Saying Goodbye to DadApril 26th, 2009 at 6:45
After he and my mom remarried each other and moved from Ann Arbor down to Dayton Ohio in 1977, and then I moved to Los Angeles in 1978, I became increasingly distant from my dad. I think he had been at his best with me when I was a young kid, relating to me through sports, his sense of adventure, and the realm of imagination. But as I moved into adolescence and young adulthood, with issues of self-esteem and emotional development taking the fore, I think he felt increasingly inadequate as a parent to play a mentoring role in those areas and in my life. When I would call home from Los Angeles I would invariably speak to my mom for a long time about her issues and mine and then just a few final moments saying hello to my dad, him saying he would hear all my news from my mom after the call.
It was on a phone call with my mom in the fall of 1983, as Sally and I were planning for our wedding in December, that my mom informed me that my dad, who had been ill, had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and had maybe six months to live. At the time I was 28 years old and caught up in my own world of finding my life partner and my passionate devotion to my work as a feminist activist and paid organizer for the National Organization for Women. My own emerging life seemed to trump the impending end of my dad’s.
My dad was too ill that December to fly out to Los Angeles to attend the wedding. My mom had tried to work out a deal to rent an RV to drive out from Ohio, but the logistics were overwhelming. So she arranged for someone to look after my dad, and she and my brother (who was living with them at the time) flew out for the event.
Though my dad was not there, we did make an extensive video of the event which he sent to him and he watched many times. My new father-in-law was gracious enough to call my dad on the morning of the wedding. They had a long talk and made a short-lived, but real connection. I also recall his acknowledging my dad on the video. Later, talking to my dad on the phone after his first viewing of the wedding tape, he said sadly, “Coop… Your biggest day and I wasn’t there!” He couldn’t see the tears flow from my eyes on the other end of the phone (or the tears in my eyes now as I write this).
As my dad’s condition deteriorated into the winter of 1984, I made arrangements to come out to visit him in early March. At the time, caught up in the logistics of my own emerging life, my schedule seemed such that I could only take one trip east to visit my dad, either before he died or after for his funeral. I chose the former, though I must report I have regrets now that I did not honor him by returning again for his memorial service.
As you can imagine, my March visit was very difficult. My dad was confined to the bed in his room. I sat with him in his room trying to fill him in on all the stories of my life in Los Angeles and all the members of my new family. Being March Madness, we probably watched a couple NCAA tournament men’s basketball games on TV. I can’t recall if his (our) beloved Michigan Wolverines were in that year’s tournament.
I remember the morning I had to leave to return to Los Angeles. I was down in the kitchen with my mom. She looked at me and said very directly, “Cooper… you are going to have to say goodbye to your dad.” I don’t recall if she took my hand when she said those words, but I’m sure if not, her eyes acknowledged the gravity of that moment.
How do you say goodbye to your dad for the last time? I still don’t know.
I recall going into his room and sitting on the bed with him and reminding him that I had to leave to catch my plane. He shook his head in acknowledgement and took my hand. As it was with him, he had no words to say as a parental mentor to help me somehow process this moment. The tears streamed down my face as a lifetime of shared experiences and things unsaid filled my brain and my heart. The best I could find myself to say was, “Dad I love you and you will always be there in my heart!” I gave him one final hug and somehow separated myself from him and headed down the stairs so my mom could take me to the airport.
Though stricken with pancreatic cancer, my dad taught his classes in the winter quarter at Wilberforce University, an African-American college where he had taught since he moved to Ohio in the late 1960s. He managed to teach class right up to a week before the end of the term. It was my brother Peter, a college English major like my dad, who actually handed out, collected and then graded the finals of my dad’s students, and gave them all their final course grades.
Appropriately enough, my dad died on March 21, immediately after winter quarter, during his school’s spring break. He loved his work as a teacher, was devoted to his students, and was at his very best in the classroom. He was a college professor teaching English Literature and various writing classes, including remedial classes. Loving to teach and always looking to make more money in a field that never paid enough, he not only had his full-time professorship at Wilberforce, but also taught at other local universities, community colleges, at the nearby Wright-Patterson Air Force base and even the Lebanon Penitentiary.
My dad chose to donate his body for science, so there was no burial service. There was a memorial service held at Wilberforce and attended by many of his students, former students, fellow teachers and other university staff. As I said earlier I was not there (and I have my regrets), but I did do an audio eulogy to my dad that was played at the beginning of the service. My mom sent me the audio tape of the service so I could hear everything said. As I listened to the tape, after others had spoken their acknowledgments and remembrances, my bother got up as the final speaker, choked through his spoken words, but broke down when he tried to lead the assembled group in singing “The Whiffenpoofs” song, my dad’s favorite and connects him to us (since he sang it to/with us every night at bedtime when we were little).
As an important footnote, after his body played a final role as a cadaver helping teach students anatomy, his ashes were returned many months later to my mom and eventually came into my possession. He had left no specific instructions of what to do with them, so with my father-in-law and on his friend Jack’s sailboat, I scattered my dad’s ashes in the Santa Monica bay on a gorgeous sunny day. After not being at his memorial service, it was important closure for me.
My dad has no grave other than the immense Pacific Ocean, but he does have a marker in the ground. To raise funds for improvements to “The Big House” (their huge football stadium), the University sold bricks to be placed in the patio surrounding the stadium. My mom, ever creative and vigilant in looking for outside-the-box ways to make important things happen, purchased a brick etched with my dad’s name, and my bother’s and mine underneath it.
Unfortunately and ironically, when I do manage to get to Ann Arbor it can be very difficult to get inside the gate of the stadium to see my dad’s brick. I think in the future my brother and I will just have to figure out how to get up to Ann Arbor on a fall Saturday and buy a (now very expensive) ticket to a Wolverine football game so we can see it.
I have tried so hard to both pass the best of my dad onto my kids and also be there for them emotionally in ways he could not for me. It was sad that he died before my kids or my brother’s kids were born, so he never got to experience being their granddad.
A large part of my own feminism and my approach to non-sexist parenting is my crusade to challenge patriarchy and do my part to facilitate the transition from its limiting roles for both men and women to a more egalitarian partnership orientation that acknowledges that both women and men can live in the world of feelings, and men can share their feelings without being diminished in stature. I see it as honoring my mom and dad, what they were, and what they were not able to be.
Posted by Cooper Zale, in Respect