Note: My father passed from this earth in July of 2005. I distinctly remember my first thanksgiving without him. The following was written shortly after that, with as much contemplative gratitude as I had within me. Perhaps it touches a chord as well . . .
Tomorrow at 5:00 AM, It will be four months to the day that I lost my father to cancer. I had a feeling last Thanksgiving, that I was looking at my dad across the holiday table for the last time.
I was right.
Due to some employment constraints on my part, as well, as some plain old logistical difficulty, we decided to have Thanksgiving dinner on Monday evening. Everything was normal overall, with the addition of an emotional assent to how much we all wished dad were here one last time. My dad was a restless soul, and my wife’s observations about his absence on one of the holiday deficits that will now be the most obvious: that wherever my dad was on Thanksgiving, he always managed to be wandering around the kitchen, chatting with whomever was cooking, and just plain getting in the way in the fashion that loveable old lugs manage to do so well.
How I would have paid millions to have my dad holding up the wheels of culinary progress, forcing my wife to jokingly threaten to run him over one last time. How I would have also paid millions, if it would have at least enshrouded the incremental knots of pain in my mother’s face, as the holiday realizations washed over the clock—all without my father—her husband. And no amount of ambient room chatter was going to change it.
I started thinking about the last two days in my father’s life. Those memories—the one’s where family members became strangers, enemies, and opaque silhouettes—The one’s that recall the fear of falling, the contortions of pain—believe it or not, still have some high points.
I arrived out at the house, and to his deathbed. The medications, along with his metabolic breakdowns had cajoled an otherwise meek man into a sometimes-belligerent stranger. I remember distinctly two conversations I had with him. The first was a bit adversarial—to start.
“Dad, I’m here.”
Dad looks over at me, gives me a once over, and says “so what?”
“Dad, you’re little granddaughters are here.”
“I don’t care,” said my dad, looking away in disgust.
Right about then, my four year old—one of two apples in my father’s eye, ran into the room with that hapless, four-year-old lack of understanding at the impending gravity. I picked her up, and held her over him, so that he was forced to see her.
“Oh yeah, Captain Belligerent? Try being mean to THIS.”
I watched dad, as the realization that Clara was there at Grandpa’s side. I watched as he forced his demeanor, focus, and grandfatherly adoration through the unwieldy veil that had hidden the rest of him from the rest of us.
“Hi Clara,” he said, through the most painful smile ever forged upon that face. I will never forget that moment as long as I live. My daughter made cancer take a back seat, if only for a moment.
As dad inched ever-closer to the precipice, his coherence, ability to communicate, and humanity started to fade. I wanted to speak with my dad one last time about his soul, so that I could again pray with, for, and about him. The in-home hospice visitors said he no longer knew where he was.
I looked straight into my father’s face. His eyes fixed on mine. I thought I saw a momentary window of clarity come across those pupils, and so I silently prayed for a sign that he knew it was me.
“Dad,” I said. “I’m here.”
Dad had this way of nodding with only his eyes, and I was certain I had just seen him do it. The room was calm, and mom had kept the room calmly brimming with familiarity—to include my father’s favorite music lightly playing in the background.
“Dad, “ I said grabbing his hand. “I’m only going to ask you to extend yourself one last time. I just need to know that you know this is Ron talking. If you know it’s me, please squeeze my hand.”
He immediately squeezed with a force that astonished me.
“Okay dad. One more thing,” I said, as he locked his eyes on mine. “I’ve got one more question. After that, I just want you to pray with me in your mind.” I nodded over to the cassette player at the foot of the bed.
“Who’s playing on that radio right now?” I asked him.
With all the accompanying pain, dad struggled to put those parched lips together. I couldn’t believe he’d actually pull it off.
“Dean Martin,” he said.
I almost passed out.
I knew then, that dad and I could talk, even if it was only me doing the talking for our last conversation. Those were his last words to me. We had already exchanged our “I love you’s” earlier. And yet nothing in that transcended the sheer force I felt when I heard the man who brought me into this world fight one last time to converse with me as he left it.
You bet I am thankful. Thankful for Dean Martin.