A Father’s Final Act Of Grace
I remember distinctly where I was the moment my father died. I was 30,000 feet in the air, somewhere over Western Mississippi or Eastern Arkansas. I was in a deep sleep due to overwork and stress from my father’s rapidly deteriorating condition. It had been a rough two days; trying to decide what to do, and when to do it. Dad had been sick for a very long time. Emphysema does that to a person; it takes you slowly, not in one fell swoop. I had been in contact with my family as his condition waned in those final days. Finally, my sister told me, “You’d better come if you want to say goodbye.”
I left North Carolina for El Paso during the late afternoon. It was the end of October, so daylight disappeared quickly. It was dusk when we took off, and the darkness chased us all the way to West Texas. I had gathered my things quickly when I was preparing for my trip, and on the plane I was doing a mental checklist to make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything. More work for an already overtaxed mind. I remember packing my suit and thinking what a morbid action that was. Was I a pessimist? Dad is going to die? Or was I an optimist? I’ll take it just in case, even though I know I won’t need it? I think I was a realist; after more than 10 years of fighting this affliction, Dad had given up the fight. The suit would have to be worn.
Mom and Dad had celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary only a month before. We were able to make that trip home to help them celebrate. I remember Dad seeming a little detached, almost as if he was savoring a long term goal that had been met. He was happy and smiling, as much as he could be, while fighting for breath, yet I could sense an undercurrent. I didn’t know it at the time, but I believe what he was feeling was accomplishment, and closure. Accomplishment for reaching this admirable milestone; and closure in that his journey was coming to an end.
He had fought so hard, for so long, that I believe that he was ready to go. It had just become too tiresome; the dread of knowing that a walk to the bathroom would leave him physically spent. The self-reproach of having to be waited on hand and foot by my Mother. The realization that each day became harder; less livable. It’s one thing to fight everyday to improve your life, knowing that you control your destiny; it is quite another to die a little each and every day knowing that there is nothing that you can do about it, and that the family that you hold so dear can only sit there and watch.
I bolted upright at 8:02pm, on October 26, 2002, startling the person next to me on the airplane. When I awoke, it was as if I had not been asleep at all. No cobwebs, no feeling of tiredness, just a feeling of total and complete peace. The last time I had felt that way was back in childhood before the worries of real life and responsibility had come. I can’t really describe it adequately; it wasn’t a feeling of joy, certainly not sadness, just a feeling of…lucidity. The worries and troubles of a job that I loathed were gone. So too, were the feelings of angst and sorrow for my dying Father. For in that moment, I knew why I had awoken, and I knew who had awoken me. While asleep, I had been dreaming of my Dad. I remember that in my dream I kept trying to convince him to keep fighting, that I was almost home. Just wait for me Pop. I remember him smiling that calm, reassuring smile of his as if to say; it’s alright, you’re already home.
As I gazed out the window of the airplane, I could see the sun setting to the west, like a giant ball about to roll off of a table. We were flying well above the clouds, and I noticed something I had never seen before. The tops of the clouds were completely flat; smooth as glass. There wasn’t a ripple, break or crease to be seen. It was as if I was looking at the floor of Heaven. I have never seen anything like it before or since. I researched trying to find out why the clouds would look that way, but came up empty. The rays of the sun were splashing off of the cloud tops in a way that made the entire sky look and feel like it was on fire. The brightness not overwhelming, and the sight nothing short of astounding. I knew in that moment that my Father was saying goodbye to me, and that this was his fond farewell. The show outside the airplane was exclusively for me; no one else even noticed. Or, perhaps, it wasn’t there for them to see.
I met my brother and sister curbside at the airport. As I climbed into the backseat I asked them how Dad was doing. My brother and sister turned around, and through tears my brother said, “You didn’t make it in time, I’m sorry.” I was emotionally spent, and immediately lost it. After trying so hard to get home in time, I had failed. After a few seconds of selfish weeping, I realized; I had made it in time. I asked my sister what time Dad had died. She said it was a couple of minutes after six, their time. That would make it almost exactly 8:02pm on my watch. The full realization of what had happened hit me at that moment, and instead of a feeling of sorrow, I was filled with joy; for I knew that I WAS with Dad when he passed, I just wasn’t at his bedside. He did that for me. And I will be forever indebted to him for it. Thanks, Pop.
(Update: July 1st, 2008) Mr. Lady at Whiskey In My Sippy Cup has awarded me the “Perfect Post” award for this tribute. Thank you, Mr. Lady, I am truly humbled.