The last thing my father ever taught me was how to install a showerhead.
I was twenty-five years old and taking care of him at the end of his life in a small condominium in Southern California. The cancer had gone to his bones by this point and he was unable to get out of bed on most days, let alone install bathroom hardware.
So there I stood, barefoot in the shower while he sat on a chair in the anteroom of the bathroom, calmly giving me instructions in the same patient tone he had used with me since I was child.
My feet kept sliding in the tub and my bangs fell into my eyes as I scrunched up underneath the upper faucet, doing my best to work a wrench around the old showerhead.
I was tired, annoyed, and adolescently resentful of the task at hand.
The new showerhead was a detachable one with a nozzle hooked to the end of it so that when the nurse who visited my father’s house twice weekly needed to bathe him she could let him sit on a stool in the tub while she rinsed him off.
I grunted and winced as the wrench slid off the nozzle time and time again, growing more exasperated with each incarnation of my efforts. With one final exertion the old showerhead finally twisted into release and I stepped back, blowing the bangs out of my eyes with a noisy sigh.
“Okay,” I said, “so now I just screw this one on?” I asked, holding up the new showerhead.
“Well, first you need this,” my father said, holding out a small spool of shower tape. I looked at it blankly.
This was already way more of a project than I’d bargained for. Was shower tape really necessary?
“We don’t really need that, do we?” I asked.
My father set his jaw and silently held the tape out to me again.
The look in his eyes flashed me back to a thousand different moments over the last twenty-five years of his careful instructions. Learning how to tie my shoes, or how to do long-division, or when he taught me to parallel park a car.
My father was an engineer, his mind automatically breaking things down to their parts in order to navigate new sums. He loved building things, figuring out how to make something work, how to take it apart, or how to make it better.
Once when I was in ninth grade he showed me how he had calculated the exact speed he needed to reach in the car at a very precise location in our neighborhood in order to coast an entire 1.2 miles back to our house.
My father couldn’t not think about things in this way.
I was always the opposite. Messy, impatient, unwilling or unable to pay attention to the details of a thing.
I stared at the shower tape in his hand, and he stared back at me. A face-off.
“Fine,” he finally said, withdrawing his hand and the tape. “Just put on the showerhead and see what happens.”
“Fine, I will.” I replied impetuously.
After another ten minutes of grunting, wrenching and bang blowing, the showerhead was installed. I was triumphant.
My father watched carefully from his perch in the bathroom as I stepped out of the tub.
“Give it a try,” he said and I detected a note of mischief in his voice.
I turned the handle slowly and immediately water began to spray in all directions from the base of the showerhead. Not the actual showerhead, mind you, but the part where they were screwed together.
“Ack,” I screamed, as myself and the walls around me were drenched with cold water.
After I’d blotted my face with a towel I turned back to see my father, once again, holding the shower tape out to me.
“That’s what this is for,” he said.
My father died just a few weeks later, never having even taken advantage of the showerhead I so carefully installed (twice).
A month later I moved into a new apartment. For the first time in my life I didn’t have a roommate or a boyfriend to help me set up the place and one of the first things I noticed the day I moved in was that there was no showerhead.
Once again I found myself barefoot in the tub, wrench in hand, bangs in my eyes.
But this time a thin spool of shower tape sat carefully balanced on the edge of the tub next to me.
Next week marks ten years since my father died, and an entire decade of being parentless. I’ve never ceased to be grateful for the things he taught me, and not just for what he taught me, but for the way in which he taught me them.
Now that I am a parent myself I often sit back, watching my daughters’ exasperation over something I am trying to teach them, a certain little smile on my face, as I eventually recall my offer and let them try to figure it out on their own, let them find their way back to my assistance when it’s needed.
On four occasions over the last decade I’ve had the need to install a showerhead and each time I’ve dutifully bought a little roll of shower tape, grateful tears in my eyes.
Dad, I miss you.