My father, a typically productive and active man, had become bed-ridden a month before. Cancer had stricken him eight months earlier and the road to recovery had been long, tedious, and unsuccessful. It was startling to see his transformation from a short and solid man of substance to a willowy and pale cancer patient. He was only 67.
He'd been diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, a more aggressive form than mine. But it was 28 years ago, so the course of treatment was significantly less-advanced than the treatment I received just a year ago.
I visited him in the hospital his final days. I had my four-month-old son in tow and I was due to fly home to New Mexico from South Carolina. Dad had taken a turn for the worse that morning and was rushed to the hospital because we could not control his pain at home.
I'd gotten up early to get ready before my son woke up for the day, and realized that Dad had been up all night in pain. His stoicism masked his agony, but I saw it in his eyes. He was in trouble. I dialed 911 to summon an ambulance and called his primary physician. Dad had been on a mixture of medications that kept his pain at bay, so something new was causing him to writhe in his at-home hospital bed.
I followed the ambulance to the hospital and kept an eye on my watch. I wanted to cancel my flight but Mom insisted that this was just a momentary lapse. New pain medications would be administered and they'd be on their merry way within a few hours. Satisfied, I stuck to my itinerary and waited while Dad got admitted into his own room.
Trying to make small talk in the confines of a sterile, cold environment, I sat on the edge of Dad's bed. He looked small, vulnerable and sad. And I couldn't help him. Nor did I know what to say.
Minutes dragged on like hours, when I glanced at my watch one last time. It was time to go, so I started to collect my belongings. When it was time for good-bye, I hugged him tightly and felt a longing to stay, but I was due to return in a few weeks for his birthday bash with the rest of the family.
But as I blew him one last kiss from the door, I knew this would be my final moment with him. I felt nothing but peace so I had decided on the spot that my hunch was probably wrong.
Perhaps I couldn't fathom then that what I knew to be true would come to pass.
It would be our final conversation. Our last good-bye.
Two weeks later, my then-husband and I were driving along I-25 in New Mexico on a balmy spring day en route to the airport. My father's 68th birthday was the next day and long ago we'd planned a family vacation to see him, probably one last time as he'd been in and out of the hospital for months already. Death was imminent.
Our five-month-old firstborn was strapped into his car seat beside me, fast asleep. I was going through a list in my head about all the details that would need to be taken care of once we hit the airport: tickets in left shoulder bag pocket; put ID tag on collapsible stroller; re-check contents of diaper bag—when I felt a puff of air, like a cloud, interrupt my thoughts, drawing my attention to the scenery outside the window.
I felt paralyzed as it floated deep within my body, then escaped.
My mind chatter froze as I stared out the window, watching the orange and brown landscape speed by. The laundry list was far from my mind when I quietly told my husband, “Dad just died.”
Several hours later we arrived in Chicago, found my sister-in-law, and settled into her van outside the airport. Before closing the sliding door she looked in my direction, her eyes tearing, and said, “I don't know how to tell you this but your Dad just died a few hours ago.”
These final memories are as fresh today as they were 28 years ago.
Perhaps it is because April is my father's birthday month. Or because my intuition is often insanely accurate, scaring me at times. Or because my spiritual connection to my father has been intensely powerful since his passing.
April 18th not only belongs to my father as his day of birth; it is also my brother's birthday AND my second son's birthday. He was born two years after dad died so I have often wondered if my son was a gift from his grandfather.
The month holds so much meaning...and life. It was one year ago, on their birthday, when the sharp ache in my back started, which began the cascade of symptoms that led to my diagnosis.
While I was under-going treatment last year, I was resigned to the possibility that I could die, too. Not only did the same type of cancer take my father, but it has also taken other friends and family members from my far-reaching tribe.
But just as I knew that I had spent my last moment with my father, and later knew the precise moment he had died, I also knew I'd survive cancer with a long life yet to live.
For those whose fate did not have the same outcome, this post is for them. But most especially, it is for my father.
He died much too young and far too early.
But in his final moments he was the epitome of strength, even in his skeletal frame. And his final words summed up a life bravely-lived: "It's all about love, that's it. Just love."
Spoken by a man who had endured a rough childhood with an alcoholic father, served in WWII as an Air Force pilot, and raised eight children while showing us the world from the back of our station wagon. Our father had seen his share of sadness and trauma, but he also imparted a thirst for knowledge and travel with his family.
So as I remember his day of birth while celebrating my son's, I will carry his message forward.
It is no coincidence that just a few days ago, my 94-year-old mother and my father's wife of 46 years, moved cross-country to begin living just minutes away from me.
I like to believe that my ability to recognize and experience magic is the legacy he left behind. It's the same magic that keeps my father and me intensely connected across the veil.
I can even imagine that he made a bargain with God to keep me alive.