Moments before, we were conversing at the end of supper, enjoying the leftover lamb from the previous day’s Easter celebration. Then, something was terribly wrong, as my father was unable to catch his breath. His gasps frightened him, Mom and me as he struggled to pull oxygen into his lungs. The artificial aortic valve was failing, big-time.
There wasn’t time to drive him the 30 minutes to the nearest ER. Mom called 911 and I held onto Dad, afraid he would collapse onto the tile floor. When his strength completely left him, I gently lowered him from the dining room chair onto the floor. I’ll never forget feeling his last heartbeat as his body coiled onto itself, leaving him lying on his side.
“He’s gone, Mom.” I didn’t want to let go, holding onto this last moment. I remembered being a child awakened from a nightmare, alone in my bed upstairs, with the greatest fear of my life foremost in my mind: “Please don’t die, Daddy. Please don’t leave me.”
That greatest fear realized was a sweet moment I’ll always cherish.
At the time, I never thought about why this was such a troublesome fear, even when I’d open old photo albums and see my Dad cradling my month-old self on his thighs, with a pipe in his mouth and a bottle in mine. As the second daughter, born 20 months after my sister, Mom needed help and Dad came to the rescue, forming a bond with me that would never falter.
“Swing higher, Daddy!” I giggled, our identical towheads shining in the Florida sun. My Dad’s strong hand held me while I lay back in his lap, forever safe, as my Mother snapped our picture with her Brownie camera.
A copy of this photo is on my desk, along with other mementos: one of the best folding knives he made, the handle made of antler and the blade and stock swirls of nickel and steel, stamped with an “A”; a heart-shaped green rock that showed up as I was packing up my Colorado home; and one of the many out-of-place feathers he’d placed in my path to remind me that he’s always with me.
I wonder what scenes ran through his mind earlier that day. He easily remembered long-ago times, while recalling the contents of his breakfast plate was often beyond his grasp.
Did he remember the playground swing as he sat in the chair he crafted, with the strong Colorado sun warming his back as it radiated from the picture window? That was how I found him as I arrived through the back door for my monthly visit. He immediately stood up, arms outstretched, inviting a warm hug. I clung to his still-strong chest as he smiled and whispered in my ear, “You’re one of the good ones.”
I stood up and looked down on his body. He looked different without his soul.
I gently held his lifeless body in my hands and slowly rested his head on the cool tile. I stood up and looked down on his body. He looked different without his soul. It was easier to see him when I closed my eyes, forever strong and comforting.
I stood up and pulled Mom into a close hug, as an ambulance jolted to a stop outside. I motioned the paramedic inside and explained the events of the last half hour. Mom seemed lost as she stood by with the phone in her hand. I wrapped my arm around her shoulder, put the phone back in its cradle and led her into the living room and onto the couch.
We sat together with clasped hands, answering questions when asked, but otherwise remaining silent in our individual states of denial or disbelief. Once they removed his body, I pulled Mom to me, closed my eyes and cried. Mom and I held onto each other for a long time. Eventually, our grip eased, and as we released each other, we both stared at the empty place on the dining room floor.
I broke the silence. “Let’s go to bed.”
After I washed my face, I slipped under the covers, turned off the light and stared out the picture window. The night sky was clear, filled with bright stars. A moon, two days past full, cast a glow in my room. In the stillness, I gave myself permission to grieve.
As the tears dripped down onto my pillow, I thought about how life had changed. Before that day, I’d lived in fear of death, the future and the unknown, shying away from anyone who’d suffered the loss of someone close. Now, I knew that it was a great honour to offer a comforting hand, to help a beloved person feel safe and loved during their soul’s transition. There was nothing to fear.
My father’s death was also a springboard for my own life, releasing a blockage that had been keeping me from really living. That year, I opened up to travel and writing, participated in two writing retreats, published my first personal essay and drove my mother cross-country twice—all within six months.
Two years later, everything was going along fine, except when something reminded me of Dad. I’d burst out crying and it didn’t matter where I was. While leading a tour of 30 eager visitors at Bok Tower Gardens, I turned away and pointed toward the brass door, the work of a master craftsman my father greatly admired.
A sudden rush of grief overtook me, although my grimace was hidden from all but a few. I squeezed my eyes shut, bit my lip and finished my sentence with tears streaming down my face. I saw the looks of empathy, and then relief, as I calmly completed my talk.As I walked down the path towards my car, a harmless black snake raced across the warm asphalt trail, seeking the shelter of bromeliads to my right along the reflection pond.
Dad and I had seen many snakes in this garden. He’d taught me to honour and respect all predators and their place in the circle of life. As his words echoed in my mind, I thanked him for always believing I was one of the good ones.
I believe he sent this snake as a sign that it was time to dig deeper and find the love for myself that I’d hidden for so long. It was time to shed my old self and reveal my new knowledge that I’m worthy of the greatest love of all—the love of self.