This Father’s Day I’ve been remembering my own father who died 2004. I want to honor him by posting three pieces I wrote then. This one is Saying Good-Bye to My Dying Father.
The other two are
My father is dying.
My son, Dave, called late one Friday after visiting my father in the hospital. “You’d better come soon,” he said, “if you want to say good-bye.”
Dad’s wife, Barbara, had called me the week before to tell me that she’d admitted my father to the hospital. There were problems with his legs, and an infection, and, of course the prostate cancer and the heart problems. The recitation was matter of fact, but something in Barbara’s voice told me this visit to the hospital was different.
Over the next few days, she worked to accentuate the positive whenever we talked on the phone. But now Dave had been to the hospital. He thought I should come right away. Dave is a rock. He doesn’t panic. And I trust his judgment. I started working on reservations.
The airlines were helpful, but it was the Christmas season and seats were scarce. And I had things to take care of before I left, like teaching my Sunday School class and finding a place to leave Shakespeare the Bassett.
And so it was Tuesday, well before the crack of dawn, when I boarded a plane in Wilmington, North Carolina and began the journey to San Francisco. Dave met me at the airport and we went straight to the hospital.
No descriptions from family had prepared me for what I saw when I entered my father’s room. He looked old. He looked frail. There were all kinds of tubes stuck in him. Even so, he perked up when I came in.
We chatted, sort of. It’s hard for him, now, to get things out. He has trouble speaking and you can tell it frustrates him. He had just come back from getting a biopsy to find out more about some new tumors. Results were expected in 48 hours or so.
Dad dozed, but didn’t really sleep. He slipped into a kind of half sleep. I left to find a hotel and see my children and grandchildren.
Over the next two days I visited for long stretches, but, for one reason or another we never got to talk and I never got to say what I wanted, needed, to say. There were tests and visitors and he slept a lot.
On Friday, when I got to the hospital, Barbara was crying. The biopsy results were back. We could add more cancers to the one we already knew about. They were all through my father’s body. The only treatment option that made any sense was to make him as comfortable as possible while we wait for the end. My father’s time would be measured, at most, in months.
Dad was still sleeping then and he slept a good part of the day, woke briefly and then slept into Saturday. In the afternoon he woke up, looked at Barbara, and managed to say, “I want the whole story.” She started to tell him. My sister and I went downstairs to talk and give them some privacy.
When we returned, my father was sleeping again. Barbara showed me the list of all the people who had called to say they were coming to visit that afternoon and evening. There were old people and young people. His pastor, Elizabeth Ekdale, would be bringing communion.
Barbara and I got to talking about all the people who will need to be notified when my father died. They ranged across the church and diplomatic corps and friends from all over the world. We knew how to reach some of them, but others will have to get the word from an official notice somewhere, or a call from a friend.
That would the case for hundreds of no-longer-young people who sang in the Wagner College choir when my father planned, coordinated and chaperoned their tours across North America and Europe. It would be the case for thousands of people whom he served as a pastor and thousands more who heard his preaching missions.
I spent my last evening in the Bay Area with my children and grandchildren. I let the sheer, unadulterated life force of those two little boys wash over me. It felt good. But I still hadn’t talked to my father. I still hadn’t said good-bye.
The next morning, Sunday, Dave picked me up to give me a ride to the hospital and then to the airport. When we got to Dad’s room, Barbara was talking with him about what Sunday it was. It was the Fourth Sunday of Advent, the season of hope and expectation. The gospel text for the day is from Luke. It includes the Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God, my savior.”
Barbara said, “I think I’ll get out of here.” Dave said, “I’m going to get a soda.” And they left me alone with my father. It was time. But what do you say? What do you say to someone who not only gave you life, but a model for life?
I started with, “I love you, Dad.” The tears flowed, gushed really, and, soon, so did the words. I told him what an honor it was to be his son, and how I was sorry for things I did that hurt him. I thanked him for being such a powerful role model and example. He comforted me, which seemed strange.
Then we began to talk. He wanted to know what stories I was going to tell at his Memorial Service. He had instructions for me about the service and his will and more. He made some jokes.
We’ve talked often about friends I’ve lost in war or in police work. He asked me for their names so he could be sure to look them up. Then he did something strange.
He looked at me and said, “I’m not going to win this one. It’s going to be up to you soon. You’re the one they’ll all look to.” He paused.
Then he swung his arm toward me. “I’m passing you the torch.” He laughed.
I left the hospital a little later. Now I’m on this airplane, heading for home, crying and typing and thankful, so very thankful that I got to say good-bye.