The other day Josie, my eight year old, had her pal Sam over for a playdate. I overheard them talking as they played with Playmobil – Josie gathering the animals, as usual, and Sam gathering knights and weaponry, as usual. They were getting their game set up – ‘let’s pretend ___’ and somehow they started talking about the end of the world. Josie is quite firm that the end of the world will be when our sun explodes and becomes a red giant, and Earth will meet its demise. She is quite confident, though, that it won’t happen for many thousands of years yet, so she won’t be alive, and won’t have to live through it. She and Sam agreed that it is good they will be dead before that happens. Sam said, “I hope when I die that I die a quick and un-painful death.” Josie agreed. They are very practical children. I could not help but remember my dad.
A month before my daddy died, I flew home to Illinois to visit my mom, who had been through a very rough time. As I usually did when in Illinois, I went out with my dad to his local pub, Bert’s Tap, to shoot pool and smoke cigarettes and hang out with the man who I had mostly adored and sometimes feared growing up.
By this time, though, I was an adult, and we always had a great time. He worked the swing shift at my middle school as a custodian, and the gang at Bert’s were all fellow swing shift workers. It was always like a scene from “Cheers” – everyone knew and liked my dad. This last visit was a bit different in that daddy and I had a pretty heavy talk about his brother, Richard. Richard was his younger brother (family of ten kids, dad was number three of the boys), and had died a few months prior. It was a long, lingering death – beginning with a heart attack and surgery; in and out of the hospital and, finally, being in the hospital with his family being called to his bedside to say goodbye several times before he actually passed. My dad had gone to visit him a few times near the end. I asked daddy, how was that, for you? He was silent a moment, and then said that it was awful. That Richard was not the same man – he had wasted away and was weak. Then my dad said, “I never want to do that to your mom and you girls – when I die I want to do it quick and get it over with.”
When he dropped me off at the airport to head back to Portland, he kissed me goodbye and stood with tears in his eyes as I boarded the plane (this was 1992, and you could accompany people to the gate!). My dad was never shy about crying – I had seen him weep several times in my life. But I smiled bravely at him and waved, and he smiled and waved, too, tears shining. That was the last time I saw him alive.
I called him on father’s day – the perfunctory call, idle chit-chat, wished him a good day. “Catch ya later,” he said as we signed off, as he always did.
A few weeks later my daddy, a smoker since he was a teen, despite having had a lung collapse just before I was born, was walking home from picking up tickets to the fish fry at the upcoming Friendship Festival. He had just crossed the major, four-lane road a block from our house when he stopped, put his hand on his chest with a puzzled look, and rolled gently onto the sidewalk. He was dead within seconds.
He had a little phleb, a little bit of scar tissue, in his lung, that had broken free. It stopped his heart. And that was that. He was 52.
The only thing that kept me from complete and utter despair was knowing that he had died exactly as he had wanted to. I clung to that knowledge like a lifeboat – sharing it with my stunned family. For me, I was torn between being glad for him, and wishing I’d had a chance to say goodbye. Then I think back to our conversation, our parting at the airport, the tears in his eyes, and I wonder if he knew. I am glad, ultimately, that he did not linger – that my memories of him are not of a wasted shadow of the man I knew. In my mind and in my dreams he is himself – joking, smoking, shooting pool with me. And always will be.