I was unaware of the extent of my father’s illness when I was a child. I knew he was sick but, at age 12, my concept of illness always included a recovery. My father had terminal cancer and my mother, understanding how much I idolized my father, thought best that I not know that he was dying. Looking back, it was the right decision because I would not have been able to deal with it emotionally. As it was, I would go to school and head straight to the bathroom to cry because I was confused over the sudden change in my dad’s health. He was no longer the healthy, vibrant man who took me to work with him or played baseball with me. Still, the thought that I was about to lose him was the farthest thing on my mind.
It is why I can recall with great joy our final conversation on what would have been his 88th birthday. At the time my father was in the hospital, on what would be his last stay prior to his passing. I was in middle school at the time so the hospital was a relatively short distance from my school, so on this particular afternoon I paid him a visit. When I arrived he was resting; not really sleeping but clearly drifting in and out of consciousness. I took a seat near his bed and just sort of stared at him; wondering when he was going to get better and return to his old self. Strangely, he looked very peaceful and in no pain, perhaps readying himself for his transition.
He turned his head, opened his eyes and a smile emerged on his face. He looked like dad again. As he sat up, he simply said, “Come here. I want to talk to you.” I pulled my chair closer to his bed so I could hear him as his voice was considerably weaker. He said, “How are you?” I just nodded my head OK because I was a bit taken aback by the feebleness of his voice. “You know,” he started, “When I am not home, you have to take care of things in the house and take care of the family.” Dad continued, “You have to help your mother around the house and take care of her. Your sisters too. You have to always watch out for your sisters because you are the oldest boy.” Finally, he said, “Take care of your little brother. You have to make sure he is OK and you have to help him.” Just as quickly as he began, he stopped talking and rested his head back down on the pillow. I leaned closer to him and asked, “When are you coming home?” He simply said, “Soon.” He was right because he understood that he was truly going “home” after making a short detour to our house for a final visit
I now understand and appreciate that my father was giving me his final instructions on life. In the early years after his death that conversation would ring in my ears. I sometimes wondered why he did not simply tell me that he was dying. Upon reflection, I think in a very selfless way he felt that it was not his imminent death that was important, but it was making sure he prepared his oldest son on how to live that was paramount. It must have been such a tough conversation for him. We were close; extremely close and I always saw a side of him that was often hidden from public view. He could be extremely quiet but I heard the laughter and saw the smiles, and joy in living. He loved his family and was crazy about his daughters; his “girls.” In many ways he was a man ahead of his time, he could cook and sew, even making dress patterns and clothes for my sisters. I fondly recall his joy in telling me that I would soon have a little brother, knowing that in a family of all girls, another boy would give me a companion. We had talked about how my brother could play baseball with us once he was old enough; plans that sadly never came to pass. Given all that he was, his last words to me probably required all the strength he could muster, and I am so thankful he could do so.
In a day and age when so many fathers casually approach their responsibilities, my life as a father has been shaped by the words of one who truly appreciated that he had been bestowed a special gift. He wanted to make sure that I understood that fatherhood was special, not to be taken lightly, and that in his absence I would have to start down my own path to manhood. I am sure he knew that at age 12 there would only be so much I could bear, but he felt it important to point me in the right direction. I am so thankful for those few minutes; that last conversation, his final instructions to his oldest son. It was a lesson on life and a precious goodbye for which I am ever so thankful. Happy Birthday Dad!
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.