A woman's true account of her
coming to terms with the end of her father's life. .
By Sarah E. Ratliff
All materials copyright by Sarah E. Ratliff May 2002
While I may have grown up with my father, I was later introduced to George
Orick when I joined the Virtual PC support group, an online support group
for men (and their families) who have prostate cancer. (PC). It was here
that I met people who constantly referred to him as a great man and his
Little Sunday Travel Piece, in which he wrote segmented pieces of his life.
George (I am not so comfortable calling you that) was indeed a great writer
in his day. Working for ABC News as their head writer, press writer for
Bobby Kennedy, and a documentary writer for the United Nations, my father
knew how to write. At least people paid him well, so I think this made him a
good writer. When he was diagnosed with PC only a year after my mother died
in 1994, he joined the Virtual PC support group. A retired man, aged 72 by
this point, his mind was filled with images and memories of his past. He had
only time and a computer, and so The Little Sunday Travel Piece was created.
Real accounts of his fascinating life shared virtually each and every
Sunday. Hundreds of people held captive by this man, my father. Seems almost
odd to me, because this is not the man I grew up with. But as I say, I was
introduced to George Orick and realized he was not the same person as my
father. Or was he?
George Orick has lived on five Continents, visited all seven, and been to
more countries than most people can even name. I have frequently bragged
that my father was in Antarctica, that we lived in Lagos, Nigeria (though I
was much too young to remember), and thanks to his wild career in
television, he's been able to visit places that I, even as his daughter,
have only read about in National Geographic. I too have been held captive
for an hour as I read his Little Sunday Travel Piece, because they are damn
interesting. Biafra, yeah I was there, but I was a year old. I had to hear
about it from him or read about it in the countless books since written
about the Civil War between it and Nigeria. I was 14 when he and ABC News
traveled to Antarctica, but I was home with my mother because my older
brother had a drug problem and had indeed overdosed. He lived, but it
certainly began to shape the way each of us (three kids) and our parents
related to one another. I admit it because we're not the only family whose
son took drugs. I was 13 when he traveled (again with ABC) to Tampica,
Illinois, the birthplace of former president Ronald Reagan. I was 16 when he
wrote the interview for (for Barbara Walters and 20/20) with Tina Turner,
and got her autograph for me. I was in high school when he was a writer for
and helped create Nightline. The show was originally put on the air to
account for each day that passed that Iran held Americans captive. Of course
it evolved into something different after all the hostages were released.
Indeed it was an interesting life and time, if only I had been old enough to
appreciate it. My life is filled with memories of dignitaries,
correspondents, anchors and writers, but I didn't really know the person
they associated with, my father, until recently.
I joined the Virtual PC support group because in December of 2001, my father
became extremely ill. A type of Pneumonia that frequently grows along with
aggressive Cancer began making its mark in my father's body. I looked to the
Virtual PC support group to help me. I knew that these people had the
expertise and perhaps just as important, the support I needed. I sent a
message introducing myself. I received 30 or 40 responses. Each one welcomed
me and of course wanted to know how my father was. They missed him. I was
overwhelmed as you can imagine. Here I was (virtually) face to face with
dozens of people who liked and missed my father. It was hard to work out.
They talked of a man with great compassion, a childhood full of physical
abuse at the hands of his own father. They also spoke of a man with
incredible courage. My father? I thought? No way! But gradually through
listening to Barbara in Boston, Hannah, Nancy, Haley, Aubrey and others, I
met a man that under other circumstances, I think I could like. One even
sent me every Little Sunday Travel Piece he'd ever written. What a gift! It
was there that I was welcomed with open arms just because I was the daughter
of George Orick. People loved this man! They looked forward to reading his
writing, hearing his opinions and called him things like great,
compassionate, complicated, and even belligerent. (Ah yes; now there was a
description I could relate to).
They missed him and wanted to know when he was coming back. Was this illness
temporary or what? When I joined it was to get answers from people who knew
about PC, what I got instead was something no one could have anticipated,
not even me.
People compared me to him and at first I was confused. Was I really this
similar to the man that had (perhaps unintentionally) hurt me my entire
life? I am still unsure. I do know that the last months of his life I was
able to relate to the person I never really liked much, couldn't fathom and
always fought to please. I slowly began to see the man that most of the
people on the Virtual PC support group know. My father would freely admit
that his child hood sucked. His father, a man though alive in my lifetime, I
never met. A sadistic, Nazi-sympathizer, racist man willing to lay around in
his silk robe and be waited on by my paternal grandmother who worked her
butt off as a teacher. I have few images of my grandfather. I have no
pictures of him, only those of my grandmother and so he is an enigma. Not
entirely unknown, but a man I wouldn't want to know. He died at 103. I was
In March, 2002 I began writing to the Virtual PC support group (et al, i.e.
friends and family who were interested) as my father had done for years. It
was around this time that his Oncologist in France (where my parents retired
to in 1987) pronounced him terminal. As many on the virtual PC support group
knew, my mother passed away suddenly in August, 1994 of an aneurysm. Living
the good life, complete with cigarettes and fatty food from the deep south
caught up with her. As I said, she went quickly. The urge to fly there and
be with him was incredible. The urge to sit still and do nothing was equally
strong. They often did battle with one another. Ranges of emotions over took
me. I looked for a safe place to discuss my fears, hopes and sadness about
his dying. At first just emails discussing my feelings about a man they knew
and a father I knew. Same name, very different person. After a time I began
writing 5 page descriptions about the father I knew, which sometimes
resembled the man they knew. Often times there was little resemblance. I
too called mine the Sunday Travel Piece so as to honor him. I wrote stories
of my growing up with this man, this man so many have referred to as great.
To me, he was my father. He was the man who I'd struggled with my whole
life. Our relationship was probably difficult as soon as I entered the
The difficulty I figured out quite quickly in honoring my father is that
quite honestly he was not (nor was my mother) well equipped to raised
children. Both of them had challenges growing up that in these modern times
they, like my husband and me, would admit that maybe having children isn't
the best thing to do. But that choice wasn't offered to them in the 50's and
60's. Newly married, it was expected of them to have children. I do think
that my parents loved us; they showed us in ways that might seem eccentric
to most other families.
We moved to New York City in 1967 from Lagos, Nigeria. Both my two brothers
and I are born abroad (they in Nigeria, I in the Netherlands). My father at
the time worked for the State Department, which was the beginning of his not
being around much due to work. When he was, we wished he weren't. I can't
recall as many fond memories growing up as I can painful ones. We didn't do
that many kid things. I don't recall countless trips to the Bronx Zoo or the
Children's Museum. And we never did take that heart-stopping trip to Disney
World. What I recall was being taught from day one how to be an adult and
how to cope in the world, a tough world. My parents didn't talk down to us
and in fact by three years old I was reading. By the time I was entering
school at 5, I was able to skip two grades because my reading and math were
well above the kindergarten level. But intellect is not the most important
thing you can pass on to your children.
To follow is the last piece I wrote to the Virtual PC support group. It was
written on Sunday, April 27, a month before he died. I wrote two others
prior to this one. One was "A Little Sunday Travel Piece by the Littlest
One", in which I described our rather unusual childhood. I painted a story
full of rich memories. Unfortunately, because I can recall so few, I used
them all in that piece. With my father's permission, I was allowed to write
of the true childhood both my brothers and I had. Full of anger, alcoholism,
abuse and fights. I wrote about it in the present tense, as a grown woman
looking back and trying to be at peace with herself and forgive her father.
I would have preferred not to begin working on my relationship with my
father while he was dying, but it was more his wish than mine. I entitled
this piece, "Stronger in the Broken Places". I felt then, and still feel now
that is what I am. Seven years of therapy to point out each and hopefully
every detail of my childhood broken down by weekly visits looking up at a
soothing coral colored ceiling. Now I see myself not as perfect, or "over
it all" but merely stronger in the broken places.
Each Little Sunday Travel Piece described my childhood and coming to terms
with the fact that my father, a man I'd not known very well, or liked
much in life, was dying.
Our relationship was often strained and finding the right words to say could
be difficult (for us both). I loved my father, one is supposed to, but
didn't usually like him. I will make no apologies for feeling this way. But
I will say that I learned a lot from both him and my mother and can see the
difference. I hope you can as well.
April 27, 2002
Dear Virtual PC support members, et al,
The subject of this week's Little Sunday Travel Piece is trying to be normal
in the face of acceptance. I call it, "I Fall to Pieces" after my favorite
Patsy Cline song.
I had several experiences this weekend that made me feel as though I were in
a movie, viewing my own life. The person in the film was enjoying herself
but all the while I knew she wasn't supposed to. I became angry at the
central character in my film. You see my father is in France dying. His
wife, Gigi is taking care of him. I am home in California with my husband,
am in school, and launching a business. While I am putting all of his
affairs into order (Legally speaking), the guilt of not being there to
change bedpans, hold his hand, and talk with him is overwhelming.
Every Saturday I meet my best friend Buffi. We are training for a 60-mile
charity walk in October. This magical number, when we reach it, we'll know
that we're ready for this not only physically draining, but also emotionally
daunting experience. This past Saturday, stiffness prevented Buffi from
walking more than 8 miles so we called it quits and decided to get ourselves
a pedicure. While this might seem quite decadent, anyone who has ever done
any walking or running regularly, knows the importance of keeping one's
toenails short and feet in good shape. They will never betray you. While in
the nail salon, feet in foot massager we were laughing and joking when my
cell phone rang. Gigi. My heart sank. Before I picked up the phone I
instantly became angry with myself for having such a good time while she is
in France at home caring for my cancer-ridden father.
She called to tell me that she and my father had had a rough night. He had
been having diarrhea all day and despite it's being necessary, he didn't
want to go back in the hospital. "I'd rather die than go back to the Sadists
again!" He told Gigi. I talked with her for a few minutes and she asked
where I was because she heard Vietnamese women's voices. She is half
Chinese, half Filipino and having lived all over Asia, she could distinguish
one language form another with ease. "LA" I replied. I couldn't tell her I
was getting a pedicure. I felt ashamed as she'd been up all night caring for
my now bed-ridden father and I was out being this indulgent and uncaring
daughter. I talked with my father for a moment and I asked him how he was,
"Sarah I just want to go." I closed my eyes and before the tears fell, I
just stood up, sucked in my breath. "Walk it off" I could hear my father
telling me. I was seven years old and fallen and scraped my knee.
My feet were nearly dry and I told Buffi I had to go home and call Gigi from
a LAN line. It would be too expensive on my cell. Buffi's birthday is
Wednesday and Paul and I'd planned to spend the evening with her and Matt,
her husband. She offered that if I was not up to it not to coming over for
dinner, that we could pass. All week long we'd been planning this huge
dinner, her favorite Chinese food and I was making the birthday cake. "No I
insist on trying to be as normal as possible. See you at 6."
I got home and called Gigi. We talked for a while and I asked her, "Gigi,
would you please let my father die?" Where had I gotten the strength to say
that? Even writing this my heart skips a beat. I said that I was convinced
that he was holding on for her. Through big sobs she agreed. I told her she
had been a wonderful wife. I talked with my father who began to extract
promises from me. This was indeed a first for him. Each one seemed
reasonable so I gave him my word. Then, I asked him, "Do you feel like you
can go now that I am going to take care of those things?" He replied with a
definite yes and reminded me that he loved me. I can't recall hearing him
say it that often. In five months I am sure that he'd said it more than in
35 years. I hung up the phone and cried loud uncontrollable sobs. I knew
that at this point it was all up to my father. My father was dying, he knew
it and now we all knew it. I sat motionless on my bed, holding a stuffed
animal my husband had given me. For the moment I felt better.
Later that evening Paul and I were at Buffi's house. We laughed and joked
and carried on as if life were normal. Paul and Matt both spent a few years
in the Marines and this seems to supply us with hours of memories to laugh
at. Both of them young men when they joined and had grown up (quickly) with
their new mother and father, Drill Sergeant and Staff Sergeant. And then
Buffi can always entertain us with stories about the people she nannies for.
They are hotshot movie producers whose money buys them everything but common
After dinner Buffi says, "Let's go sing Karaoke!" I had never done this
before, and it sounded fun. We all piled in my car. I hesitated.
I should be home, sitting in silence or just not having fun right?
How dare me!
It's disrespectful of me isn't it?
The moment passed as we drove about a mile to this place called the "Speak
Easy". Decorated with brown wood paneling, video machines, pool table and
dartboards, I am sure it bared no resemblance to the Speakeasy's of the
20's. Inside there was the usual assortment of regulars in any bar. They
hardly change from city to city. There's the older white man, white hair to
his shoulders, sitting facing the corner, singing a Neil Diamond song. I was
impressed that I even knew it was Neil Diamond's lyrics on the teleprompter.
Had he been a bad boy and his punishment to sit in the corner? "You can sing
but you have to face the corner." I thought to myself. It occurred to me
that it could be some self-imposed isolation.
Maybe he's shy. There was the middle aged White man known by all in the bar
as Wayne, who sat on his barstool, waiting his turn to sing Frank Sinatra.
Salt and Pepper hair, about average height and weight, average hair length
and average looks. I imagine that in his life, the word "average" probably
came up a lot. Now in his fifties, he could sing Frank at least as good as
Frank once had and maybe he'd made something of himself or not. But in here
he was someone. He was Wayne!
There was the forty-ish Black man who shared his time equally between the
pool table and the Karaoke microphone. His specialty was Leo Sayer, and any
other "one hit wonders" from the 70's. Please don't make the same mistake I
did of asking him to sing Luther Vandross. Talk about flat! He wore a black
glove that only covered up his ring finger and pinky. I entertained
fantasies that this was he fancied himself the only Black D'Artagnan. A
swashbuckler in a previous life, trying desperately to resurface. I later
learned he was a cop. It fit well with my fantasy. I was informed later on
that this glove helped him grip the cue better. And lastly was this other
Black guy, not as good a pool player as D'Artagnan, who only sang Lionel
Ritchie songs. Honestly I didn't like Lionel Ritchie then and he wasn't
doing it for me now. There were other minor roles, scattered through the
bar, but they didn't make the impressions on me that these four did. My
instincts were right on as they turned out to be THE entertainment for the
evening. I played three games of pool and won two. Not bad considering I
haven't played since college.
Buffi knows I love Patsy Cline and gave me some inside information. It
seemed that Ruthie the bartender did a killer "Crazy". It might seem strange
to you that I love Patsy Cline. I grew up on good ol' Rock & Roll, you know,
Led Zeppelin, Santana, The Allman Brothers, Bruce Springsteen, and Stevie
Wonder. I am a child of the 70's and so it is a surprise even to me that
when I am down and out, I turn to the first lady of Country music to pull me
up. Hesitantly I approached Ruthie, a full of life, middle-aged woman whose
thick Scottish accent instantly warmed me. "Ruthie, I hear you can make a
grown man cry with your voice."
She smiled, "What you wanna hear missy?" I buttered her up.
"Would you sing 'I Fall to Pieces' for me?"
"Sure, what's yer name, lady?"
"Sayrahh that's my neicee's name. I love my neicee, she's 11. She's still in
Glazzzgo. Alright, lady, it's yer day. Patsy it ees"
Ruthie approached the "stage" picked up the microphone and said, "This one's
for Sayrahh, I think she's in a melanchaulee mood. She wanted to hear this
Buffi was right. Ruthie could have recorded the soundtrack for "Sweet
Dreams" the story of Patsy Cline's life. For a moment I believed I was in
the audience at one of Patsy Cline's concerts. I was in some outdoor arena
along with thousands of her adoring fans. I looked at Paul and he squeezed
my hand. I turned toward Patsy, as tears stung my cheeks. I did little to
push them away. It wouldn't have mattered. They came faster than I could
react. Why was I crying? Was it guilt, grieving, confusion, or something in
between? I thought of my father, in his rented hospital bed, only his living
room ceiling to see each day when he awakens and each night before he falls
asleep. I thought of Gigi by his bedside, tape recorder in hand, recording
his life and his dying wishes. I knew it is getting close, any day now. I
thought of how he doesn't sleep well. He's not slept in his own bed in 5
months. A man should sleep with his wife. The rhythm of her heartbeat and
breathing might help him sleep. I held Paul's hand. He leaned closer to me,
breathed softly on my neck and said, "Don't be angry with yourself for
having fun, Sarah, you'll have your turn when I get sick and die." How had
he known I was crying? I sat next to him but couldn't face him. It occurred
to me that while it may have seemed that I cried only on the inside, being
utterly silent like you are when you're a child consoling yourself, my body
had betrayed me. At first I couldn't even turn to face him, tears were
falling so hard. I did finally turn and hugged him. I felt like I was the
luckiest woman alive to have a husband with the huge heart that he has. He
knew I was angry, that I felt ashamed for having a good time. It's the
struggle I live with every day.
My father died on May 25 only a month after that night. He was 78. I didn't
say good-bye to him in person, but had so many times in our conversations. I
think that's how he wanted to die. He was with his wife, Gigi and not his
children. This is apropos of his life. I hope he died knowing I loved him.
Our relationship was a very challenged one often colored with insults and
anger. He didn't know how to relate to his children when we were young or
long after we grew to adulthood. He frequently said the wrong thing and hurt
I can recall many examples but these are the ones that seem to stick out
most for me.
I remember as a 7 year old I was outside playing catch with my brothers.
Nicholas, the eldest, threw the ball to me. He was much stronger than I. I
ran to catch it. It could have been a perfect Tony Riggins (Running Back for
the Washington Redskins in the 1980's) catch full of grace and choreography.
It wasn't. Instead I slipped and fell on the concrete, ripped a hole in my
dungarees. My brothers and father just fell over themselves laughing at me.
I remember the pain. I felt the wetness on my left knee, and couldn't
believe when I finally looked down. There was so much blood, my brothers
stopped laughing and ran over to me. I lay down on the ground, in front of
the entrance to my luxury high rise. I looked up at the double glass doors
and the green canopy, 885 West End Avenue it read. I think that was the
first time I remember reading it as distinct from memorizing it. Oh the pain
was horrible. I let out a loud scream. I held my knee close to my chest. I
saw my brothers standing over me, one asked my father, who was curiously
feet away and seemed disinterested or perhaps distracted. "Dad, Sarah's
bleeding bad, we should take her upstairs." Upstairs was 11 stories up and I
remembered the main elevator was broken. So did Nicholas. "Dad, I am going
to call the Super and get him to run the service elevator. She's bleeding
"Bullshit, her head's full of scrambled eggs. Let me take a look at her."
Suddenly my father was on me. He kicked me in the right leg. "Did that
I tried to answer, "yes, Daddy."
"Yeah well maybe the pain in your left leg isn't so bad afterall." He
paused, "Get up, walk it off! and stop being such a cry baby. You bastard
kids embarrass me. Look all the neighbors are watching. In the Army we
couldn't let a little scrape stop us. We had to fight no matter what. Get
the fuck up! Now, or you're grounded for 2 weeks."
I got up, with the help of my brothers. Blood dripped from my knee, stained
the sidewalk in front of the entrance to our building. Our neighbor Kitty,
whose living room window faced the front entrance, walked out of the
building and put her arms around me. She led me into the building and called
the service elevator. She took me upstairs to my mother, who cleaned me up.
Later that evening, my father came into my room and apologized for being so
mean to me. Said that he hadn't realized how bad it was. I held back the
tears as he spoke to me. It was so matter of fact, no emotion. It was as if
Mom made him apologize again. When he left my room, I did what I had done
most of my life, cried myself to sleep.
Once as an adult while Paul and I went to France to visit him. I made a
special effort once he was diagnosed with PCa to visit him every 18 months.
We timed our trip around the route of Le Tour de France passing through
Provence. They would be riding through a town called Foxamphou about 20
minutes from my father's home. Two friends of our joined us from San
Francisco. At my father's insistence, they stayed with us for one of the two
weeks we were in France. They went on to Paris for the remainder of the
The four of us left at 9:00 one morning and informed my father we'd return
after dinner that night. We really wanted to see a town called Lourges. Its
claim to fame is that it boasts the most alien sightings than any other town
in the world. He said he was happy for the peace and quiet and would likely
sleep all day. Indeed his friends Charles and Lindsey were there to pass the
time away debating on topics such as what thoughts were going through Daniel
Boone's mind as he battled the Alamo in 1863.
As promised, we returned after dark, perhaps by 9:00 with full bellies. We
greeted everyone as we approached the bistro table where the three sat
arguing and debating. It would seem that they still were discussing Daniel
Boone. "Where the fuck have you been?" My father roared. "We've been sitting
here starving waiting for you."
"I told you that we'd eat dinner out. We went to Alien City." That's what we
had affectionately called Lourges.
"You are an ungrateful, selfish, childish bastard. I wonder what the fuck
was going through Emily's and my mind when we decided to have kids. And you
know what? You can't write worth a shit either. I read this piece of shit
you call writing that you left here. It's god-awful. Clearly Emily and I
didn't pass on any of our talent to you. Jesus Sarah, you really disgraced
us." He often referred to my mother as Emily. I never knew why. I looked
around the room, Charles and Lindsey sat there, mouths gaping open, our
friends stood there unsure what to do so they took a walk around the
property and my husband looked my Dad square in the eye and said, "George,
you crossed the line this time. Apologize to Sarah. We come see you every
other year when we can afford to, we spend two weeks with you and we wait on
you hand and foot while we are here. We don't mind doing it, but if we want
to do a little sight seeing while our friends are here, and leave you with
Charles and Lindsey, who will take very good care of you, give us a break.
Sarah is the only kid you have that will drop everything she's doing and
help you. You know you can't say this about her brothers. What is wrong with
"I'm sorry Sarah. I was only kidding. Lindsey cooked a fabulous meal. There
are leftovers on the stove if you all are still hungry. I appreciate you
flying all the way to France to see little ol' me." A huge grin crossed his
face and it seemed as though a completely different person overtook his
I didn't usually like him and was often tormented by his anger, physical
abuse and sharp tongue.
The last five months of his life are how I would like to remember him.
Though it can be difficult. I really feel he made a huge effort to celebrate
my attributes in his final months. Indeed I got pointers on writing that
he'd never felt it important to offer in the past. For the first time in my
life he praised my writing and told me in the past he hadn't wanted to tell
me before that I was talented because "writers end up drunks or addicted to
drugs." He hadn't wanted this for his daughter.
He told Paul to take good care of me. He even told me he was proud of me. He
finally learned to compliment me rather than insult me and apologize later.
Maybe because my father realized that this time there wouldn't be a later.
In one of my last conversations with my father I told him that I got a plane
ticket to come see him. I think we both knew that I wouldn't see him in
time. People have a way of controlling when and how they die. If he'd wanted
me to see him, I would have. It was all his choice. We had a really great
conversation. I remembered that he is well versed on many topics. He seemed
at ease talking about the Virtual PC support group, his writing, my writing,
Gigi, my mother, his life and my writer's block as he did talking
motorcycles with Paul. I forgot my parents rode his motorcycle before they
got married and had kids. My father was indeed a fascinating man. I am glad
I am mature enough, no longer angry enough to see this.
My life may not be a fascinating life, but I am extremely happy. My days are
long, filled with the necessary busy work it takes to run a business. I
clean up cat puke, I wake up early to see Paul off to work. I have rich
friendships with my girlfriends and in laws. I failed in reconnecting with
my adult brothers. It had long been a dream of mine that one day I finally
gave up on. They'd given up years ago on hope of it. I hope they have the
same rich and sweet life that I have. I hope they have taken the steps to
find themselves and be fulfilled.
And so I am stronger in all the broken places. I think it took his dying to
help me realize this.
I love you Dad, and wish that our relationship had been different. I wish
that I didn't have to join the Virtual PC support group to appreciate the
man you are. I am sorry that your being in bed dying is what brought us
closer to one another. I am sure there are many metaphors for that. Things
happen when they happen. I am thankful that we finally mended our
relationship. I forgive you for being such a rotten father. I hope you can
forgive me for realizing at 35 that the father doesn't always make the man.
I will always think of you when I think of you and not for some obvious
reason. I know you hated when I wrote things like that. You thought they
made no sense and sounded stupid.
That's okay. It makes sense to me.