Sunday, June 2, 2013


I got the call from the care home at 11 am on Thursday, June 2, 2011, just after period 2.   My father was not doing well, and I needed to come.

Papa and I at his 100th birthday celebration.
I knew it was the end.  That’s how Murphy works.   For one thing, I had decided not to drop in on him that morning, before going to work.  I had seen him three times the day before, the last at about 9 pm.  True, his mouth had looked a little contorted, but I had chalked that up to a deep sleep.   I would see him after work, and I could use the extra minutes.  For another,  I didn’t have a vehicle.  Elmer had business in the city, and we had gone in together.   For probably the only time during the six months since Papa had been hospitalized, I didn’t even think of what I would do if I needed to go home, a half-hour drive away.

I told the office I was heading home.  But I couldn’t get Elmer on the cell.  I scribbled out a few instructions for a sub who would cover the rest of the day, shoved my computer and some books into my bag, said good-bye to the students getting ready for period 3.  Still no phone contact with Elmer.  Panicked, I asked the principal if someone could drive me home.  He gave me the keys to his car.  Bless him.

Papa had just left when I got there.   The chaplain and a nurse were with him.  He was so serene lying there on the bed, still warm, looking dapper in a gray checkered shirt and burgundy sweater.   Even in death, he didn’t look 100 years old.  Death presses out the wrinkles, softens the skin to a delicate translucence,  pushes age back.  La mort rajeunit.

How could I not have been there when he died?  I collapsed on the chair beside him, took his hand, and sobbed my regret.  The nurses were so good.  "He just didn’t want you there, for his own reasons.  We see it all the time.  Families keep a vigil for weeks, 24/7, and then someone goes to the bathroom, and the loved one leaves," they comforted.   He had gotten dressed in the morning, they said, even gone to the neighborhood dining room for breakfast.   A few hours later, he told the nurse, "I’m dying."   I wanted so much to be there for him, always expected I would be, the last thing I could do for a man who had devoted his entire life to taking care of other people. 

The women left, and we were alone, Papa and I, for the last time.  His spirit filled the room, and I had time to remind him yet again of how much I loved him, and of the legacy we would carry with us forever.

Respect the power of nature.  (Hail and tornadoes means business).

Give up your dreams for those you love.  (Even if it means you won’t be a pilot).

Be innovative.  (No matter what your friends or neighbors might say.)

Read.  (like National Geographic, Popular Science, books from Catholic and science book clubs).

Take classes.  (Correspondence course assignments written out on the kitchen table, if you have to.)

Do crossword puzzles, and play cards.  (Keep French and English dictionaries on the kitchen cupboard for reference, and play cribbage and bridge at every opportunity.)

Take the time to yuck it up with friends over coffee and spirits.  (In the shop, in the field, in the kithcen, no matter.)

Savor good food and good wine and good company.  Linger over meals.   (Memories are made around the dinner table).

Eat slowly.    (Especially leaning against the wheel of the combine, in the field during harvest.)

Find out how things work.  (An internal combustion engine,  a manual transmission.)

Go to church.  (Even when it’s a beautiful harvest day, and you have acres in swaths.)

Drive a manual transmission.  (And parallel park, too, and start after being stopped on an incline.)

Do what it takes.  (Get up at 4 am, come home at midnight, fall asleep at the kitchen table, stirring your coffee with your finger, go to bed, and do it all over again, for weeks on end.)

Don from the funeral home arrived to take care of Papa.    It was still only early afternoon.   Elmer and I drove the principal’s car back to school.  I began the phone calls that marked the beginning of life without Papa.

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