Your dad is dying. You’ve known it for months but the nurse is serious tonight when she calls and asks you to come sit with him in his narrow room at the veterans’ home. He’s in the later stages of congestive heart failure, complicated by diabetes, obesity, gout, prostate problems, and whatever other trouble years of poor diet, little exercise, long work hours, and minimal health care will get you. That he held out until age seventy is a little medical miracle and not much credit to the VA, which can’t keep track of his records.

You keep track of his records.

He’s propped up in pajamas on rough white sheets, working for each breath. You swab his mouth as it hangs open, showing discolored and misplaced teeth he never could afford to fix. His skin is mottled both from age and the cystic acne that’s plagued him all his life. An oxygen tube would help but he’s asked for no interventions, no heroics. That’s the Dad you remember, the long-suffering Marine who was proud to serve when his number came up. He finished basic at the head of his platoon. Now he takes chronic pain as another heavy pack to carry, mile after mile.

Your brother would like to be here but he’s at work on the West Coast and can’t afford time off. It’s a theme in your family, not having money for things that are important. Your parents divorced fifteen years ago when Dad lost his job as a grocery buyer and took one in another state with worse hours, conditions, and pay—managing a convenience store, a humiliation he carried in his posture, soldier straight until then. Enough, your mother said. She’d followed him on a trail of nowhere cities and inadequate employment that would end with her solitary stand in a cold, dusty Northern Plains town you couldn’t get out of fast enough.

Your dad barely opens his eyes but reaches to grasp your hand. Although you’re a grown woman and a lawyer with an urgent case file to read at midnight by his bedside, you’re still his little girl, the proof that he did something right. He didn’t drink like his dad. He didn’t hit you more than the occasional spanking. He didn’t leave. His greatest parenting accomplishments are acts of omission, but there are also affirmative acts of love. He stopped smoking when you were born. He taught you to ride your bike, drive, fish, salute, hit hard from an unexpected angle, and fight back against anyone who looked down on you.

He taught you that people will look down on you, but he didn’t mean to. He knows no other way to see the world. You’re ashamed to remember the times you’ve been ashamed of him—for his thin short sleeve dress shirts, his fast food gut, the way he picks his teeth with his pocket knife and quotes country music lyrics—because he’s always been so proud of you. He achieved what no one in his family ever had: he got a college degree. Sure, he almost flunked out, pool sharking to make ends meet where the GI Bill didn’t quite cover the needs of a family, but he graduated when neither of his parents finished eighth grade. You suspect that you have no idea how hard that really was.

“How’d you get a woman like her to marry someone like you?” a colleague asked him at a work dinner once when your mom wore her one string of fake pearls and a little black dress that made her look like Jackie O. The story hung on in the family for years, a pretty compliment to her, embedded with the kind of put-down he absorbed all his life. With his bottle-bottom glasses, bad skin, bad teeth, cheap suit, and shaggy haircut, he makes a terrible first impression, a walking sitcom punch line, and he knows it. He’s also funny and a good singer and can be kind if he isn’t provoked, but most people wouldn’t take the time to know him that well.

It took adulthood to make you wonder how he stumbled so badly when it came to solidifying his place in the middle class. For a while you thought it was his unique failings, an inability to assimilate, and surely appearance and social skills are part of the story. Then you began to look around you in towns like those you grew up in and saw that his appearance was nothing unusual. It’s the look of people who have zero disposable income to spend on themselves, especially the men, who wash their hair with a bar of soap, brush their teeth, and rush to work in whatever’s clean. It’s the outward appearance of poverty.

You know the careful visual distinctions we make in this country. “Dress like the job you want” also means “if you can’t dress and groom that way, good luck getting that job.” You’re your father’s daughter, so you grok the penalty of dressing the wrong way, but you’re also uneasy with passing as upper class no matter what your education and salary. The working class made you and at some fundamental level you’re loyal to it. The reflexive mockery of the people you come from by the people around you bites every time. And when Hannibal Lecter says to Clarice Starling, “You’re just one generation removed from poor white trash”—oh, you feel that. You know the gaze the monster turns on her. You’ve spent years avoiding it.

But in your father’s prime working years, the seventies through the nineties, larger forces were massing against Americans who grew up poor, believing in the bootstrap dream. Wages stagnated then shuffled into a decided downward trend. He got minimal raises and tiny bonuses, never grossing over $30,000 a year. There was no pension. He cashed out his IRA to put a down payment on a house after the divorce. Like tens of millions of Americans, you had no dental coverage growing up and learned to brush and floss compulsively while your dad paid for his root canal out of his own pocket.

You have dental insurance now.

He never did.

In many ways you’re exceptional among not just your family but your generation. You’ve risen above your origins while others, including family members, have fallen back even from their own highest social standing. The single-wide trailer house you moved your dad out of when his health failed was an anchor and an oracle. It said, “Don’t get too high and mighty. You could wind up here too.” Yet even as he experienced the setbacks that have turned many white men bitter and angry—and there was bitterness and anger enough—your dad hasn’t turned against his class. He’s a yellow dog Democrat who’s voted and argued all his life for the honor and rights of the working man, the laborer, the veteran against forces that would crush them.

And now he’s dying. You should have done better for him, found other doctors, spent more time, but you were working long hours at the firm. You have a child of your own. You had so little to give after all he gave you, and that’s the way of your family, too—never enough to go around. Never enough self-esteem or social capital, never enough sanity or sobriety, never enough love, because even though you were loved, the greeting card trope is true: to love someone else, you have to love yourself first. Your dad loved you as best he could, but his real gift was the sense of inadequacy that drives you.

He won’t let go of your hand. He’s waited for this night, you realize, when you’d be here and he could die holding his little girl’s hand, accompanied into the unknown. He doesn’t want to die alone, so you stay as hours pass, testimony blurs before your eyes, and the hard chair hurts your back and legs. His breaths rasp. If you look up you can follow each one, the inflation of blue-veined, hollowed cheeks, the rise of gown and blanket, parched lips you moisten with a sponge on a lollipop stick.

There’s a little gasp, and then silence. He’s not hooked up to machines so you have to stand over him to be sure that no breath or heartbeat stirs him. His eyes opened at the end, facing death with a brave heart, you imagine. You put your hand on his eyelids like they do in police dramas and shut them. You kiss his cheek and say, “Goodbye, Daddy.”

CARRIE LA SEUR’s critically acclaimed debut novel The Home Place (William Morrow 2014) won the High Plains Book Award and was short-listed for the Strand Critics Award for Best First Novel. Her writing appears in such media as Daily Beast; Grist; the Guardian; Harvard Law and Policy Review; High Country News;  Kenyon Review Online; Mother Jones; Rumpus; Salon; and Yale Journal of International Law. She is a founder of the environmental nonprofit Plains Justice and the Billings Bookstore Cooperative. Her second novel, The Weight of an Infinite Sky, a rural Montana take on Hamlet, comes out in paperback this month.

Featured image credit: “so many stories…” by Lisa Edmonds, courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons.
    1. Gabrielle says:

      “Because even though you were loved, the greeting card trope is true: to love someone else, you have to love yourself first. Your dad loved you as best he could, but his real gift was the sense of inadequacy that drives you”….

      And this is the problem right here. Why the hell do you feel “inadequate”? The author claims that both she and her dad could never and would never deny their class, but it’s being denied every moment that you choose to carry around feelings of inadequacy due to where you came from. When you continue to live in fear of returning there – not because it’s a difficult life to lead with struggles uncounted, but because you too, deep within, look down on that life, that class, and you see it as a personal insult of catastrophic proportion to possibly return there.

      Life for the working class in America will never improve until they learn to have pride in themselves and in their work. You can’t successfully fight for better when you perpetually believe that you don’t deserve it.

      1. Robert Auerbach says:

        Puleeze, who are you, Gabrielle, to make these remarks so lacking in empathy? Even if you got a hard scrabble start to your own life, your point of view struck me as unbelievably insensitive.

  1. Kathleen Shellady says:

    Anyone who has experienced the death of a parent close up can relate to this piece. While awaiting their death, it is a time of reflection of your connected lives. It is also a time to see the human nature of your parent: the imperfections, the best efforts given from their own upbringing, and the unconditional love that exists between the two of you. Your writing brings all of this to the surface in a powerful way. Thanks.

    1. Ellen Payzant says:

      I agree. I was with both my parents and my husbands mother when they left this world. It was an amazing experience that I am grateful to have had.

  2. Gordon Klein says:

    Carrie is a voice of the people of our generation who used the educational system for upper mobility, who became surrounded by people from the caste we were trying to take our way into, who thought we had to leave our towns with no opportunity, but found that we brought parts of them with us. I’m a big fan of “The Home Place.” Her writing is so good, I savor individual sentences, not at all rushing through. That’s part of why I’m not through her second novel, that and the kind of things that the narrator of this piece would understand.

  3. PAIGE BOYER says:

    Loved this essay as I have so many feelings about my parents. The most poignant part of this essay was I wish I could have a relationship with my Father because we were so close years ago, but a very insecure and narcissistic Mother has had her impact on him, and in turn he has had to make a choice between his daughter or his wife. But the values he instilled in me are still very important to me. Thank you so much for this because it brought tears to my eyes. I do not speak much of the power parents have on a child and have made it my mission to be a supporter of my children and not the one who demeans them or makes them feel worthless. A relationship with a father for a daughter is extremely powerful!!!!!!

    Thanks, Carrie

  4. Deb Sims says:

    Wow A beautiful sad heart wrenching story that’s so true for so many of us. He just really touched a nerve in me as I remember my own dad’s death. Thank you for writing this.

    1. Tony Iaconelli says:

      If the yearning Democratic Party wrote and thought like Ms. Le Seur, they might find their way out of the woods and move back into a position to help the working class to a better life.

  5. Josay laventhol says:

    I was unable to read your entire article due to the unreasonable light print and small letters. In addition I was unable to enlarge it which is most unusual.
    This happens regularly but no one seems to listen. I hope to read your feature at another time.
    I will definitely not be the only one who gave up reading.
    Please forward my observation. Thanks.

    1. Leslie B. says:

      You’re right. The font was a very poor choice. If you can Select the entire essay and email it to yourself, it will appear in more readable text. Good luck.

    2. Jay says:

      Although it may not help with the lightness of the text, most browsers will enlarge/zoom the the text by hitting the CTRL + keys (CTRL – to zoom back out when done). Hope this will help in a pinch

  6. Patricia Fisher says:

    Thank you….for putting this into words that are filled with love and respect. I continue,at age 75, to cling to that edge between my parents and siblings, that place of old blue jeans and frayed sweatshirts,the expensive clothes on hangers in the closet. You have put on paper the place my heart holds tight and the reached for.somehow attained. I feel relief,some pride but the chasim between now and then is where I hold onto who I might be and who lives inside my heart and mind.

  7. P J Enz says:

    Excellent writing. Beautifully placed words that resonate with similar feelings that accompanied the death of my hard-working, tough father.

  8. Patrick Vecchio says:

    My eyes weren’t big enough to hold my tears after I finished reading this. I kept seeing my father and me in it: his showing love by the things he did for my siblings and me, not by the things he said; and my being unaware of this until after he had died and I had no way of thanking him. I told him I loved him just once, and that was the last time I saw him. What a fool I was.

  9. Donald Kollisch says:

    As a VA doctor I should maybe feel slighted and defensive. OK, I do; at least a bit. But mostly I’m grateful for the portrait. These guys – guys like Ms. La Seur’s dad – pull me into work every morning and keep me there later than is good for me. Some are angry, some long-suffering, some oblivious; some of them teach me about the nature of grace. I often feel more comfortable with my working class patients – whose authenticity and lack of pretense is in their gait and expression – than I do with my doctor colleagues. Thanks, Ms. La Seur, for so skillfully sharing your father with us. The second-person voice – hard to pull off – works wonderfully.

    1. Cynthia Ware says:

      Kevin, I send my sympathies. I pray that your heart finds comfort and peace while you are grieving. I also understand very deeply because just 138 days ago I was in these same shoes. Then I helped my mother arrange the “Memorial service” because my sweet father didn’t even want a funeral because they are “a waste of money” and “I’m just gonna be cremated anyway”. I miss him every day.

  10. Wojciech says:

    So touching… I`ve said goodbye to my mom few months back and I feel exactly the same as you do…
    Thank you Carrie…

  11. Mike Dean says:

    Thank you for this touchingly honest piece. Dad died 18 years and four days ago. Though he landed on Utah beech 6-6-1944 as the third man on his landing craft, behind his company commander and radio-man, I had to read books to learn of his war experiences.He like so many were silent hero’s.

  12. gene f says:

    The writing brought me back to the personal experience of saying good bye to my dad but it also reminded me of how his generation endured so much because of the collective belief that work would make things better. When hope turns to despair that seems to set the stage for tyrants because believing in a lie about hope is better than nothing

  13. Dave Hay, UK says:

    Oh heck. I was reading this and it resonated with my time sitting at my mother’s bedside for 4 weeks, mulling over the past, present and future. A life run. I was fine until the penultimate paragraph and the lollipop sponge. Weird how little things like that take you into that moment. Tears flooding down my cheeks here. We are defined not by what we have accumulated but by our actions to others and those effects echo through the generations to come.

    Lovely writing. Poignant.

  14. Steve Speidel says:

    I will be by my Mothers side when the time comes I was,nt there for my Dad or Bro.These days I listen a lot of KRYON Lee Carroll I hope it will make it easier for me now!.

  15. Wowwwwww ! So many thoughts go through my head reading this I have said a lot lately,that im tired, hurt ,confused, sad ,angry,stupid,worthless,quiet,loud,lost,discusted ,poor,mad,a liar,ungrateful,my list could go on and it will but now it will mean something I was told 8 years ago after being in the hospital for 30days no one knew what was wrong until a doctor whom put her life on hold and was with me all day every day trying to figure out why my body was being ate from inside out, I could see nothing but my skeleton in my legs ,yes looking at my bones getting power washed twice a day nothing to numb the pain or my heart. Came in my isolation room and asked if I would let a doctor friend of hers whom flew in from europe to attended a seminar She was doing on auto immune disease’s. Take a look at my body and chart? Sure why not everybody else has I don’t think he could surprise me with nothing else. Oh was I wrong Within 30 minutes I was given the biggest test of my life. I was watching the show house and my disease was main illnesses focused on that week,and then my favorite actress was on my daughter’s tablet talking about a disease she was just diagnosed with, it gets better after seeing all that house went off and my favorite comedians show was on and it was a in memory of episode. I was telling my daughter how wild that was that everything we just watched focused on the same disease.That only happens in movies I guess. ! .Well it wasn’t true at all.Both doctors came in and frst question I got was my doctor asking if she could talk about me at her siminar that night,? Seeing she spent a month of her life with me I felt nothing but excitement seeing people like me don’t get that at all never. Through all the excitement I forgot to ask why me ? You don’t know what I have. I watched her cry and scream all at once and she couldn’t tell me so her Dr.Friend did he said I have good news and bad news ,good news is your diagnosed as of tonight bad news is I’m 100% sure you wont live through the weekend. I honestly looked at him laughed and said I’m pretty sure I was not born with a clock on my head so what is the bad news he himself with tears coming down said you have “sarcoidosis” he explained most people get it in the lungs but you have it in all of your organs and skin but none in the lungs. All I thought about was what me and my daughter has just seen on tv & the tablet the house episode was about sarcoidosis, my favorite comedian had it and passed from it and my favorite actress Tisha Campbell.from “martin” just got diagnosed with it. I knew them what was going on I just had to get out of my saviours way. I was given this so late in the game that God is giving me a chance to help others see warning signs and get help early. Your story just made my story seem so small I had given up on the fight today and I know that your loss was so much more than that it was not a loss but a gift from God to you your story hit hard and made me cherish my fight and live another day. I never thought I mattered but your Dad helped me see through you that suicide is not the answer and with along with all my flaws craters skin,bald spots bad teeth,skin that looks like 3rd degree burns and feel like I hit my funny bone 24houra a day not able to do much leaving my husband to care for our 7 sons ,2 daughtes,and 2 soon to be adopted nephews by himself when I’m down, and loosing our home due to a landlord not being honest and losing his home. My life is pretty darn great I still have faith in God ,me,myself ,and I and I’m going to continue to enjoy my struggle as I know when I feel pain I’m still here and he hasn’t failed me.Thank you, Thank You,Thank you Thank your Angel in heaven your Father. God bless you.

  16. jennifer says:

    i am a hospice nurse and this is real/ my Dad passed away 40 yrs ago and i so wish i could have been with him/ because of my immaturity plain and simple i was not/ no one was
    he was the greatest Dad ever was
    excellently! written

  17. Rob says:

    What an incredible and moving story. Thank you so much for writing that which we need to hear now and then. We have all been there or will be at some point in our lives. My mom passed away a few years ago and it still hurts as much now as it did then. Both of my parents were from the depression era and like many, had nothing. My parents both gave up a lot so that we would have the basic necessities. I took care of both my parents when my siblings were unable or unwilling to help. My siblings were jealous that I went to and graduated from college. Oddly, I’m the black sheep of the family for getting an education.

    My parents both taught me many lessons in life. I worked with my father in his contracting business when I was 9-10 in the summers and sometimes weekends if there was a job that needed done. I once remarked to my dad that learned a lot working with him. I laughed and said I never wanted anything to do with construction work. Dad smiled and said that i learned the greatest lesson that he tried to teach us and the greatest gift of all of all. Dad taught the value of hard work and also hard work in school so I wouldn’t have to work as he did. It suddenly dawned on me the depth of what I had learned all those years.

    I was there when my mom passed away and still I felt I should have done more. Over the years, we had become friends. In truth, I learned more of grace and class spending one day together than I had ever learned from anyone else. Her kindness and compassion for others after having a hard life is still a source of amazement to me. I have found as the years go by that I continue to try to live in a way that would honor them both.

  18. JC Watkins says:

    This story hit very close to home. In my case a few changes: dad hung onto his job at plant even though he was moved to rotating shifts 8-4,4-12,12-8 and i have be quite because dad was resting during most of my life. On the other hand he didnt quite finish college since the family needed money to stay afloat. His father was gone 10 years before the war (“the big one, son”) WWII and the GI Bill was when dad was released from duty in the Army Air Force/Air Force.

    Otherwise this story just described life and death for many families.
    There is power in the author’s words.

  19. Jamal Johnson says:

    I can not place a time when I read something this poignant , honest, and heartfelt. I can’t stop but think about the one thing this segment did possess, which was a work ethic. Perhaps not the requisite education, or even advanced skills, but the willingness to make sacrifices and simply take on the work that others would be above/refuse allowed them to have a sense of worth/dignity. The notion that one of our political parties that once represented this core group of citizens, but have since than abandoned them, is heartbreaking. The author’s comments regarding yellow dog democrats really struck home. I have voted straight party lines for my entire life and can not believe how my party has been hi-jacked by special interests vs. staying true to fighting for the “working class” . This group is invisible to them, is looked down upon by them, and is far less important than their current catering to the “non-working class” entitlement voting blocs. Saddened by that reality, uplifted by the author connecting with so many of us that have known, or loved someone that fit this description. Thank you.

  20. R Shaffer says:

    I am your dad. And from myself and all of us who are in the same place thank you for understanding and showing your love to your father through your writing.

  21. christina says:

    While I’ve not lost my parents yet, and I’m not from a Blue Collar family, I feel I am that parent who is blue collar, who raised successful children. This story brought me to tears with understanding. A different perspective, yes, but completely relatable. Brilliant writing.

  22. mark says:

    Lost my dad 2 weeks ago.We weren’t a close family,I spent as much time with him as I could before the cancer got him.I get the no time thing,couldnt be there 24/7.Great story,Im you to a tee.

  23. Craig Brisbane says:

    Powerful story, very moving. Similar in many ways to my Mom’s passing. I just stumbled across this piece by accident; so glad I did. Thank you.

  24. Elan says:

    Wow. That was a punch in the stomach. So good. And it is my life – I’m an attorney and one generation from a white trash that my three sisters didn’t escape. It is hard to launch away from old, hard roots. Some loyalty remains to the roots I want to escape, even while the fear of being “outed” is a constant cackling hag tagging along on my journey. Beautiful writing. Thank you.

  25. Danny Piemontesi says:

    Dear Carrie, I inadvertently came upon you essay and read it. Your attention to details observed and the ability to put it to prose is overwhelming, in a word visceral! I have been spreading the word about your words daily. Very powerful and moving. Thanks so very much for eloquently sharing your experiences with all of us. Be Well

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