I stood in front of the bathroom mirror one Sunday morning, putting the finishing touches on my grooming for the day and the phone rang. We were almost ready for church, our little family of five. Nobody ever called on a Sunday morning. Friends would be at church, and relatives knew we would be rushing out the door.
It was my mom. “Daddy went into the hospital last night.” My dad had a number of illnesses, was in his 80s, and any one of them could be acting up. The news that he was in the hospital wasn’t all that surprising. “He can’t pass urine.” Oh…now, that was new.
“Should we drive up there after church?” I asked. “No, there’s no need. He’ll be home Thursday, the doctors say.” I insisted that we should probably make the two-hour drive, and she insisted right back that there was nothing all that important going on. After all, she’s the nurse; she began nurse’s training at age 16, took care of the six of us while we grew up, and worked as a nurse’s aide for 30 years at the local nursing home. If anyone should know what’s going on, she should.
I went back to my bathroom mirror and cried. Not too long before, I’d spent a good amount of time researching the family history. I’d learned one pattern about our family: when you can’t pass urine, you die. There was no cure for the condition in horse-and-buggy days. Great-uncles took themselves out to the horse trough and drowned themselves, it was so painful. Families in the community knew about this and cautioned my mom not to marry into this family, because people turned crazy when they got old and committed suicide.
I thought about all that was wrong with my dad. He had knees that rubbed bone on bone; there was no cartilage left to cushion the legs that jumped off tractors for eighty years. He’d taught adult Sunday School class every Sunday from the age of 19, and now failed cataract surgeries prevented him from even reading the Bible. He’d developed high blood pressure at age 50 and could never really get the medication right. In his 70s he developed diabetes. He had an enlarged heart.
“Daddy,” I said to the mirror, “if it’s your time, go. You’re not happy here anymore. You’re not comfortable. I want you to be happy. Go to where you’ll be happy.” Then it was time for church, time for me to teach adult Sunday School class. I couldn’t be late.
Mother seemed so confident and upbeat that Daddy would be just fine and he’d be home on Thursday that I didn’t even call back on Sunday afternoon, or even Monday. On Monday we all went about our lives, the kids going to school, my husband going to work, me making the trek to the courtroom in Dayton, Ohio where I was a judge’s official court reporter.
My alarm didn’t have to ring on Tuesday morning like it usually did at 5 a.m. I woke up fifteen minutes before the alarm with a vivid dream fading away. In the dream my husband and I were singing bass and alto in a quartet at church with friends of ours who sang soprano and tenor, and the song came to an end and I looked at everyone and said “This would be a great song to sing at my dad’s funeral! ‘When I Wake Up to Sleep No More’!”
Dream over; I woke up instantly, a little mind-fuzzed and groggy from the dream, thinking, “Daddy’s funeral? There is no funeral. Daddy is very much alive.”
At that instant the phone rang. I jumped up out of bed and dashed downstairs. It was my sister, calling from the hospital room. “I wanted you to know; Daddy just passed.”
I kept moving. The kids went to school, the husband went to work, and I drove to the courtroom in Dayton, where I was able to hold it together through the morning’s session. At lunchtime I told the judge what was going on. “Why are you still here?” he said. “Go home! Go be with your family. Take the rest of the week and go be with your family.” I stayed a little while longer until I saw clearly that staying at work was pointless. He was right.
The next day I drove the two hours to be with my mom, who was now home alone for the first time since she was 16. I came to help her get ready for the family who would be coming from far-away places.
She never cried.
This was my mom’s way. She never cried. She told me when I was younger that earlier in her life she cried over every little thing, and one day she decided she was done crying, and from that day forward, she never cried. She told me this because I was the one who cried over every little thing, every big thing, every touching thing, every thing that should be cried over, every thing that you wouldn’t even think to cry over — I cried over it. Obviously, my dad just died, and I was crying.
It was good to be there scrubbing the shower, fluffing the pillows on the sofa, vacuuming the floor, washing the dishes, sitting in the easy chair where just days before my dad sat, directing his world. It took my mind off the crying for just a bit.
I was in the new walk-in bathroom shower my dad had built for himself, with a sponge in my hand, and my mom came walking toward me with a puzzled look on her face. “Have you been in my handkerchief drawer?” No! No one ever went into her bedroom. It was off limits. Even as an adult woman with three kids, I would never presume to go into her bedroom without her permission. I didn’t know she even had a handkerchief drawer!
She showed me a frail white linen handkerchief, neatly stitched around the edges, yellowed with age, with my dad’s initials stitched carefully in one corner. It looked like a home economics project an eighth-grade boy had to do for a grade in 1927. “I’ve never seen this before,” she said. “It was at the top of my handkerchief drawer. I was thinking I might need a handkerchief tomorrow at the funeral home.”
“No, Mother. It wasn’t me.” I was the only other one there; no other family member had arrived yet.
She never did cry at the funeral home, or at the cemetery, or anytime after that, that I could tell.
I will always believe that my dad checked in on me that Tuesday morning to personally tell me that his spirit was now free. I will also believe his spirit is the one who moved the handkerchief he himself had made long ago, up to the top of the drawer, suggesting to my mom that it was okay to cry — and here, you could use this. I made it, just for you, just for this day.