In my father’s last morning on this earth, I was privileged to sit alone with him for over an hour.
The night before, I realized that the family had come to tell Dad goodbye and assure him of their love. But Dad wasn’t able to speak at that point and I went to his bedside that last morning with one idea in mind: to speak what I thought he’d like to say to us.
I assured him that we knew he loved us. We knew he’d worked hard for us and that he had provided very well for our mother. I told him that we knew many practical things because of his teachings.
And then I launched into stories that I knew he’d remember.
“Remember our neighbors up north? Remember when they had a sick horse and called the vet but by the time he arrived, the horse had died. So the neighbor met the vet at the driveway. ‘The horse died. Do you want to see it?’ The vet shifted his pickup in reverse. ‘Naw, I’ve seen plenty of dead horses.'”
My dad loved a story and had told this one to the family many times.
I took his hand that morning and searched my memory for another story.
“Remember when you were tired of buying fly swatters for Mom? She was murder on those flies but the swatters splintered under her stern hand.” I swabbed some water in Dad’s mouth before going on. “You decided to cut a fly swatter from an inner tube and punched holes in it. That fly swatter could take on Flyzilla. The only problem was the black marks left on the walls when Mom went fly hunting.”
Once Dad would have snorted with laughter. Now he blinked and swished drops of water in his mouth.
“You’ll remember this one better than me,” I went on. “But I hear that when I was two, I could escape the fence around our yard and go exploring. When a guy doing groundwork with grader found me watching at the edge of his field, you decided to fortify that fence. I could shinny under the gate and I could climb up the wire fence. So you jammed railroad ties under the gate and put barbed wire at the top of the fence. It was that way until we moved. I was 13 by then, Dad!”
No chuckle. Once he would have leaned his head to the side and told me that he couldn’t be sure about me at 13, either. Not this time.
I gripped his hand like it might slip away at any moment. “You were always a little slow to talk about your World War II days, Dad. Being an orderly kept you away from the front lines. Maybe that was a failure to you but it was great to me because it meant you came home in one piece.”
No one drifted down the hallway past our room. Even the horse in the painting on the far wall seemed to hold its breath this morning.
“I remember the story you told about the young soldier who arrived in a body cast. The nurse insisted on pulling the bedsheets tight and clamped that young man’s feet flat to the bed. When he cried in pain, she called him a baby. But you came behind her and jerked the sheets off his feet. I still remember you bobbing your head as you said, ‘And he said “thank you” after I did that.'”
As Dad’s health had declined over the years, so had his ability to fix things. Whether inventing a better fly swatter or freeing a soldier’s painful feet, Dad responded to problems with a solution.
In his final years, Dad had not been able to solve what he had once easily fixed. He needed his children, whom he’d taught.
On that last morning, I wanted him to know that his gifts were remembered. And that his family, who had watched him for many years, could carry on what he had begun.