After a bonus year, 12 months after we stood around him in an emergency room saying our farewells, he died in earnest. I was 8 or 9 when he came into our lives, having already been abandoned to domestic itinerancy, at that time in central Texas, via Tennessee and Arkansas and god knows where else. A funeral is no place to settle old accounts, and in any case, there wasn't anything left to even out; at the end of the journey, we arrived at that destination I had wanted. I felt loved and admired and fulfilled, and sorrow for the time still ahead.
My mom called a couple of days before Christmas, exhausted, asking if I could spend the night and help with his care. It was a gift to be asked, though I didn't know at the time he had already made the transition. He had been in remission most of the year, and the new treatment had seemed to make a difference. We had planned our holiday activities, and were expecting a follow up with good news. When I walked into the house, there was a pall hanging over their faces as they left his bedroom; my sister-in-law, the same look with her own father; his sister and husband, grief stricken; my mom, the battered grief of a retired nurse called back into service.
Because he was a fire commissioner, and both of them over 20 years in volunteer EMS, the house was always filled with emergency responders, nurses, paramedics. They helped with his care, bathing him, telling him stories, tending to his wounds. Throughout the night, mom would call out, and I would wake, exhausted and grateful, and help change the linens and his dressings. He would wake up, still having the strength to wander. I would hold him, amazed at the force he still had left. He looked up once and smiled. If feels like ages ago.
The hospice nurse arrived and told my mom to lock herself away and get some genuine rest, and took me aside, and gently said it was time to call home friends and family. She instructed me on how to administer the morphine, and how to talk with those not ready.
It snowed throughout the day, Christmas Eve, as the procession made their calls. The local pharmacist drove up from Oregon to open his pharmacy in that snow, so that the morphine prescription could be re-filled. His mother whispered to him that he would be with his father soon. "It's snowing. It's so beautiful." I sent my kids home, before the snow overwhelmed the road, as we had a dinner and guests to see to. His sister, and a nurse, a friend of the family, stayed that night. I told them I would be back first thing in the morning.
He slipped away as I was leaving the house, on a white Christmas, just after we had opened presents. We sat with him, all of us, his dogs unwilling to leave his side. My mom took his wedding ring, and folded into his hand a lock of her hair. We covered and carried him from the house, as his friends and family from church sang his departure.
* * *
His funeral was attended by over 400 people. You would never know it by talking to him, but he was an Eagle scout. An airborne ranger. A senior United Nations military observer. An elected commissioner. You knew he went to West Point. Go Army, Beat Navy. He kept bees. A military honor guard presented a flag, fired a 21 gun salute and played Taps, an exception made for the government shut down. A fire commissioner rang a bell, and the local 911 system toned out three times his call sign, then thanked him for his service.
I read some of the letters he wrote to me while he was overseas, and shared a bit about what he gave us before moving out to Washington. He had given us a
home. Not just one, but the entire country. He gave us Big Bend and the Rio
Grande, Mustang Island and Mount Shasta. The petrified forest, Death Valley,
the Oregon coast, where I caught my first king and cleaned my first crab. He
gave us Craters of the Moon, the Snake River and all the way across,
Leavenworth, Kansas, Rock Island, Illinois, Ft. Lee, Virginia. I remember duck
hunting and fishing and bear hunting in upstate New York, eating lobster in Bar
Harbor, taking our first ferry to Nova Scotia, seeing my heroes at Cooperstown,
seeing his heroes at Gettysburg and the Washington monument. Camping in Acadia,
cross country skiing, Graceland, the Smithsonian, and one last visit to school
before he started a new adventure overseas as a United Nations Military Observer, and all of us were scattered. He in the Sinai, mom out West, my sister in Texas, me in Missouri, Romania, South Carolina.
He asked me to move here starting back in 1992. It took a while, but we did, eventually, ringing in the new century together. This last year, he saw his grandson graduate high school, and cheered at his granddaughter's first cross country meet.
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