Saying Goodbye–On Father’s Day

At our service this morning, a fellow member of the congregation Leanne Roth gave a sermon on “Saying Goodbye” for Father’s Day.   Her father passed away last year, and the sermon was how she reconciled with him during his lifetime after a difficult relationship she had with him as a child.    He was a military father, and his profession made him, in her young eyes, strict and overbearing.    He divorced from her mother when she was a teenager and Leanne lost contact with him until her mother passed away.

When she passed away, her father contacted her and they began a slow reconciliation that took place over years.   By the time he moved into a retirement home, they spoke everyday on the phone.   When he needed to go into an assisted living facility when he grew more frail, she insisted he move near her so she could take care of him.   They grew together throughout their lives through a frank reassessment of his relationship with her as a child, and his passing last year was sad for her, of course, but she felt at peace because she had in effect been saying goodbye to him constantly in the last year of his life in the process of taking  care of him.

When she finished her talk, as her worship assistant, I took the opportunity to let her know that her memory had sparked a memory of my own that occurred to me.   You see, my father passed away last year as well.    I came back from Los Angeles to Chicago in 2013 in response to his request for assistance after he had a mild stroke following an exploratory procedure prior to a proposed heart valve surgery.    He went to a rehab facility, and I visited him every day until he was released.   I decided to stay in the Chicago area with my father, and I took it upon myself to be his “turn-down service” in the evening, helping putting him to bed after his caregiver left for the evening.

In the two years after that, our relationship deepened in the same way that Leanne had described with her father, except in my case my relationship was already close with my father when I was child.    But her story did remind me of when I said goodbye to my own father just before he passed away..

It was the end of September 2015 last year, when my father complained of pains in his side which my sister (who is a physician) suspected were due to his gall bladder.    His own doctor concurred, and had him sent to the hospital.   They determined that he needed to have gall bladder surgery.   Although it was going to be a less invasive form of surgery called laparoscopy rather than the way such surgery used to be done, it was still going to be dangerous for an 89-year-old man to undergo.    They scheduled his surgery for a Monday, and I came to the hospital on Saturday to comfort him.

His caregiver Lacola said that they were giving him something for the pain, but his biggest problem was … boredom.    Laying there waiting for surgery for two years under slight sedation dulled the pain, but didn’t dull his mind.    He complained that the hospital TV didn’t get any of the international channels that he enjoyed at home.    I suddenly got a thought that, since his first career was a newspaper reporter, he might appreciate a newspaper to read.   When I suggested I go downstairs and get one from the gift shop, his eyes lit up and I saw a slight smile cross his face.    And then, he did something extraordinary:   he sat up in bed, adjusted his glasses, and looked over them to me as he said in an aristocratic manner, “I’ll remember you in the will.”    His caregiver rolled her eyes at his making a joke at a time like this, but I knew that this was his way of thanking me.

I decided to play along with “aristocratic” role he was jokingly playing, and went and got a newspaper from the gift shop.   On returning to the room, I asked a nurse’s aide for a tray, and I placed the newspaper on the tray and brought it in to him with the air of a servant bringing something to his master.   I saw a twinkle in his eye as he appreciated my playing along with his jest.

That was the last time I saw him alive–the next morning as I left church and prepared to see him at the hospital, my sister called and said the hospital just contacted her to tell her our father had just passed away.   When I went to the hospital, I said goodbye to him, but somewhere in my mind I realized I had been saying goodbye to him in effect the past few years of his life.    This was why although I was sad at his passing, I felt at peace like Leanne did,  because I didn’t take his presence for granted and had constant contact with him.    I appreciated that, even though his body was weaker than it was when he was younger, his curiosity and his sense of humor were intact to the very day he died.    In our last meeting, he showed that he loved telling a joke for its own sake, but if others played together with him in the telling, he appreciated it so much more.    With that memory, my seeing his body in the hospital was not as much of a shock.

I saw him, lying there peacefully as if he would get up any moment to say “where the hell are my reading glasses?”, and instead of thinking about the loss of him no longer being here, I thought of what the nurse had said.    She was taking care of the patient in the next bed, when she heard my dad cry out.   As she parted the curtain, she saw my dad reaching out, crying my mother’s name and then … his eyes rolled up and he dropped back down in his bed–and was gone.

I thought of his reuniting with her and telling her jokes which she still didn’t get.   And I felt at peace.

So my advice to you all whose fathers are still alive is … don’t be like the man in the song “The Cat’s Cradle” by Harry Chapin.   Make time for him, even if it is a weekly phone call.   Your relationship with him will not end when he passes away, but your ability to improve that relationship will.    Take the opportunity now–while you can!


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