On X-Men, and Watching my Dad Die
This holiday season, Liz Merino shares an intimate portrait of the love and pain of a singular father-daughter relationship — and what she learned from Wolverine along the way.
The title of this piece is probably misleading because my dad isn’t dead. But, I have watched him die.
My father can clean a plate like no other. He loves his Budweiser, his television turned up too loud (volume at 50 for those who are wondering), and his dog, “The Maynard Road Menace,” Clancy. Although not as active as he once was, as he’s retired with carpal tunnel syndrome, my dad enjoys going on “adventures” with my mom and I, to visit my nana, run to the liquor store, and complete somehow hours-long trips to Home Depot.
His laugh is infectious, and he will find humor in just about anything. On a given day, you’ll likely find him watching a movie, and then rewatching it from the beginning as soon as it ends (I’m looking at you “Speed” and “Armageddon”).
The first time my dad almost died, I was too young to grasp it. Back in 1998, he crashed his car into our neighbor’s house. While working on the car, he hit the gas instead of the brake, sending him flying across the street, his head dragging along the pavement until making a full stop inside a garage.
Severe head trauma kept him in the hospital for months. I remember visiting him — those memories are fuzzy at best — long hospital corridors, my mom crying, the smell of bleach, and the bleeps of machines. Wires protruding from his body — his arms, his neck — as they snaked around him, and the red-hued bandage circling his head.
I remember not understanding why my dad now had to be zipped into his bed at night, what rehab was, or why he couldn’t come home. He didn’t know who I was.
Left with less than stellar vision, a small scar on the left side of his head, and the same terrible handwriting, he eventually made a full recovery.
Growing up, my dad was always there, glued to the couch, hiding in the basement, or sitting on the back deck. Absent from most family dinners because of his work schedule, a plate was always made and kept in the fridge for a later time. When he worked, I’d drive him there most nights, the hours between 9 p.m. and midnight were his most lively — the most him. Dunks cup in hand, he’d head into work and I’d be asleep, almost as if we were living on two different planets somehow orbiting one another, but never fully falling into the same path. Known to drink a few 30 racks a week, he wasn’t the most dependable, but he did always show me unconditional love. It’s a family dynamic we’ve grown accustomed to, one that grows more normal with time.
Now, my dad is just like all dads. He expects a call from me every morning if I’m not home, and complains when he does not receive one. He will never call me. And he will never use a “scroll phone” (he’s had the same flip phone for four years now). He likes his coffee in the morning and The Herald brought in to him from outside. He’s only in the kitchen for a cigarette when my mom’s trying to cook, and he usually asks for something as you’re heading out the door, or turning your car onto the street for the night. John things. Dad things.
When I think back to the accident now, it doesn’t really feel like anything at all. It happened, and the world continued to spin and we went on with our lives.
It was the second time he almost died that hit me harder.
Being older, coupled with more responsibility, more understanding, more knowledge of the ugly truths of long hospital stays and misdiagnosis, it makes you realize you didn’t know shit when you were a kid. And as an adult, you’re forced to.
This past summer, my dad almost died again. He’s made a full recovery now, and the year feels like a blur — like a really, really bad dream. The fear of losing him, of how close it came, it doesn’t go away. It’s always there.
This summer was different. I knew what the bleeps meant when they shrieked and screamed as my dad tried to get what little sleep he could. I knew that the wires were carrying blood, nutrients, oxygen, things my dad wasn’t getting on his own, things his body had been deemed incapable of making. The pills came by the dozen, and his hands shook as he took each one, the water dribbled from the small paper cup every time he took a sip and swallowed. I could see almost every bone in his body. I counted the vertebrae in his spine, and watched the clock tick, and wished with all I had in me that our roles could reverse. There was no way for me to take his pain, no way for me to help besides be there and smile and try not to cry. Being strong for yourself is one thing, but being strong for your parents? It takes a toll. It’s something that can’t quite be measured, except by sleepless nights and stomach knots, and a weird, almost calm, sense of urgency that makes you feel as if you started screaming in the street no one would even bat an eyelash. Because life is still moving, even though yours is at a dead stop.
This past week I watched “Logan”, the latest X-Men film following the long-running story of Wolverine. I know next to nothing about X-Men, but I’ve seen some of the other movies and know some storylines from the comic books. In this last installment of the franchise, we watch as Wolverine tries to keep Charles Xavier safe from the usual bad guys trying to end mutant life. He instead gets wrapped up in saving a young girl named Laura, who he later finds out is his daughter, created by an evil scientist with his DNA. Together, and with a band of other mutant children, they attempt to find safety in Eden, a sort of refuge located in North Dakota. I enjoyed the movie, but (spoiler alert) watching Wolverine die at the end with Laura holding him and begging him not to go brought out a very deep sadness in me, and an understanding of my dad I hadn’t been able to grasp before.
All my life my mom had been my Superwoman. But, I realized, my dad had been his own type of hero, too: Wolverine. With an ability to heal, a bit of a loner tendency, a dark history filled with some loss, and a bad habit to kick, my dad fit the mold for the legend. I saw myself in Laura, angry at what their relationship could have been with more time, more nurturing, more understanding. Watching her recognize parts of herself in Wolverine gutted me as I realized the similarities in me and my own dad. I watched her struggle with that feeling of helplessness; the dread of knowing you could maim, or kill, or try to move the world, but it wouldn’t stop fate, it couldn’t stop death. And I thought, “Me too.”
In November of 2016 my dad had hernia surgery. He had been sick to his stomach for the months leading up to it, in pain, but manageable. My mom and I figured the hernia surgery would be the end of his pain, and the beginning of a new chapter.
We were wrong.
For months after, my dad was in and out of the hospital. The man I once knew to be ravenous barely ate, fitfully slept, and began to wither away; a mere ghost of his former self. When things turned further south, I worked from home a few days a week, spending more time in an emergency room than I ever had in my whole life. The doctors couldn’t find a cause of the weight loss, the immobile shell of my dad was a mystery to them, one that just couldn’t be solved. My mother never wavered in his care, she was always pushing the doctors, yelling, raving mad, begging them to find the true cause of what was killing her husband in front of her eyes. Wrong diagnosis after wrong diagnosis lead to his last stay at one of the top hospitals in the country.
At 90 pounds, my dad was dying. And I knew it.
It hurt to look at him. I couldn’t sleep, knowing he couldn’t. I couldn’t bring myself to eat without becoming nauseous, knowing he couldn’t give his body what he needed too. I couldn’t be happy knowing any minute he would just cease to be. The man I knew to be indestructible, who carried me around like a football when I was kid, who found the strength to build parts of my house and random cars, the dad I knew to always be found laughing was no more. He couldn’t even touch his beer.
In the film, Wolverine hauled Laura to safety while fighting off the bad guys, trying to keep Charles alive, although he himself became weaker and weaker, fighting a poison in his body that was effectively killing him with every breath. Still he continued on, laying down his life for her in the end, knowing she could live as she wanted, not as a product of her circumstances, but just as herself with choice, and self-understanding, and love. I know my dad doesn’t have claws, he isn’t a mutant, he can’t magically heal, but he has always been there in his own way. And when the time has come, he’s talked me off the ledge, or listened to me bitch, or made the joke he knew I needed to get through another day — through life.
We finally found a breakthrough with a doctor who heard about our case and had an idea about what was eating my father from the inside out. We came to learn that the arteries in his stomach were blocked, making it impossible for him to hold down or digest food, robbing him of the nutrition he needed every time he took a bite. He was diagnosed with Mesenteric Artery Ischemia. He required surgery to fix it, if this was really it, and could be treated. We were warned he likely would not survive it because of how weak he was.
Unable to just watch and do nothing any longer, we moved forward with the surgery. It was a success. A miracle if anything. After another month in the hospital, my dad was able to come home.
Unlike Laura, I didn’t have to say goodbye. I have more time, something that I am so grateful for. As kids, we think our parents are immortal, strong, always there, always living and being. As we age, we begin ourselves to understand the concept of time. We learn that eventually everything, and everyone, does die. I wish my dad could be immortal — or close to it, like Wolverine. Watching Wolverine die, reminded me that one day I would have to say goodbye to my dad again, that he would get older and treatment wouldn’t be the cure of anything at all. I have more time to see the good and the bad, to enjoy the moments, and to appreciate him just as he is, still my hero, still the man with dozens of lives. My Wolverine.