My father has always been a grumbler. If he didn’t get what he wanted to eat or drink or do, he’d give in but grumble. The sound is stuck in my head forever, but I have no idea how to write it out. Perhaps something like: Rrrrarrrara.
My dad is grumbling now, at 3 a.m. Montana time. He’s been at it for hours. It’s not me he’s arguing with for a change (or me arguing with him). It’s death, and who knows what demons. Sometimes he shouts whole sentences – “I said I do not know!” and sometimes only single syllables, such as “Ha” and “Why?” Mostly, though, he grumbles. So whenever the house stops rising and falling from the sound, I go to check on him. Even if it is time, I don’t want him to give in just yet. Rrrrarrrara.
Arthur M. Gorov, my dad, my daughter’s Poppa Art, is either dying at 77 -- or he isn’t. Just yesterday morning he was at the proverbial door, unshaven, incoherent, off in some distant world where we weren’t welcome. The doctors at the shiny new rural hospital where he was being treated were talking in terms of days, or less. The planes could not fly fast enough, or the car drive fast enough, to get us to his side.
He was unexpectedly alert when we got there, together with my niece Becky. Sitting up. Grumbling that he wanted more Jell-O. So very glad to see his girls all in one room. He told us he felt better. And that he was coming home. And so he did, this afternoon, after telling me to pack up everything in the room, since the hospital was charging him for it anyway. That’s my dad.
That was 12-some hours ago – and except for the part where he fell again, cracked his head on the TV console, and bloodied his clothes and the carpet, the day went, if not well, not awfully either. Still, my stepmother Billie and I spent part of it planning for the worst. My father wants a Viking funeral (think cremation and a small, hand-carved, remote-controlled sailboat set afire) and that’s not something easily pulled off at the last moment, even with the simplest of memorial services. And then there’s this. Everyone wants me to write his obituary, probably even him.
Like most children, even grown ones, I can’t see my father as completely separate from myself. He didn’t just learn over the years which buttons of mine to push, along with my mother he helped install them. We are inexplicably entwined even when we can’t stand to be in the same room, which isn’t nearly as often since I gave birth seven years ago to one of the great loves of his life. To watch him with my Rae is to understand the sort of love he had meant to show me, even if too many men of his generation didn’t know how. And in her eyes he is the hero I could never quite allow him to be in mine.
The last three winters have been hard ones on my father, filled with cars tumbling over mountainsides (twice, seriously), knee replacement surgery, a staph infection, a diagnosis of diabetes, heart surgery, and congestive heart failure. And yet twice a year he still drove almost two hours to the Missoula airport and took two airplanes to reach his girls in California. He worked at being the father he wished he’d been, learning to email and offer up honest communication every so often. The grandfather part came so easily it could make me cry, admittedly a fraction out of envy but 99.9 percent from unfiltered joy.
Today, as I helped my father into his bathrobe and back into bed, I told him maybe for the first time that I was proud of the man he has become. And that I forgave him for everything, real and imagined, the way only a small child or surly teenager can. He didn’t even glance up when he said, “Pshaw. It’s about time.” Again, that’s my dad.
The basics: Art Gorov was born in Chicago, was an Eagle Scout (I am wearing the ring he gave me years ago) and in the Army, attended DePaul University Law School at night, was active in local Democratic politics, was religious until he wasn’t, was married to my mom and then, when he wasn’t, married Billie Lee, a native Montanan who – get this – got my urban Jewish father to move out West for love years after they divorced. They never remarried, but they’re husband and wife. I struggle really hard not to mock the cowboy hats and boots.
Back home in Chicago, my father was an attorney who practiced personal injury law. Then he started taking on pro bono cases involving women with ovarian and breast cancer whose insurances companies refused a so-called experimental treatment that everyone knew prolonged lives. He made a bit of a name for himself, but what he really made was sure that these mothers had more time to watch their children grow up. Later he headed up legal research for the Circuit Court of Cook County. He also buried his oldest daughter, my sister Marcy, who died of complications from numerous illnesses in 1996. For years after, he made a ritual of Saturday breakfasts with her daughter Becky (Kurshenbaum) Smokowicz.
Then at age 70, he got a job as chief trial counsel with the Montana Department of Labor and moved to Helena, where, let it be said, it is impossible to get a decent bagel or brisket or Sunday newspaper. My dad only recently retired, when his heart condition had him falling asleep in meetings and his impressive work ethic waned despite his best efforts. He bought a house in Polson an hour outside Glacier National Park and, determined not to feel less of a man, went looking for volunteer work to do. He planned on reading to schoolchildren, for one, and asked my daughter’s blessing. He is the only one she allows to call her by her full name, Raziel.
Oh, and my dad sailed. This was no small thing. This was serious business, and I never appreciated (or enjoyed) the time he took to teach me to sail board boats and then small boats and then the sloop he named Aguila and raced competitively out of Burnham Harbor on Lake Michigan. He was quite the tyrant on the water, but to this day there are people who worship him for having learned to work the ropes at his side. Later he judged international races and raced remote-controlled sailboats. Hence the Viking funeral: A sailor on his final sea voyage.
But grumbling aside, maybe not tonight, or tomorrow even. Maybe not until Rae is old enough to have a memory of him cut deep and clear inside her. Or maybe now, in the next few moments. There is no way to know, but there is also nothing that needs saying whether he has a minute or a month or far more. All that we do know.
I swear my father just woke up and cleared his throat so loud it took me a second to recognize the sound. When I went to check, he was already deep in conversation with someone or something I couldn’t see: “Goodbye. We’re not getting anywhere, no we’re not. Rrrrarrrara.” And then he was himself again, full of apologies for being anything less than the vigorous man of my earliest memories, the one who stood in the deep end of the pool and shouted up at me on the diving board, “Don’t worry, I promise I will catch you.”
Tonight it’s my turn to catch him, not because I owe him, but because it’s my honor. That’s how my father raised me, grumbling a good part of the way.