Today is Fathers Day. And it has been 14 years since I last saw mine. Not by choice. If I had my way I would have woke up early today and prepared myself to go and spend the day with my father. Hanging out with my dad was one of my favorite past times, even when I was young. I much preferred hanging out with him and my brother over staying at home and cleaning with my mom and sisters! And man did he ever teach me a lot about construction, cars, heating and air conditioning and duct tape.
If he was alive today we would spend the day doing all the things he loved. We would probably cook together. Talk about life and laugh. He had a great laugh. We would most definitely go see a twilight movie, my treat. And it would have to be Finding Dory simply because it was just released and he saw a movie just about every weekend and therefore the latest release would be the only one he had yet to see. More than likely it would make us both cry at some point and I would have been completely content with that. I believe he would have too.
The last time I saw my dad was the day he died. He had moved to Florida after exhausting all of his options for cancer treatment here in Omaha. He had tried just about everything, including chemotherapy, but the cancer kept re-generating itself into a new form and attacking another part of his body. He was a meat and potatoes guy who adored his grill, even on a blistering hot day. Although after his diagnosis he gave up a lot of things he once loved because he wanted so badly to live. He completely changed his entire diet and even started juicing. This was way before you could just go to Whole Foods and buy a bottle of cold pressed juice. But I tell you if he had lived to see that day he would have bought it by the truckload if he believed for one moment it would keep him alive one more day.
My brother and I helped him move to Florida and when he left Omaha he looked wonderful. As a matter of fact people could hardly believe he was dying he looked so healthy. My dad, when he put his mind to something, did it big, real big. And there were zero excuses to stand in his way. One of the many things he taught me. Little did any of us know, it would only be a matter of months before things would take a turn for the worse. I had started a new job when I received a call from my sisters who had gone to see him, telling me they didn’t think he was going to make it much longer. My boss at the time was incredible as was my employer. They swung into action finding me an inexpensive flight and took care of all the necessary paperwork so I could stay with him as long as I needed to.
When I arrived at the “retirement” community they were living in I was shocked at what I saw. I felt as though I was in some weird dream. He was a shell of the man I had left in Florida only a few months prior. I knew he was close to the end.
He asked me how he looked and I said, “Do you want me to tell you the truth or do you want me to lie to you?” He chuckled and responded, “Could you candy coat the truth a little for me?” I laughed as I began to cry and I said, “Dad you look like shit. And I am so happy to be here.” We both laughed and I just snuggled up beside him on his bed. At this point our focus was about keeping him comfortable. Unfortunately my step mother was in denial that he was dying and was still saying things to him that only made it more difficult for my father to leave this world. But I kept holding a space for him to pass as smoothly as possible. I had never been around someone who was dying before, but something deep inside me said I needed to let go. To let him know it was ok and that I would be ok. He was asleep more than he was awake and that first night I was there he was in a great deal of pain. At this point the hospice nurses who had been coming over the past week had given him something to keep him comfortable but being the stubborn bull he was, he wouldn’t take it. He said that someone told him, if he gave in to taking it, his body would shut down and he would die. Even at the end he didn’t want to let go.
The next evening was even harder. We had permanently moved him into the living room in a recliner that he felt most comfortable in. My Aunt Betty, my dads big sister, was coming in to town, so we left to go pick her up at the airport. We stopped for a bite to eat to fill her in one what was happening back at the house and to regroup. When we returned to the house, my stepmom asked us all to come sit in the kitchen, she had something she wanted to tell us. I am certain I will not be able to write out what happened to paint the picture of how hilarious it actually was for her to gather us up at the table. If you knew her you would understand but suffice it to say she sat us all down, asked us if we wanted anything to drink and opened a box of donuts. And then very cautiously and quietly she whispers, “Your father has entered the dying stages.” I know, that isn’t supposed to be funny but I felt like I was in some strange movie and inside I was laughing. She then continues saying, “And we need to let him know, it’s ok to go.” And all I could think was, welcome to the party, it started a few days ago but I am seriously happy to hear you decided to join us. Yes, everyone grieves differently, and it is probably not OK to make light of what she was going through but for myself, I guess I laugh, in order to keep myself from crying. We all agreed that we would support dad in his passing and my sister and I went outside to laugh. And, cry.
That evening was really hard and the next morning my father yelled for me to come in the room. He reached up and grabbed me by the shirt collar and pulled me down close to his face with the little energy he had and said, “Take me out. There is a gun in my closet and bullets. Please just take me out.” I said, “Dad, there is a much easier way to accomplish this mission of yours.” He looked me deeply into the eyes and said, “OK. I trust you.” That was the first time I gave him the drops of medicine, to make him more comfortable, left by the hospice nurses.
That was the beginning of the end. He was much more comfortable and it was late the next evening his body finally gave up on him. He kept staring up at the ceiling that day. One time he shared he saw his mother, who had died a few years prior, and that she looked incredible. Then another time he shared that he was watching his dog, who had passed away after being hit by a car, run and play fetch. When he asked if I could see them, I would say, yes dad I see them too. I told him, he should stay with them and be free. I could tell that his soul left his body before his body actually stopped. I am not a very religious person, but I am spiritual and definitely feel that comes from the Native American side of me. I saw his body lift and he exhaled heavily, just as I did as I typed that.
I felt privileged to be there for him that day. I still feel an overwhelming gratitude in my heart for having that moment just he and I. It alleviates the fact that today I don’t have a grave to go to, or even a small part of his ashes because he was cremated in order to make transporting his body back to Omaha easier. And the step mom, turned into a bit of a monster once his body was cold.
After coming out as transgender last year, I had a conversation with my sister and we both wondered what dad would say about me today. I told her that he and I had a very touching conversation the year he was diagnosed, about me and my life at that time. And a part of me felt as though he would be ok with it. And then in December last year I took part in UNOs Safe Training program. There was a group of people participating from Metro College, which is where my father worked for years teaching heating and air conditioning and other technical trades. A little known fact, my father helped MCC create many of their technical trade courses. There is a scholarship in his honor. Anyway, as I do with anything I do, I was an active participant during the training and interjected thoughts I had as they applied to what we were learning. During one of our breaks a woman from MCC walked up to me and said, “Are you a Rigatuso?” I said, “Yes.” And she said, “Do you remember me?” At that moment I realized oh my gosh, “Yes, you worked closely with my father for years!” She nodded her head and said, “Yes.” And then she said, “When you started talking during the class all I could think is, that is a carbon copy of Carl! You look like him, you sound like him and you express yourself just like him.” And she asked if she could have a hug. Of course I said yes and as we embraced she whispered, “I have been really missing your father and seeing you, I feel like I was able to steal a moment with him.” We stood there for the longest time just holding one another and crying. And then she said, “I know your father would be proud of you.”
I almost couldn’t attend training that day. And in that moment I realized the reason why it all worked out and I was there. So she could remind me that I am my fathers son. And that I am ok.
Left, my father, Carl Paul Rigatuso Sr., Born September 21, 1943 and died March 12, 2002
Right, me June 18, 2016, one week before my birthday.