Dad lived a simple, organized life. He worked, he tinkered, he golfed. He took Mom square dancing on Saturday night and on Sunday he went to church. His life moved along straight and even, with no remarkable ups or downs. Everyone counted on his cheerful outlook and level disposition. His favorite advice: “Never say can't.”
Mom’s unexpected death at age sixty-two shattered Dad’s world. They had been married forty-six years; how could he live without her? He had no chance to prepare. He kissed her goodnight before going to sleep and woke beside her cold remains. Family rallied around him immediately and friends in the church community offered their help. Hours in his workshop helped him think. He suffered his grief with silent nobility as he struggled to rebuild his life.
To assuage his loneliness, Dad reached out to others. He volunteered to mow the church grounds and then accepted requests to do yard work for single ladies from his church, in exchange for homemade brownies and casseroles. One of the ladies caught his eye and captured his heart. Dad tried to tell my husband and me that he wanted to marry Bea to take care of her. I believed him until we came upon them in a private moment; Gordy and Bea’s kiss sizzled with passion. Not wanting to intrude, Fred and I did a high-five and retreated unnoticed, sharing our excitement to see Dad at age 70 living with gusto.
A few months after Dad and Bea married, Dad fell ill. A series of tests confirmed the diagnosis -- cancer. With Bea’s support he found excellent medical treatment and fought chronic leukemia for the next fifteen years. He survived countless rounds of chemotherapy as well as radiation therapy for other cancers that appeared. He tolerated numerous hospitalizations and blood transfusions. I watched his physical strength dwindle and I saw him endure terrible pain. I marveled at his ability to keep intact his sense of humor and love of life.
After many trips to the hospital, Dad decided, and he made Bea promise to agree, not to call my brother Gary and me every time he was hospitalized. He said he wanted to spare us the worry and furthermore he did not like us to see him in the hospital bed. It seemed mean to think of denying him at least that much control over his life.
When I answered the phone one June morning I didn’t recognize the voice.
“Nancy, this is Bea’s friend Ruth. I’m calling to tell you that Gordy is in the hospital and his doctor advised us to let you know. I’m sorry. He might not make it this time.”
Fred and I drove the 200 miles, hurrying yet dreading, hope drowning in despair.
Dad woke as I came in the room. Afternoon sun slipped through the blinds, painting stripes across his face, camouflaging his expression. I took his hand and leaned over to press my lips against his cool, dry forehead. He squeezed my hand; I squeezed back. He looked into my eyes.
“It hurts so bad.” His wispy voice begged for help.
Fred pressed the call button and the nurse came. After adjusting the IV drip, she took me aside.
“Gordy’s doctor wants to speak to you. He’s waiting at the nurses’ station.”
I found Dr. Garcia at the counter where doctors scribbled notes on patients’ charts. We knew each other from visits to his office the few times Dad had let me come along.
I’m so sorry.” Dr. Garcia’s eyes looked into the distance for a second before turning back to me. “Gordy is a brave fighter, but I’m afraid the cancer has won. We’ve done everything in our power to help him. At this stage all we can do is try to keep him comfortable. It’s time…" Dr. Garcia patted my shoulder. "It's time to let your father go.”
“I understand.” Accepting his words like a sacred commandment, I thanked the doctor, and returned to Dad’s bedside.
My fingers traced the swollen blue veins crisscrossing his hands, those once capable hands, now fragile, idle, still.
“Dad, I have something I need to tell you.”
He turned his head to look into my eyes.
“I want you to know that I have always been proud to be your daughter. You are a good man and I love you very much.”
Dad’s eyes opened wider. His lips formed an “O” but no sound came out.
“Dad, I want you in my life forever, but if you need to go, I’m telling you it’s okay. You don’t have to worry about me. You don’t have to worry about anything. Gary says so too; he’s flying in tonight.”
Dad’s eyes glistened. He blinked once and squeezed my hand again. His whisper trailed off, “He’ll be too late….”
Later that evening, Dad died. In the end he said yes to death with the same simple dignity as he had said yes to life. I hope his legacy passes through us to future generations.