When you’re 16 years old, fathers can be such a royal pain! They talk to you when you don’t feel like talking, crack stupid jokes and expect you to laugh, and embarrass you in front of your friends. Sometimes you wish they would just disappear! My father did, and my life after that was changed forever.
When I was a little girl, I adored my Dad and thought he was the handsomest man in the whole world. He was a farmer; and I proudly walked alongside him wearing my bib overalls and straw hat, struggling to keep up with his quick pace as I swung my little silver pails which were miniatures of the larger ones he often carried in each hand. I loved it when I could bounce along the country roads with him on his big tractor. At night after the workday was done, he often would sit in his chair and beg me to pull his boots off for him. He thought it was great fun to curl up his toes and then release them at the very point where I was tugging the hardest, at which time I would go scooting across the floor, boot in hand. You should have heard him roar at my less than graceful pose. He delighted in giving me a “whisker rub” with his several-days-old stubble.
Then the day came when I thought bib overalls and straw hats looked dumb. I no longer wanted to ride on the tractor; I preferred, instead, to be escorted in the family car. “Pull off your own boots, Dad,” I would say. “Stop it Dad; your whiskers hurt,” I would shout. I had become a teenager, and my father--in my mind--had become a total idiot.
In the spring of my junior year in high school, Dad began to sleep a lot. He no longer had much interest in anything. He lost weight and began to get horrible nosebleeds. Clearly, something was very, very wrong, but he refused to see a doctor. One day he came to me and said: “Sis, I’m going to die.” I wheeled around and turned on him in my snotty teenage way and shouted: “Well, if you won’t go to the doctor, you deserve to die!” And I stormed out of the room. Shortly after, he did see a doctor, perhaps because the time had come when he had no other choice.
A few days later, as Mom and I were riding home from school in the car, she broke the news to me. The words she spoke bounced off my brain like an electric shock: Kidney disease. Nothing the doctors can do. He only has a short time left.
Stunned for a moment, I finally managed to ask my Mom: “What are we going to do?” “We’re going to be strong for him,” she replied. “I told him he deserved to die,” I thought. “I didn’t mean it—I didn’t! I just wanted him see a doctor and get better.” For the first time in my short life, the realization that there are some things a doctor just can’t fix hit me like a wall of bricks. In the days that followed, there were so many things I wanted to say to my Dad; but every time I tried, my emotions would get the best of me and I would have to run out of the room. Because, after all, I had to be strong for him as Mom had said; and I couldn’t let him see me cry.
The last words my Dad ever said to me before he was transported to the hospital for the final time were: “Goodbye, Sweetheart.” He lapsed into a coma shortly after arriving at the hospital and never regained consciousness. And the one thing I never said to my Dad before he passed away has haunted me ever since.
That’s why I’ve got to believe there is a Heaven and that I will meet my father there again someday. He’ll come walking toward me with those quick, short steps I struggled to keep up with as a child. He’ll be wearing his “Sunday” felt hat cocked to one side, and his white shirt will be rolled up to reveal his farmer’s tan. His bright blue eyes will be twinkling, and his wide smile will reveal his perfect white teeth. He’ll probably have a rolled up cigarette paper filled with Velvet tobacco in his hand. And I’ll begin to say what I never said to him when I had the chance: “Dad, so many times when you were sick I wanted to tell you something, but I couldn’t because I got all choked up when I tried. And I had to be strong for you; I couldn’t let you see me cry. I love you, Dad.” He will smile at me again and simply reply: “I know, Sweetheart; I’ve always known.” Then I’ll hug my father; I’ll feel his whiskers, but they will not hurt me. At last—at long last—my father will see me cry. And I will be set free from the regrets of the past.
When you’re 16 years old, fathers can be such a royal pain! But whether you’re 16 or 60, if today you still have a dad who’s talking to you when you don’t feel like talking—talk to him! If he cracks stupid jokes and expects you to laugh—laugh with him! If he embarrasses you in front of your friends—smile sweetly at him! You’re one of the lucky ones. Go to him—right now—and tell him you think so. And don’t forget to hug him and say “I love you, Dad.” And if by chance the tears should start to flow—let them flow!
Fifty-one years after the death of my father, as I’m editing this piece for Kathy, the tears are flowing. The difference is that now I know a true measure of strength often is found not in stifling your emotions but in being able to show them. It’s okay to cry!