When I made the buttercream, my father was still alive.
It's an Italian buttercream, made with the egg whites separated from the yolks that went into the French buttercream which decorated Lulu's birthday cake and cupcakes. There's an entire tub of it left in my mom's fridge.
I made it on a Sunday morning, when I still thought Dad was coming home. He had been in the hospital since the Wednesday previous. We knew he would not be present for Lulu's birthday party that day but we expected to have him home the next day to finish out the Memorial Day holiday with us.
But the next morning, the nurse on duty, unable to bear our continued ignorance, finally broke down and told us what his attending physician lacked the balls to do: she told us that our father had weeks, not years remaining. And Tuesday morning the prognosis was that he had but days. The reality was actually two days. Thursday evening, he took his last breath, but not before opening his eyes one last time to look at my mother, me, and my younger son, who is his namesake; a final, corporeal exchange before slipping into the ethereal.
When I danced with my dad at my wedding, the song I chose was Edith Piaf's Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien. It's a love song, but I've always considered it an anthem to his life. His was a larger than life kind of life. A son born into privilege in Vietnam in 1932, his mother died when he was only a year old, her role subsequently fulfilled by an older half-sister and an aunt; his father passed away when Dad was 15. Shortly thereafter, Dad left home and went to Hanoi after a dispute with the wife of his elder brother regarding money that had been set aside for his education. He made his way in the world by himself and achieved for himself much success. But my father always considered his greatest success was raising us to be productive and reasonably sane members of society.
In Vietnam he had been a senior member of the intelligence community. In Vietnam, he had been a Lt. Colonel. When his country fell, with it went every security he had previously enjoyed: position, wealth, a future. He came to the States as an immigrant, considered his options, and decided that his future, the one he had planned for himself, was a thing of the past; the only future(s) on which he wanted to focus, was ours. The CIA wanted him to come work for them; but he demurred. That wasn't his life anymore.
His first job in the United States was as a fry cook at Long John Silver's. Because he was competent, because he was focused, because he was timely, because he never complained, he was promoted to assistant manager. He earned $2.10 an hour. To supplement his income, he took another part time job, as a hotel security guard. He had a wife and five small children. He was proud but never TOO proud; or prideful. Just quiet, capable, professional. If ever he looked back on the life he had had...we never knew it because he never referred to it.
He moved us to Arlington, Virginia because he thought it offered us so much more than the quiet college town in which we were then ensconced. And he became a cashier at a local grocery store where for 27 years, he never missed a day of work and was late only once - but that was because he had to walk the five miles in 3 feet of snow. He even had his massive heart attack during the week he took vacation. If I took a picture of my father and titled it, "Work Ethic," everyone who knew him would agree. And they would also agree with this other epitaph: "Great Father." At this job, where during his healthiest and most profitable year he cleared maybe $43,000, my father achieved the singular feat of putting five children through college. Hello financial aid, second and third mortgages and everything else he had to put on the line to secure our futures; he considered education our birth right. We never knew we had an option to not attend college. He was in debt until the age of 73, when he happened to catch a lovely real estate crest and sold his home for enough money to clear out all his debts.
Dad suffered from Parkinson's the last seven years, during which time it robbed him of his facility with life (though it never took his zest or zeal for it). But that's not what took him from us. It turns out that the prostate cancer which had afflicted him fifteen years earlier (oh did I mention earlier that he never took time off from work even during chemo and radiation treatments?) had actually metastasized into the bone approximately five years ago, but none of us knew this...not even Dad. How such momentous information could have slipped us is at once staggering...and a blessing.
Let me share with you what happened in the last five years: Dad moved from Arlington to Orlando; he visited me several times in Georgia, visited my siblings in New York and Santa Monica; and saw the births of three grandchildren.
What I'm trying to say is that Dad lived his life fully and richly. He didn't spend it in treatment for the bone cancer. He didn't suffer through more chemo or radiation. He didn't live with a death sentence hanging over him, with hopelessness marking his days. Instead, he simply lived, taking every day that came along as a treat. And we did too. Because none of us knew he had advanced bone cancer.
I took his shirt from the hospital bag, the last one he wore, the only one that still smelled like him. The scent is fading and every day it smells less like him.
I can say with all certainty that my father died without regrets; and while we are stricken to have lost him, we have no regrets where he is concerned, either. I would gladly have another hug, another kiss, another moment to talk. But I had this throughout my life and even to the end, he still kissed us, or tried to; so I don't feel that I missed out on anything with Dad. What I do miss...is Dad himself.
I miss him so much I wonder how this yawning emptiness will ever be filled again; I wonder how I can meet the next five or six decades of my life with this huge gaping hole inside. I wonder how I manage to wake up every morning and function in a world where my dad no longer exists.
Children should love their parents. If they're really lucky, they're in love with their parents. Guess what category we put ourselves in?
Before I left my mother's house, I cleaned out the fridge. But the tub of buttercream sat there. I couldn't touch it.
Because when I made that buttercream, my dad was still alive.
Updated: Here is Part 2