By Barbara Wiener
Barbara Wiener is executive director of TVbyGIRLS.
My father was a crazy rocket scientist. Really. He worked in the space program in the 1960s as an engineer. My therapist thought he had a narcissistic personality disorder. Of course, that was my therapist, not his. Dad would never have talked to a therapist. That would have been just crazy. He was one of those NASA engineers with a crew cut and bow tie. A therapist was not in the painting of his life.
Dad grew up in the Depression and enlisted in the Navy when he was 17. He ended up in a hospital for two years with tuberculosis. He was the only one in his ward to survive. He used to refuse to eat spaghetti because the nurses and doctors who put tubes into his lungs referred to the treatment as spaghetti. We never had spaghetti at my house.
He met my mom at a Jewish singles' dance. Stepped on her feet as they danced. On the second date, he proposed; she laughed at the idea. He never proposed again. But they were married two years later.
There are no photos of him at the wedding because he was taking the photos. Instead there is a photo of a huge group of family in party clothes sitting around my mother in a pink suit. The wedding without the groom. Everyone looks pretty happy.
Ten years later, they moved from Boston to Florida. Dad went from being a mattress salesman in Grandpa's business to an engineer making rockets fly to the unknown. I was 5.
We moved a lot. Partly because the space program moved a lot — from Florida during the Kennedy administration to Texas during the Johnson time. Dad would change jobs every few years because he'd get "fed up with the idiots." But there were lots of jobs for engineers.
They were in New Mexico when my mom died of cancer.
After that, Dad ended up in another small town, near Flagstaff, Ariz. We would talk every few weeks, but he really didn't tell my sister or me much about his life.
Once, while visiting with my sister, we saw a TV report on the Unabomber. "Who would want to live in a shack in the woods and make bombs?" I asked. We both simultaneously answered, "Our father."
That's what Dad was like. Still, you love your dad, as hard as that might be. He was stubborn as all get out. Stubborn as the day is long. That man gave the word "stubborn" new meaning.
When he ran into a mountain and broke his nose, we finally got him to stop driving. Mostly because the car was totaled and we didn't have the money to fix it. But we were grateful for that mountain ... and that Dad only had a broken nose.
Soon after the mountain encounter, Dad was diagnosed with congestive heart disease and scarred lungs. He was on oxygen. I went to Arizona to help persuade him to move closer to me or my sister so we could help take care of him. OK, he said, "just for a visit."
He moved in with Robin, my sister. Soon after that, he became more ill and so did she. Robin was diagnosed with cancer that ate her bones. She broke her hip and back. Dad got sicker and moved to a care facility.
I was in Texas to help my sister. I went to see Dad. An attendant was trying to get him to take some water. He was in hospice and on morphine to help with his breathing. He came in and out of the morphine cloud.
"I want to go somewhere, but I don't have transportation," he said, emerging from the morphine cloud.
"OK, Dad, where do you want to go? I have a car, we can go anywhere you want."
"I don't know, wherever you want to go."
The care facility was close to my sister's house. South of Houston, and close to the ocean. "Let's go to the ocean. It's close," I said.
He nodded and slipped into the cloud again. I called the hospice nurse. I wanted to check that he was not getting too much morphine. Everyone said, he'll be fine and back to himself soon. I seemed to be the only one who thought he was dying.
She examined him and with surprise told me that this was the last stage. It could be days or weeks.
My sister was going into the hospital the next day for a stem-cell transplant. I needed to be with her. I needed to be with Dad. I had promised a trip to the ocean. I was holding his hand.
Days or weeks. A lifetime of pushing and fighting would be over in days or weeks.
Suddenly, Dad sat up and opened his eyes wide. He had silver hair and light hazel eyes. His eyes were very bright. He looked past me, seemed surprised, and then frowned. He lay back down, eyes closed, breathing hard.
Days or weeks? No, not my Dad. Within 15 minutes, he was gone. When he made a decision, he did it. The hospice nurse was surprised. I was not.
It was Father's Day.