I have been submitting to Sunday Scribblings sporadically for about seven months and it has occurred to me that most of my ramblings have been very superficial and reveal very little of myself. While most of the other writers in this community take themselves and their writing very seriously, I have often trivialized the prompts and made light of whatever topic was presented. As a result, those few that read my ramblings have probably formed an opinion that I never have a serious thought. My first instinct with the prompt “hospital” was to follow my modus operandi and provide humorous anecdotes about bedpans, nurses trying, unsuccessfully, to find a vein for an IV, paper gowns, and sharing a semi-private room with a corpse. But that would have been an untruth. The first thought invoked by the prompt “hospital” follows:
My mother died in November of 1986. I was not there. I was serving overseas in the Air Force and by the time the Red Cross contacted me it was too late to come home. My father did not know to contact the Red Cross to notify me and he did not know how to make an international call. We were not the kind of family that frequently kept in touch. Communication was primarily through letters, so there was no indication that anything was wrong in Idaho. She had already been cremated by the time I was notified. I spoke to my dad and he indicated that he was fine, though I knew he wasn’t. I was a single dad with three kids who had recently survived a divorce and an immediate uprooting to a foreign country. Dad knew that my place was with them and there was no point in returning home after the fact.
In March of 1989, I was still in Europe, and received notification that my Dad was in the hospital and that his life expectancy was in the hours, not days. He was in the final stages of cancer that was so far advanced by the time he sought medical treatment, that there was none available. I left my kids with friends and immediately flew home.
When I arrived at the hospital I did not recognize the figure that they told me was my dad. He had not been a large man, but he worked in the mines for 35 years and was very strong with powerful arms and a grip that could put me on my knees. He now weighed less than 100 pounds and consisted of skin stretched across a skeleton. I am not even certain that he knew I was there. All I could do was hold his hand, put ice chips to his parched lips, a cool washrag on his forehead, and talk to him. I probably said more to him in those few hours than I had in my life. Let me explain. When I was young my mom did most of the communicating. When I reached my teens, I didn’t communicate at all with my parents. I thought I knew so much more than them, what was the point? Then I left home, went to college, got married, joined the Air Force, and never came back, other than for short visits. So my dad and I never got to know each other as adults. The man that I was trying to comfort during his last breaths was a stranger to me.
That hospital room, silent but for dad’s labored breath and my soft words to him, became a time machine. I was transported back to my youth, to our youth. The times we went fishing, watching the Friday Night Fights, the times there were presents under the tree that dad could ill afford, our late night raids on the kitchen after mom had retired to bed, going bowling, playing catch. It all came back to me in a flood. This was both my first first-hand experience with death and my first realization of who this man really was. For my entire life, I had taken both him and life for granted.
The doctor came in, said dad seemed stable, and told me that I might as well go home and get some rest and come back in the morning. I tried to insist that I would stay but he convinced me to go since I had been up for who knew how many hours, including a flight from Germany to Spokane. I had been at home for about an hour when the hospital called and said dad was gone. The nurse said that it seemed he was just waiting for me to get home.
Back at the house I grew up in, I sat in the recliner that dad had spent the best part of the time since mom died. There was a stack of papers on the end table. I picked them up and looked through them. There were newspaper clippings, both from my baseball days and from my military career. But the one thing that caught my eye was a Christmas card that I had given my parents when I was a teen. I had written a little poem entitled to my parents:
There’s a lot of things I should do, that I don’t
And a lot of things I could do that I won’t
There’s a lot of things I shouldn’t that I do
And a lot more things I should, than I do for you
Those four lines capsulize my life about as accurately as anything I could say here. Those of you who expected my usual “writing with a smirk” will be disappointed greatly, particularly Lucy. I should be back on form next Sunday.
Postscript: I carried my parent’s ashes with me for about ten years, not really knowing what to do with them. The containers began to leak so I had to make a decision. I was living in Wyoming at the time and carried them to a beautiful and unique place where I dumped them into a river that disappears underground (see website). Neither of them had ever been there and we had no connection with the area. It just seemed like a nice place. I had actually inquired about spreading dad’s ashes on the mound at our beloved Yankee Stadium, but found it was against city ordinance.