"Then, last week, as it must to all men, death came." -- Citizen Kane
The last time I saw my Dad was at Thanksgiving 2015. It was a crowded affair, held at my brother Bob's house, with a large and diverse mix of my sibling family and that of my sister-in-law. Different family members divided into different living areas. Some preparing dinner in the kitchen, some catching up with each other in the living and family rooms, others shooting pool downstairs, the kids now adults bonding over video games, and a few relaxing on the outdoor patio, the weather being thankfully mild that day. In other words, just another typical family dinner.
Over the years, dare I say decades, I had gotten used to these family dinners, and looked forward to them. While my parents, brothers, sisters, in-laws, nieces and nephews experienced many twists and turns in their lives, the family gathering was resistent to change, almost forever resistent, being as reliable and predictable as anything can be. Almost like clockwork, we would get together once a month, with hosts rotating within the family.
Many times, these family dinners were the only time I had spoken with my brother or sisters since, well, the last family dinner. It was at these gatherings that we would find out how each other was doing, what was happening in our professional careers and personal lives, the latest home renovation project, the frustrations and joys that defined our children, what new medications were filling our aging bodies, and the evitable discussion about politics, thankfully short.
And through it all, there were my parents. Just as the dinners themselves could be predictable and reliable, so too, could be the presence of my parents at said dinners. An occassional illness would keep them away from some dinners, but not too many. Indeed, ever since I could amass lasting memories, my parents had experienced one medical trauma after another -- decades of chain smoking, heart attacks, strokes, Legionnaires pneumonia, to name a few -- and survived them all! So, yes, they were 89 years old now. But to me, they were seemingly indestructable.
When it came time for my Dad to drive home with my Mom -- yes, they still drove and lived independently -- my parents said their goodbyes. When it came my turn, my Dad gave me a big hug, looked into my eyes and said, "Take care of yourself, Jim." Hugs were not always his thing. Indeed, for most of my life, his outward displays of affection were as rare as his voting for a Democrat. The German in him ran deep, which could come across as outwardly cool but was anything but.
In many ways, he parented by example. I've written before about my Dad. A life dedicated to service. A belief in acting on what is right and rejecting what is wrong. Joy and commitment to family. A duty to not waste God's gifts. "Are you taking notes, children?" he must have been thinking. I never doubted that my Dad loved his children. And I certainly know that he deeply loved my Mom, Peggy, with whom he was only too comfortable publicly showing his emotions. Kinda explains how they gave birth to enough children to field a baseball team.
But in recent years, I noticed a change in my Dad. Hugs and words of affection became more frequent. Hmm, I often thought, I wonder where that came from? For me, perhaps it was the cancer that threatened to kill me that brought out his truest emotions. For others, perhaps it was his knowing that he was entering the winter of life, and his inhabitions had melted away. Senility is another possible but ultimately unsatisfying answer; his mind was ever sharp, conducting medial research, writing articles and speaking at medial conferences well into his late 80s.
There must be some answer, of course. I wonder if it was that he simply wanted to feel our love in ways he hadn't before. He had lived a full life, experiencing all there is and much more, so perhaps exchanges of affection with those closest to him were life's last great reward for him...and gift to us.
It should come as no surprise, then, as he laid in a hospital bed, a renown neurologist coping with the effects of a traumatic brain injury -- an ironic or perhaps fitting conclusion -- he called my Mom into his room and gave her one last, big kiss. Then he fell asleep and did not wake up. He was gone. Gone. And we were left behind to process it all. For me, nature had proved that my Dad's body was, indeed, destructable. But his impact on my life remains immune to such forces. He is once again ever present.