It was early December, 1989. The typical late fall on the Gulf Coast rewarded us with cool mornings and pleasant afternoons. Winter wasn’t far away and I had a lot on my mind.
Work was busy. The small company I was working for was struggling. The ending of a large job preparing an abandoned ship yard for the new owner was winding down, which meant layoffs and the hunt for more work. Besides the distractions of life, I was constantly interrupted with bids by phone calls from suppliers. The distractions could be maddening; especially if I was in the middle of a takeoff or calculation.
I’d been thinking of my father. I’d seen him Thanksgiving Day, which was only a week ago. I had hopes; the doctors were sending him home for treatment.
About six months before, my father slipped on a catwalk and fell between the dock and the ship. In the process, he hurt his back. Months of treatments weren’t successful. The doctors were trying what they knew, including Cortisone shots, but he still had a lot of pain. I was getting the opinion the doctors were scratching their heads.
An x-ray revealed a mass on my father’s spine. More x-rays revealed spots in his lungs, which biopsies revealed as malignancies. His treatments started in a local hospital, but sound advice demanded M.D. Anderson in Houston. I went to see my father before he was transported to Houston. He was optimistic and looking forward to his retirement, which was a few short years away.
My wife and I visited my father on Thanksgiving Day. Surreal is the only description of the visit. The stark institutional surroundings removed any semblance to what were once joyous family gatherings. The few indications it was Thanksgiving only added darkness to what was already depressing. My father was asleep when we arrived. I was shocked at how gaunt he was and appalled by the straps that held him in bed. My question of why was answered with a description of delirium and combative episodes during the last few days. My mother needed time away, so we went to have dinner in the cafeteria.
I don’t remember what I ate. We discussed the future, treatment strategies and the good news my father was going home to complete his treatments. He would be home in a week. Arrangements were being made. A nurse would be provided and a hospital bed would be set up in the living room.
I visited my father before we left. He appeared asleep, which I now knew was his common condition. I held his hand and told him I’d see him later. His weak squeeze and slight nod gave me comfort. I had hope and felt better knowing he knew I’d come to visit.
“You have a call on line one.” I quickly answered. My mother’s voice was surprisingly strong, but the news was shattering: “Your father just died”
Time stood still. Thousands of things crossed my mind in the moment between the announcement and my answer: “I’ll be there soon.”
I could only speak a few syllables to the secretary and told my boss: “I have to go.”
He replied: “For a long time?” with a questioning smile on his face. I couldn’t answer. One wrong word and I’d shatter into a million pieces. I only shook my head, walked to my truck and started home. When I could breathe again, I called the secretary, broke down and explained what happened. She could only offer condolences; I could only prepare to call my wife. She was like me. Neither had any idea my father wouldn’t make it. Her response to my call was: “What happened?” I could only answer: “I don’t know.” I would pick her up and we’d go to my parent’s house.
On the way home, I stopped for a beer. I’m guessing I wanted some relief from the hurt. I know I didn’t care if all the local cops pulled me over. Nothing fit. Nothing was right any longer. I had just reached the point in my life where I realized how precious time could be and relished the moments I spent with my father.
I picked up my wife; we went to my parent’s and I found my father was gone. They moved him after the official pronouncement, which I guess was best. The empty hospital bed was a stark reminder of the hollow void I now found in my heart.
I couldn’t speak. I tried, but all I could do was sit on the back porch and sob. Unable to console me, family members would only stop to sit for a moment while I cried. They were reaching, but I couldn’t be reached. The earth had shifted and reality was like the faint memory of a summer sunset on a bitter cold winter day.
The next few days are blurred memories. There were visitors and family, although I can’t tell exactly who they were. We gathered for the final moment, which was when we’d honor my father one last time.
Before they closed the casket, I touched my father’s face one last time. The morticians did what they could, but they couldn’t begin to re-create the exuberant spark of my father. His cold, waxy skin was that of a macabre mannequin dressed to look like my father. It only accentuated my loss and deepened my sadness.
I walked with my father one last time. I helped carry his casket to the mausoleum, which would hold him forever. We gathered, shed more tears and left before they slid all that remained into the dark cabinet of lost memories. It was the final moment of what can never be final.
I still miss my father. As I look back, I realize I’d reached the point we had really connected. It’s that point where the son and father have both had enough experiences to find they have more than they can share over one visit. Every subsequent visit yields new tales of life and the treasures to be found. An afternoon barbeque and a few cold beers unlock the secrets of the world. Profound wisdom is developed and the discovery of heritage is found in the present. The son is the father and the father is the son. Each is commonly different and so familiar.
I know it’s the day after Father’s Day. I wanted to write this yesterday, but it didn’t fit. If your father is still living, gather moments of your day to share. If you could share every moment, you still wouldn’t have enough. Life is short and there is never enough time.