My father and I were never very close. As an adult looking back, I can see how much he loved me, but as a young girl, I longed for his affection and lingering conversation.
Instead, his demeanor often seemed tense and our dialogues were laced with, “Get to the point, Chrissy!” I grew up with the distinct perception that I was more of a nuisance than a daughter.
After my mother passed away in 1985, other than an occasional phone call, holiday get togethers and birthdays were about the extent of our relationship. When he was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2006, the doctor predicted his time was short.
It’s never easy saying goodbye to our parents, but even tougher when there are unresolved issues to deal with. Four to six months was not enough time to repair a lifetime of rejection.
I remember sitting in mass with my daddy as a little girl. My legs not yet long enough to touch the ground, I swung them wildly back and forth as I admired my black patent leather shoes and white lace trimmed bobby socks that adorned my ankles. My wiggly legs agitated my father. Each Sunday he’d put his hand on my knee in an attempt to stop my flailing.
“I’m ready to go, Daddy!” I whispered. “Is it time to go now?”
“Sit still, Chrissie!” he would scold. “Be patient and wait.”
“Yes, Daddy,” I would reply, and although I tried my best, restlessness interfered with my ability to comply.
Throughout my childhood and teen years, my father and I seemed worlds apart. I was easily distracted; he was focused. I always thought it was because he was so much older than me. But now I realize it probably had more to do with how we perceived our world. I grew up with peace and prosperity. He grew up in the depression with war and poverty. For years this disparity in our perceptions barred our ability to relate to each other. It would be a long time before I would realize just how much the adversity he suffered added to his character.
I’ve been told that men of my dad’s generation are fighters. Growing up in the depression had given them a strength and resolve that those younger cannot fully comprehend. They were tough from years of struggling for food and houses. Frugal from years of tight budgets and job shortages. Grateful for everything God gives but they don’t let go easily. They are fighters.
And fight he did. First for other’s lives during World War II and later for his own life in his battle with cancer. When cancer first struck, he endured three brain surgeries. At first his recovery looked promising, but eventually, hope faded. Finally, when Dad could no longer tolerate food, the doctor sustained his life with a feeding tube and called in Hospice. But the feeding tube was merely an obstruction to my dad and even though his hands were tied down, he eventually pulled it out. The doctor said it wouldn’t be long. But he was wrong. Dad was tough.
My story below, Cloaked in Camouflage, is a recollection about my father’s final days and how God helped me say goodbye to a man who loved me more than I realized.
Cloaked in Camouflage
Stepping around the janitor’s sign, I stopped just short of room 432 and took a deep breath before I entered. The pungent scent of ammonia mixed together with the aroma of meatloaf made my stomach churn.
“Hi, Daddy. How are you feeling today?”
His head rotated in slow motion. “Oh, hello, Chrissie.”
I reached over to adjust his blanket. “Are you warm enough?”
He gave a nonchalant nod.
“Your feet aren’t even covered up.”
“I’m fine, don’t bother.”
Does he even want me here? I thought. Or am I just in the way again?
I didn’t know if my father loved me. He never told me, nor was he an affectionate man. Our family photo album contained a few pictures of me sitting in his lap when I was about three years old. The pictures, however, were unconvincing evidence of his affection. Consumed with his hobby of restoring classic cars, he was always too busy. He was either at the salvage yard or in the garage tinkering with his treasures.
My mother had always been the mediator. If I had something to say, it was channeled through Mom. Dad was too abrasive for me to approach face to face. When my mother died in 1985, I screamed out to God, “Why did you take my best friend and leave me alone with my grouchy father?”
I longed for my dad’s approval, but after my mother passed, I only saw him on the holidays. Even then, we never shared meaningful conversation. “Get to the point, Chrissie!” was about all he ever had to say. He thought I talked too much. The truth is that I did the listening and he did all the talking. Our conversations were not dialogues—they were monologues about cars and war stories that I’d heard hundreds of times before.
The metal legs screeched against the vinyl floor as I slid a chair closer to his bedside. The TV speakers built into in his bed blasted with the constant rattle of machine guns and bomb explosions. Brrr-dit-dit-dit! I looked at the screen. All I saw were men in camouflage. Does he ever get tired of that?
I glanced at the clock underneath the crucifix hanging on the wall. 6:15. I can hang for one hour. Spending time with Dad was never easy. After we discussed what he had for lunch or dinner, awkward silence became the norm.
I hungered for deeper discussions with my father. My life had changed in a profound way several years earlier when my two-year-old son, Jake, died in a car wreck. The pain and loss had been overwhelming, but as I cried out to God, I’d been wrapped in a cocoon of comfort. Somehow joy spilled out of my sorrow—so much joy that I wanted to tell others about it.
I longed to share with Dad how Jake’s death changed my life. But no matter how many times I tried to talk about it, he changed the subject. Instead, we spoke of trivial chitchat and I listened to repeat war stories.
I clung onto hope that one day we’d develop a closer relationship. Now I realized it would never happen. The cancer took over to the point that Dad could no longer tolerate food. Dr. Hahn called in hospice and ordered a feeding tube.
Dad’s feeble hands flailed about like a fish out of water as he tried in desperation to remove it.
“It’s for his own good,” the nurse assured us as she tied his arms down.
Later, when Dad managed to pull the tube out, Dr. Hahn advised against reinserting it. “We’ve done all we can,” he said. “Call your family. He won’t make it past tomorrow.”
For some reason, Dad hung on.
Ten days later, I spoke to Barbara, one of Dad’s hospice nurses.
“It’s inconceivable,” I began. “How long can he last without food, water or an IV?”
“He’s obviously very determined.”
“It’s hard to see him… just lying there.”
“It may look like he’s just lying there,” she explained. “But we have no idea what is going on between him and God—unfinished business…preparation.”
“What do you mean?”
“Sometimes, they’re waiting on something,” she continued. “Sometimes they’re waiting on a date.”
Perplexed, I sat up straight. “Really?”
“I’ve cared for many patients in their last days,” she explained. “The terminally ill have lost control over much of their lives, but one thing they still have command of is the time and circumstance surrounding their death. They often wait with quiet resolve until they feel a sense of completion.”
As I hung up the phone, I considered that my father’s tarrying now seemed almost purposeful. What could he possibly be waiting on?
The next day was busy and I had to work late. On my way home, I couldn’t help but think, This could be the last night I ever spend with my dad. I know some people camp out in hospitals with their loved ones. That wasn’t my thing. I was partial to my own bed, but after dinner, I packed a bag to stay overnight.
A blanket of gloom was waiting inside Dad’s room. Pushing open the door, I could hear the rattling of his lungs as he struggled to breathe. “Hi Daddy,” I said, trying my best to sound cheerful. “We’re going to have sort of…well—a slumber party…I’m spending the night with you.”
The corner of his mouth drew upward in his attempt to smile.
“I brought some music,” I said as I turned off the war channel and the endless parade of men in camo. As trumpet sounds and Phil Driskoll’s raspy voice filled the room, it almost seemed like church—only better. The atmosphere shifted and Dad seemed to be hypnotized in glory.
When the music was over, I made a pallet on the fold-out chair. My eyes were heavy and the room was quiet. The only light illuminated from the digital clock that cast a dim circular glow on the wall.
I tried my best to stay awake. I didn’t want to miss his departure but when I could no longer keep my eyes open, I fell asleep. Throughout the night, I heard his nurse come in every hour to check his vitals. In the morning, he was still hanging on. I wanted to stay but I couldn’t afford any more time off of work.
“Please don’t go without me, Daddy.” I whispered. “I’ll be back soon.”
A labored inhale was his only response.
Thirty minutes later I arrived at work and plopped my purse on my desk just as the phone rang. The nurse on duty delivered the news. “I’m sorry Christy…your dad has passed.”
My shoulders deflated. Of course he did. I stayed all night, but he waited until I left.
As I hung the phone in the cradle, my eyes caught a glimpse of the calendar on the wall. June 13. An avalanche of chills spilled through my heart. Today was the eighth anniversary of Jake’s death. I collapsed on my desk. How much sorrow could I take on one day?
Later that week my family gathered together for my father’s funeral mass. The enormous brass cross hung over the altar like the heaviness hung over my heart.
Father McSherry cleared his throat as he began his homily reflecting upon my father’s life. “Classic cars were John Tarnacki’s passion,” he began. “His love for cars began in World War II when he served in automotive maintenance. John had a great eye for detail and a tremendous amount of patience to scour salvage yards looking for just the right parts.”
The microphone let out a loud shrill that seemed to emphasize his next point.
“John knew that restoration depended on attention to precise details. He used to say, ‘A car is not truly restored unless the parts are an exact match.’”
Exact match? The words ran through me like a run in my hose. Had he tarried until June 13 on purpose? As Father McSherry kissed the Bible the sweetest picture flooded my mind. I could almost hear Jake’s gleeful greeting at the gate.
“Come on, Grandpa!” Jake would shout as his pudgy fingers tugged on Grandpa’s bony arm. “Let’s skip. Remember how? Look, I’ll show you all the cool places. Come see my fort. It’s in the highest tree in heaven. Come on…come see!”
The words I longed to hear all my life never came, but sitting on the hard wooden pew, my heart softened. Dad didn’t know how to say that he loved me. He only knew how to show me. Now, like the last piece placed in a puzzle, the picture was complete. Talking about Jake’s death had been too emotional for him, but that hadn’t meant he didn’t care. He’d clung to life—beyond all reason—until the exact date of Jake’s death. That message shouted louder than words.
It may have taken a lifetime but I finally understood my father’s love. In true military fashion, it had been there all along—cloaked in camouflage.