My father wasn’t ever a person to go easy on himself.
He had no trouble with slowing down, as long as it was something worth the time. That list just wasn’t very long. Family on top, his artwork next, good friends and good music… If it was on the list, he would take whatever time and effort he could to do right.
He was an avid model builder and would take painstaking trouble to get whatever effect he wanted. If he was putting together a Panzer and a Sherman, it wasn’t enough to have them set up like showroom cars; they would invariably landd blows, with blackened cotton-ball smoke and holes from small-arms fire rising from one crippled tank, while the other advanced on worn and muddy treads.
He was just as avid a father and husband. He did a lot of the cooking, taught us how to ride our bikes and throw and catch. He got me started on model building, but it wasn’t something I could get into… a lot of guys might have kept after it, because unfortunately their kids are all about them instead of the other way around; Dad just found other ways to spend time with me. He taught me chess, let me teach him video games. My brother didn’t like chess so much, so Dad found another path with him – art.
Our sister was the apple of his eye, and I’m sure there was a path for them, but there wasn’t time to find it.
It was the weekend that I came home from college for the winter break. Shopping was done, the Christmas tree was up, we were all going to sleep eager for the next day to arrive. Dad was at work. He had worked nights for many years. Given that he spent at least some of each day with us after we got back from school, that left less than the normal time for trifles like sleep and food. They weren’t on the list. I think that the main draw of dinner was that we ate it together; otherwise it was an interruption he resented.
He didn’t waste much time on sickness either, so it was a suprise to be woken up early the next morning by the sound of vomiting. It was my father in the front yard. I can’t remember ever hearing him sick to his stomach before… and this was a man who barely slowed down for kidney stones and a hernia. Coming home sick was a unique event. His reaction was not: he just needed to rest and he’d be fine.
He was not fine. About a half-hour later, my mother was crying out for help in the bedroom. My father was struggling and gasping – I thought it might be a seizure – and then he gave one last gurgling breath and fell still.
Note to the curious: CPR does not work on a waterbed.
My brother, who was not quite 11, waited outside for the ambulance; my sister, just past 4, slept peacefully through our father’s last hours on earth. It had been a massive heart attack. We were told later that day that, even had he gone to the hospital instead of back to the house, he would have had nearly no chance.
That was 20 years ago tonight. I’ve now lived more of my life without him than I had with him, and I was the fortunate one in the family. I can remember many things from the days to follow, none of them pleasant: my grandmother’s distraught wail when Mom came back from the hospital to tell her that her son had died; the many relatives who had planned to come for Christmas and wound up staying for the funeral the next day; awkward conversations with the college friends I’d just left so happily, and a few high school friends I felt I had to tell, but only wound up making them amazingly uncomfortable; working hard on a eulogy to make him proud and then feeling great shame that I was also proud of it; nightmares for weeks afterwards.
The nightmares ended with one last dream… my father showed up, looking much as he did in the above picture, but with a difference in how he carried himself that was given me to know in the way dreams often are. I rather stupidly asked him how he was, as I usually did. He usually responded by walking off down the hallway to his bedroom, and then he would shut the door and I would hear him die. But this time he produced a Bible – a startling thing for him to do – and said to me, “I think I’m starting to understand this now.”
My hope is that he understands it much better than I do.