My father died from leukemia in November of 2008. Right on time.
As the funeral service ended people gathered and my grieving step mother Lavonne was talking to my sisters about the service when an old friend came to her holding something in her hand. It was the darnedest thing that had fallen out of the sky while she had been standing around. When she opened her hands to show her – Lavonne screamed.
The first time he became sick with cancer was about 2001. He couldn’t take the chemotherapy and sepsis developed and he fell into a coma for two weeks. My stepmother Lavonne called me to come up and see him right away, because things were pretty shaky and no one could say how it would turn out for him. I caught a plane from the Caribbean where I was living at the time and went to see him in the hospital He was awake and getting around more or less and they were still deciding when to begin the chemo again.
My dad was a spiritual guy and I had to ask him – what was it like to be in a coma? Was there a tunnel of light? Did he see Jesus? Elvis maybe?
He said he spent the last several days on a gorgeous island in the pacific, maybe Guam, where he had been stationed as a young man in the Navy. He was young, vigorous and filled with the confidence of youth. There were beautiful island girls there and they had swam and played in the surf together and presumably more intimate things too.
He was profoundly happy. They loved him. He loved them.
And then he woke up in a hospital room as an old man in pain with tubes in every orifice.
Over the years we had become estranged from each other. My way of life in the past was so different it was impossible to relate to me and I didn’t quite know how to relate to him. Having a grandchild gave us a reason to visit and in those last years we began to rediscover each other again. I had emerged as an interesting person.
He resumed the chemo therapy and after a few months of pain and sickness was pronounced cancer free. He remained healthy for several years and suddenly in 2008 the cancer came back with ferocity. The doctors and the insurance were willing to treat him, but it was clear he would probably not survive the treatment.
Dad thought it over. He decided for no treatment; let the cancer run its course. They said he would not survive past thanksgiving.
For most of us, death, that is our own death, is not a reality, even though it’s the only thing we know for sure is waiting down the road for us. As we get older it begins to become real when the people we love, usually beginning with our parents begin to drop away one by one. For most of us, death will catch us by surprise at an inconvenient time. And it won’t be pretty. The human body doesn’t usually keel over nice and clean. It breaks down one piece at a time like an old car. Dad was in a uniquely graceful situation such as is granted to very few people. He was doomed. He knew he was going to die. He even knew when more or less. Not only that but the people around him knew too. That can be a source of despair for some, for others it can be a kind of enhanced awareness of the world. My Dad was lucky that way.
He didn’t have a Bucket List so much as a Fuckit list. Cigars and pipes re bad for you? Fuckit. Too much rich food is bad for you? Fuck it. Driving too fast is dangerous? Fuck it. He was into it.
I knew that the next time I visited him would be my last. I would be seeing him for the last time. That is also a very strange thing, a privilege not granted to many of us. Usually you never know when you’re seeing someone for the last time, you only find out after the fact. But we all knew. So as he began to get his affairs in order, preparing himself with curiosity as though packing for an interesting trip, I tried to decide when I would see him for the last time.
We were both flaming liberal democrats. This was the election year when America might have its first black president, a great turning point in our history. So I decided I would come the 2nd pf November and we would see the election night in together.
We spent the afternoon smoking cigars, he smoked them, I tried hard but couldn’t quite. We chatted. Old friends came over and drank wine and talked politics. The evening quieted and soon the house was quiet.
This was an old house, built decades ago in a time when conversation was the chief entertainment and was conducted face to face. We sat in the parlor room, a room designed and dedicated to conversation and pensive thought. We discussed some of the Great Questions, not the least of which is death and soon things quieted. I saw a leather binder on a table and asked about it.
“Oh that,” he said. “Your Uncle Tony left that behind. Shit. Now we’ll have to mail it back.”
“What is it?”
“Old Photo album,” he said and passed it to me.
I had never seen anything like it. These were all the old ancestral photos going back generations. My great, great grandfather Hoseco. My Grandfather, aunts and uncles when they were just kids. My grandmother, a Cherokee Indian woman who I had never met, sitting in the ruins of a ghost town with my dad about 5 years old, sitting on her knee. She would die a year after that picture had been taken.
Mt father, who was doomed, sat with me, his son, also doomed as every living thing is but not quite yet, and went over the old photos one by one telling me the stories of my ancestors. My aunt Florence as a child, taken in a group photo, with her arm in a cast. She had been in a car wreck a couple of weeks before which had killed both her parents, but left her with only a broken arm. Mt grandfather, tough, Latino looking, with his overalls ad his big engineer boots. He had been a bootlegger during prohibition, and then a Gandy Dancer, one of the railroad crew that laid the wooden ties and the steel rails across Kansas. He was good and the railroad trained him to be a driver and so he was an engineer driving the locomotive over the sinuous steel he and others had nailed into the earth.
Each photo. Each soul. Each death. Each story.
Finally it was late and time to go down and watch the election progress. We stayed up until ten, and watched our first black president sail into office. A couple of the last loose ends of his life had been tied.
In the morning I had my suitcase zipped and Lavonne was waiting in the family van in the alley to drive me off to the airport. She waited there as we said our final goodbyes.
My last conversation in this world with my father, started over small stuff. Then it wavered into that awkward space in conversation when no one knows quite what to say next, even though the moment is waiting.
He put his arms around me. Which he never did before. He told me that he loved me. Which he never did before. He said I was a good son. I put my arms around him. Is aid he was a good father.
We both knew we were lying to each other.
I had not been a good son. I had disappointed him in so many way ways, and there are so many ways in which a son can disappoint a father. He had actually been a very good father, but that was later. To someone else, after he had learned from his mistakes. But in that moment, we put away the past. We forgave each other. Truth telling, so called honesty is over rated. What is wanted is kindness. In that moment we were kind. We forgave each other our past, felt the vacuum that would be in the world once he was gone and then someday myself. We hugged each other for the last time.
As I sat in the van, my final view was of him standing in the doorway in his pajamas and robe, watching, watching us leave, not looking away until he was sure we gone.
A few weeks later on a Sunday morning I got the phone call. Lavonne was crying. Dad has passed away about an hour ago. He had been sitting on the sofa reading the Sunday color comics from the Minneapolis Tribune, when suddenly he squeezed his eyes closed, mumbled something no one understood and then just sagged over. Lavonne took him in her arms, my sister Laura called to Annie who rushed downstairs and they embraced him. He went away in the arms of the women who loved him so.
His funeral was attended by well over 200 people. Lavonne said that he was regarded by many as a profound spiritual figure and people came to him privately for guidance and advice. He was not afraid of death at the end, he was curious about it. A sense of approaching the final mystery, the greatest of experiences which could also be no experience at all. They talked about the possibility of life after death and he said if there was such a thing he would leave her a sign. Five white feathers. It was their secret sign.
When Sharon had been standing outside the church, white feathers had suddenly floated down from above. She had looked up and there were no birds which seemed strange. She gathered five white feathers and brought them to Lavonne to show. Which made her scream.