(Written yesterday, Monday March 7 2011)
It’s taking me a long time to type this. I’m gasping for breaths and swallowing my heart. I wasn’t sure if I could, or even should, talk about this here but it is my life and it is me and what happened set in motion literally the very foundation for seeing the world with more compassion and, thus, birthed Save the Kales. People ask “What made you decide to be vegetarian/vegan?” This is what inspired it. So.
Ten years ago today, my dad died.
This is what happened, as I have understood it. It’s hard to know for sure. He had complications with his diabetes and was a big, tough stubborn guy that didn’t monitor it. It lead to an infection in his foot, which started to spread.
I remember visiting him at his place when it first took a turn for the worst. Making him a bunch of sandwiches that he could keep by his bed because he couldn’t get up. He told me it was the flu. It is strange to be seventeen years old and do the sort of caretaker role reversal that usually comes much later in life.
He finally went to the hospital, and they were surprised he was still alive as his blood sugar levels were so high. So much morphine. The infection in his foot spread through his leg, and it would be amputated. A few weeks later I saw the uncovered amputated leg, right at the knee. It looked like someone made a quilt out of my fathers limbs. A perfect square patch craftily sewn on.
During the two months he was in the hospital, we planned. We planned and dreamed. He told me about a desire to move to Memphis, maybe, somewhere with good Blues and good food and good cigars. One day he surprised me. Not particularly a religious man, my father – a big, motorcycle riding, construction man – claimed to have had what he could only describe as a near-death experience. “If someone else were telling me this, I’d think they were crazy”, he said, “But Jaim, I can’t even describe the colors.”
He was looking good. Months went by. Then something went wrong: blood poisoning. The doctors cut him open, holding his organs in their hands, cleaning them, living pulsing pieces, cleaning up an oil spill inside his body.
He had been in and out of consciousness all day. For the couple of months that he was in the hospital, I was able to see him every day. By now a few days had passed and weather prevented a daily visit. On this night, this last night, I arrived at 7pm. He was back in intensive care, visiting hours were very strict, and only had 30 minutes. It was just the two of us.
His eyes were rolling back in his head, then he’d come around and ask me about my day. Making jokes. Eyes roll back. Longer this time. Making a joke about hospital food. When the thirty minutes were up, and we were hugging goodbye, his entire body and mind healed for a moment. He looked at me clearer than he had in months – my dad, back to normal, the sickness instantly drained and replaced by love and strength (and maybe, as I’d come to find out, a knowing). When he told me he loved me I’m not sure he ever meant it as much as he did then.
I don’t know much about sick people, or those on the verge of death, but I think he knew. And I think he waited for me. And I’ve always had peace because of that.
The drive home from the hospital was a difficult one, navigating street signs that become abstract paintings through tears. It was only a five minute drive back to my house. I had just walked in and took off my coat when the phone rang. My mother began crying and saying “Jaime, I’m so sorry…”
I couldn’t understand it then. The way death comes on so instantly. How you can talk to someone one minute and you get home and find out you’ll never be able to do that again. I was too numb to cry. I walked out the front door and began walking. I don’t know where. Down the middle of neighborhood streets, looking around at houses full of families with still-alive fathers, knowing I wasn’t one of them anymore.
When I finally found my way home, my best friend and her Mom had come over after hearing the news, bringing a bagel basket and sympathy cards with my name on the envelope. It didn’t seem right. One commented that I was handling it well. How are you supposed to handle it? He was alive two hours ago. Now he is not.
What are you supposed to do when your father dies? You stand in the kitchen and eat bagels.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
After that happened, I became very sensitive to anything or anyone dying. My Dad’s sickness lead to vegetarianism, and his death was the direct cause of my shift, later, to veganism.
Long before I ever educated myself about factory farming, slaughterhouse practices, and animal abuse, I came to the conclusion: If I were to eat animals, it would be killing an animal’s dad.
My experience with my father’s death – while not something I am ever thankful for, I wish I could call him up right now – launched for me what has become a way of life, and now, my career. With death comes a rebirth.
It’s been meaningful and personal to me to reflect on this. I admit that for the past year or two, all of the information I’ve been absorbing related to veg-issues and lifestyle has been primarily about health and nutrition. I got lazy about the rest of it. We go through shifts in our lives and our focus can change, but writing about this flipped the switch in me to re-educate myself on the other elements of veg-living: animals and animal welfare, the environment, food politics, and so on.
Moving forward, I reinstate a commitment to myself – and to my dad – to live as much to my ability in a way that promotes kindness and does as little harm as possible.
While this post as difficult to write, and for obvious reasons sad, when I think of my Dad I can’t help but laugh because that’s all we did for seventeen years. Our lives together were full of laughter, road trips, vacations to small towns full of antique malls and unique diners, cooking crazy combinations of food, blues music, singing ridiculous made-up songs loudly in public, and love. Lots and lots of love. I wouldn’t trade any of those seventeen years for a longer time spent with someone else.
I miss you Dad. Maybe it will turn out heaven does exist after all, maybe I’ll see you there. You taught me to think for myself and truly embrace who I was, always supporting whoever that would turn out to be. I will continue to carry your heart in my heart.
“I held him close for only a short time, but after he was gone, I’d see his smile on the face of a perfect stranger & I knew he would be there with me all the rest of my days.”