I enter the hospital in a rush. I have been frantic since the phone call and the drive from Payson was excruciating. It’s only a little over a hundred miles, but today it felt like a thousand. My husband pulls me close to him as we wait for the elevator. My eyes plead with him and ask the question I can’t: What if it’s too late?
He senses my fear, kisses my cheek, and says, “It’s never too late. Your dad knows that you love him.”
We ride silently to the fifth floor and find our way to his room. I see my dad lying in the bed. The machines beep in a steady, monotonous rhythm and the world around me slows down. I turn as the nurse comes down the hall toward the room with a syringe in one hand and a chart in the other. I watch her and feel as though I have interrupted a slow motion scene in a movie. The voices from the room and the nurses’ station sound muffled like I am under water. I turn to my husband, shake my head, and collapse into his arms. I try to tell him I can’t go in but no sound comes out.
He understands and he whispers, “Yes, you can.”
Heavenly Father, please help him be okay . . . please.
* * * *
I thought it would be easy when my brother told me he had tracked down our dad and he was coming to meet us. For ten years I imagined what he would be like and constructed this image in my mind. Ever since I found out at the age of eight that my “dad” was actually my step dad I have wanted to meet my “real father.”
Now I am about to come face to face with that reality. What if he isn’t as I expected? What if he doesn’t love me? What if I don’t measure up? I open the door to my brother’s home and stand at the bottom of the long staircase that leads upstairs. My eyes are cast downward and I focus on the swirling pattern in the cream colored tile. I slowly lift my eyes and see a man at the top of the stairs. His hair is long and dark and he has a bushy beard. His stomach is round and jovial and he has a glint to his eyes. I think he would look like Santa Clause if his hair was white, and that thought makes me smile. My hands are sweating and my legs are trembling.
The figure speaks in a deep, smooth voice, “Well, come on up and give me a hug. I won’t bite.”
I float to him. I don’t remember walking. He wraps me in his arms and holds me. I don’t want him to let go. I bury my face in his neck and breathe deeply. I love that smell. It must be his cologne or his shampoo. He smells manly—like a dad should. Soon, three young children encircle me; they are eager to meet me and are chattering excitedly. I meet his wife and tell him that he has a lovely family. Yes, lovely. But I am a bit envious that he has moved on. Here are three children to replace the three he left behind. But that’s an unfair accusation and I chide myself for even thinking it.
I spend the day with them. They are all friendly and welcome me into their circle eagerly. I never look my dad directly in the eyes, but I steal glances when he is focused on something else. He has lines etched around his eyes that tell a story I am sure, but it’s one that I can only guess at. I spend the day grateful that I have found him, but knowing that I am an outsider . . . an intruder into his world.
* * * *
I hate this time of year! Father’s Day is the worst holiday for me. I go to the store and sort through tons of sappy cards that talk about what a great father you were when I was growing up, and let’s face it—those don’t work for us. Most of the time, as you know, I end up not getting a card. Or often times, if I do get one, I never mail it because it just doesn’t seem right. Occasionally one makes it to you. Sometimes a card has sat on my desk for as long as a month. I look at it and think I will send it, but I never do. Eventually I toss it out. It has been almost eighteen years since I met you, and eighteen years is too long for that kind of a tradition.
So, this year I am writing my own words. I love you. I want you to know that. I know our relationship is a bit awkward at times. That’s just the way things are and I have come to accept it. I know that we don’t talk often, but I know that you love me and I hope you know the same.
When I was a little girl I wanted someone I could call “daddy.” I have spent eighteen years trying to get the courage up to say that word to you. I tell myself that it’s only a word . . . one word . . . two syllables . . . five letters . . . just say it! But it never comes. Honestly you will probably never hear it from me. It would be too difficult . . . too emotional . . . just too weird. I think you know what I mean. In case you never hear me say it out loud, I wanted you to know that it’s in my heart and my head. I think it when I look at you, if that counts for anything. Anyway, I just wanted to say, “I love you, Daddy.”
Happy Father’s Day.
I am second-guessing myself for having sent the letter when my dad calls. I reluctantly answer and ask how he is.
“I’m fine.” He pauses and his voice gets quieter, humbler. “I got your letter.”
I take a deep breath, prepared to defend my stupidity.
“I won’t make this tough on you.” I hear the smile in his voice and feel his compassion and love for me. “I just wanted to say that I understand, and I love you too. When you are ready to say it, I will be right here.”
We talk about my kids, his kids who are now grown, and the weather. It’s a good conversation, relaxed, and I don’t feel quite so silly for sending the letter. I know the goodbye is coming and I tell myself that it’s only a word . . . one word . . . two syllables . . . five letters . . . just say it!
“Goodbye . . . Dad.” I sigh in defeat.
* * * *
It has been hours of endless pacing and waiting. We are in a family consultation room waiting for the doctors and we all talk softly. The room is decorated in soft pinks and calming blues. There is a cross on one wall and a picture of Jesus on the other. His children from his second marriage talk about fishing trips and hunting with our dad. They talk about the demolition derby cars he helped them build. They laugh about the trouble they used to get into and cry over the selfless acts our father was responsible for. I listen and laugh and cry when appropriate. I don’t have those same stories. I become ever more conscious with each passing moment of how little I actually know of my father
The doctors enter the room and all eyes turn to them. Both of them stand there in their stiff white coats. Those coats set them apart. It isn’t just the blinding white cotton they are made of. It is the air of authority the doctors wear them with. They look distinguished, and smart, and . . . important.
Please Heavenly Father . . . let them tell us he is okay.
The tall one with the speckled gray hair crosses his hands in front of him and smiles ever so slightly, victoriously even. “We don’t know what happened yet, but his liver and kidney function are returning to normal and it looks like he will be fine. We just need to give him some time.”
We want answers, not uncertainty and maybes, and we begin peppering them with questions. The doctor with the accent interrupts and tells us we need to trust them, but we continue asking questions until they are weary of providing answers. The doctors are tired and we release them from the inquisition but remain only cautiously optimistic.
We all have dinner in the hospital cafeteria. The food is actually quite good, and I wonder if it’s only because I am starving or incredibly tired or perhaps a mixture of both. By the time we get back to the room my dad seems to be more alert. We debate this for a while and one by one decide that the doctors are right. They must be. They know what they are talking about, right? There are collective sighs of relief in the room and we discuss going home to get some sleep. My dad’s wife invites me to stay at their house, but I say I would prefer to go home and sleep in my own bed and have a shower. Exhaustion creeps over me.
“I think I will go now. We have a long drive ahead of us. Could I have a moment alone with my dad?”
Everyone obliges and the room empties quickly.
I stand next to his bed holding his hand and call out his name. He won’t open his eyes but he recognizes the sound of my voice and turns his head toward me. He knows it’s me and says my name. Even with everyone gone from the room it is too much for me to say the words out loud. I squeeze his hand and lean close to his ear. I don’t look into his face. I can’t bear it. What if he opens his eyes and looks at me as I speak? It would be too much. Whispering seems like the best option to me.
Odd, isn’t it? No one in the room but my dad and myself, and still I cannot say the words out loud. I tell myself that it is only a word. One word . . . two syllables, five letters . . . just say it! I lean closer and open my mouth but no sound comes out. I breathe deeply. He has that antiseptic/hospital smell. He does not smell like a dad should. My voice cracks as I struggle to release the words. As hard as it is, I whisper, “I love you, Daddy.”
He shocks me by mumbling, almost imperceptibly, “Did you say Daddy?”
I reluctantly nod and then remember that he can’t see me. So I quietly whisper, “Yes.”
Silence follows and for a brief moment I wonder if he heard.
But he did and he responds by weakly saying, “I can’t believe you said Daddy.”
There. It’s done now and there’s no going back. I feel better now. They said he has some brain damage—no one knows how much—but he heard and he understood. He remembered my Father’s Day letter. He knows how bad I wanted to say those words to him, and he is aware of the price for me. Although his words were almost inaudible, he heard me, and he responded.
Thank you, Heavenly Father.
* * * *
“What? That’s impossible!” I am screeching into the phone and my husband comes out of the bathroom with his pajamas half on. We arrived home not more than ten minutes ago and were just heading to bed.
“He heard me and he understood! I know he did!”
My husband tries to ask me what’s wrong and I wave him off. I listen for a moment more and then hang up the phone, sinking to the floor in defeat.
“We have to head back.” For the first time during this sleepless two-day ordeal I begin to sob.
Heavenly Father . . . please . . . I am begging you . . . let them be wrong.
* * * *
The men in those infuriating white coats are back and ruining everything. The neurologist finally read the EEG. They talk about brain swelling and irreversible damage and living permanently in a nursing home and with a feeding tube. Apparently it was a blood clot all along. They explain that although he is responding, his brain is slowly dying and withering away. We look at him, barely aware in that bed with the crumpled white sheets. This is the best they have to offer for him?
No one wants to let him go, but we have to. Living in a bed forever, aware of what’s going on around him and able to speak only small bits of conversation—if that is all, it is not a life our dad would want. And so, those men in essence take off their white, authority-bestowing coats and hand them over to us. The doctors quit playing God and we take over for them.
They no longer say, “Trust us.” Instead they make a cowardly retreat and say, “It is your decision.”
I want to ask God what he wants me to do. I want to pray for comfort or hope, but I cannot make the words come. I start once . . . Heavenly . . . twice . . . Heavenly . . . a sob wrenches free but no words appear. I tell myself that it is only a word. One word . . . two syllables . . . six letters . . . just say it! Heavenly . . . But I am angry and cannot force it out.
We make the decision. It is our choice, and we let him go. Each of us in turn says yes. I say yes. The machines are turned off and now we have nothing to do but wait. For forty-nine more hours we pace the halls. Each of us takes a turn at the bedside standing vigil. Outside, the sun sets and rises and sets again. Inside, patients come and go. Despite my many attempts, sleep evades me. I am growing punchy from fatigue. We are all gathered around the bed now, waiting. The time is near. For a moment I swoon, and I am vaguely aware that I am trying to speak. Heavenly . . . Heavenly . . .
I suddenly jerk, and my dad’s heavy, labored breathing stops me from continuing. I sigh and I tell myself again that it’s only a word . . . one word . . . two syllables . . . six letters. But this time I don’t tell myself to say it. I don’t want to speak to Him. How dare He abandon me when I need Him most?
We are all quiet and sullen. We gave up on talking an hour or so ago. From time to time one of us hugs another. We each in turn have lost our composure. With every breath our dad takes in, we hold ours and wait for him to exhale. With every breath in, the pause before he exhales gets longer and longer. We know he is leaving us. Each of us in turn says goodbye.
I lean close to my dad’s ear and whisper, “I love you, Daddy.”
* * * *
I am indistinctly aware that I am in the van on my way home to Payson to get some sleep. The funeral arrangements will be made tomorrow, but for now my weary body craves rest. My eyes open and shut intermittently and I catch glimpses of the scenery rushing by. The trees and freeway signs and mile markers swirl into one another and I sense that I am finally on the verge of sleep. I enter a fog and I see a figure standing on a staircase looking down at me. I hear a voice—my dad’s voice.
“Well, come on up and give me a hug. I won’t bite.”
I begin the ascent but soon become frustrated for lack of progress. I don’t seem to be going anywhere, yet my legs are growing heavy from the climb. I collapse on the stairs as the fog dissipates. I hear another voice. I’m not sure how I recognize it, but I do. It’s not my dad’s voice. It is that of my Father.
“It is only a word.” The voice is deep—echoing and comforting. “One word . . . two syllables . . . six letters . . . ” The voice is pleading now, “Just say it.”
I try but my entire body is numb and I can’t move, let alone speak. I fight it. I don’t want to say it.
“I won’t make this tough on you.” I hear the smile in His voice and feel His compassion and love for me. “I just wanted to say that I understand, and I love you. When you are ready to say it, I will be right here.”