stenting surgery a few months later when his heart function plummeted, the natural result of his post-bypass diet of soda and “Abblepees.” His answer to “How are you?” transitioned from an upbeat “Good!” to a defeated “Could be better.” Going through his estate I learned that he closed dozens of accounts and started consolidating his money after Peru. He took early lump-sum payments from various pensions and booked one more trip to Cairo to get the last of his money. A person in his condition who wanted to live as long as possible wouldn’t take a 20-some hour international trip to recover a few thousand dollars, but the truth is he wanted to get it over with.
“I’m ready to exbire.”
A week before leaving he drove over his ridiculous 15-year-old Mercedes convertible to get my help replacing some inconsequential flap on its undercarriage. The cheap plastic tools he brought with him barely worked and we spent hours lying under the car together. By the end I was dirty and annoyed and confused at why we spent time on such a stupid task, but he was proud and happy. My roommate came home just as he was leaving. He looked Nick up and down and said “Nick, you look fuller. It’s good! But maybe you should run around…” He confused me again when he called a few days later wanting to meet one more time before his flight. We normally saw each other every three or four weeks. I brushed him off. That was the last time I spoke to him outside of a hospital.
By his second day in Egypt he was through with business. He called his niece, the only member of my extended family he spoke to, telling her “I think I’m going to die soon.” He went to Sharm El Sheikh the next day. I learned later that he was already vomiting blood before the trip, adding to the insanity of foregoing the hour-long flight for an eight-hour bus ride. Fucking asshole.
He was eventually admitted to a hospital in Sharm. When the bleeding stopped he left against their advice, refusing to go back when it started again until his hotel forced the issue. He had stomach ulcers that, paired with his blood thinners, wouldn’t stop bleeding. When I finally heard the news I called him to see if I should come and, in a strong and stable voice, he said “No, stay where you are. Don’t worry, I’m ok.” I believed him until we talked two days later. He could only speak in a confused slurred whisper, so intent on staying out of the way that he only kept repeating “Go. Go away. Go. I love you. Go.” He died a month later in a Cairo hospital bed.
I’m not sure what to make of his wanting to die. I know he didn’t want to but his efforts to avoid it were so minimal, and the way he pushed himself at the end feels like the opposite of what a parent who wants to watch his kid move through life would do. He left the country when I was a teenager. He wasn’t there when I graduated high school or college. He wasn’t there when I had broken bones or relationships. In a way it feels like abandonment but, even if it was, would only be the latest and last.
The majority of our relationship was about navigating through his temper and mistrust of the people around him, advising him against filing lawsuits against tenants for making his condo smell like curry and trying to convince him that my mom, who he was divorced from for over 20 years, wouldn’t come to his house when he was gone and sleep in his bed. His father died when he was 11 and his oldest brother in the Egypt-Israel war when he was 20, his mother becoming paralyzed from a stroke not long after. He studied engineering and eventually landed at Boeing in Pennsylvania, where he proudly worked until discovering that his American coworkers were earning twice as much. He went on to do very well with contract work all over the world, but lost his house and kids in the divorce and fought bitterly with siblings over farmland they inherited when his mom passed. The chip on his shoulder was self-aware and infinite in mass, leading Dad through life on a tightly-held leash.
But somehow during his last years I managed to burrow under the impenetrable steel wall he had built inside his mind and earn his trust. I was the only one who knew anything about his finances, he wanted me there when he went in for surgery, I’m the one he demanded the post-op nursing home call when he refused to stay there, having accused them of colluding with the hospital and police to hold him hostage and bill his insurance.
He began calling less and less towards the end, though. He told me he “didn’t want to be a purden“ on my brother and I, but what I realize now is that his burden was the only functional and positive part of our relationship. His fathering manifested exclusively in unsolicited advice based on a poorly-informed picture of my life, such as “you should begin your search for a bartner and be married within one year.” or, my personal favorite, “Your music career is advancing very slowly, and your earnings are not keeping up with inflation, and you are all by yourself. Bretty soon you will be a middle aged lonely man.” Our conversation otherwise would center around how he would invest his money in a “Purger King” franchise or a debate about whether or not Bill Gates is Jewish. But when I brought him food or delivered him home from a doctor’s appointment or sat by him in his hospital bed in Cairo he would smile, hold my hand or hug me or kiss me, and say “Thank you Tarik. You did good.”
So, for the time being, I’m left missing a sick man. A father who spun silver from straw but was furious his neighbors had gold, who left a long time ago, came back for a few years, said his piece, stirred some shit up, dug a hole in the desert, and buried himself in it.