Sunday, June 15, 2008

happy father's day.

I have been trying to muster up the courage to make this post, and I figured there would be no better time than Father’s day.
Since February, I have been traveling back and forth between Stockton and my hometown, Los Angeles, to spend time with my father. In October of last year, he was diagnosed with stage two cancer in his bladder. After surgery, the doctors were almost certain they’d contained the disease, but close to Christmas, he’d started to have violent dizzy spells and trouble speaking. Another visit to the doctor revealed two brain tumors. In February, he underwent brain surgery, and I spent a week in the hospital by his side, leaving to go back to work once he was safely home. Since then, it had been an ongoing cycle of find-the-tumor-and-take-it-out, only to have another appear somewhere else.
In early April, I got a phone call late on a Friday night. My father was back in the hospital, this time in ICU. He’d had trouble getting up that morning, and even more trouble breathing. The nurse on the phone couldn’t tell me anything other than he was stable, so early Saturday morning, I made the drive back home yet again. He was kept under, hooked up to a breathing machine and numerous IVs. First he was stable. Then he got a little better. Then he got a little worse, but was still pretty stable.
After almost a week of hospital beds and countless nurses, things took a slight turn for the worst. I’d had little sleep, if any, and most of that was upright in a chair, my head on his hospital bed with a television droning in the background. A doctor came in the room, a new doctor. Dad’s kidneys were starting to fail, and if the clouds in his lungs turned out to be cancer and not pneumonia, it was up to me to decide how much longer his body would have to fight. I didn’t know what to do, so I decided to get some air. I gave my dad a kiss, told him I loved him and I’d be right back, took a picture of his room to show him later, then I walked outside to smoke a cigarette in the parking lot.
Fifteen minutes later, I walked back into the hospital. A doctor was being paged. The name was familiar. Code blue, ICU. It didn’t register until I reached the ICU doors, and a man in a suit greeted me. He asked if I was the daughter. I said yes, and at that moment it clicked. Dad was coding, his heart had stopped. As I sobbed in the lobby, a nurse came out and said she was sorry. They let me in the ICU in time to watch several doctors and even more nurses crowded into the cubicle, trying to zap his heart into action. It felt like an hour, but was hardly one minute, and he was gone.
When I went home in February, I asked my dad if he’d mind if I photographed his time in the hospital. I told him I needed to do it to process it all. He agreed, and consistently joked about not making him look like an idiot. When I went back for the last visit, it was too hard to shoot. I instead spent the time talking to him, more like talking AT him, since he was never conscious.
I’d hoped to post something sooner, but looking at the photos has been the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I couldn’t even pick up my camera for two weeks after his death. Every time I tried, the back screen would flash that photo, the last one I took before walking out of that room and the last photo I took while he was alive. Hooked up to machines, under florescent lights. Sterile and lonely.
For most of my life, my father was everything I had. I still believe he is. As a child, he treated me with respect, and as an adult, I was his equal. There was a connection beyond parental; he was my best friend. He played the role of both parents since I was a teenager, and though we often had our differences, he was always there to help me pick up the pieces.
In a situation this emotional, the first person I would normally call would be him. It’s so hard to start to call, only to hear the automated voice telling me the number is disconnected. He gave me every opportunity, and supported me through late-night homework, multiple breakups, moving to San Francisco, changing majors, chasing dreams. With all he’d done for me, I wish there was something I could have done to help him.
I can’t bring myself to decide on a gravestone. All the options seem so fake. Sunday, Father’s day, was the first time since his passing that I was able to force myself to go to the cemetery. The plastic marker was so small, insignificant. I wish I could replace it, but I feel so drained from planning a funeral and planning a burial. I can’t confront talking to another Director about details.
So on Father’s day, I thought it was time to confront the photos I took, to confront the emotion I have tried to ignore for two months. Two months, and it hasn’t gotten any easier. I hear that there’s hope, though. So here’s to hoping.

I love you, daddy.
Keith Derron Zambelich
8 December 1949 – 16 April 2008.