I’ve been missing my dad this week, and wishing he was only a dial away. He had a way of taking the trouble out of a day, and calming all things stormy … and that’s hard to come by in this world. Here’s the post I wrote just before our last “I love you.”
Craig is a small, small town in northern Colorado; a place with an abundance of taxidermists, gun shops and liquor stores, but not too many churches. It’s a town where the stores have names like the “Loaf ‘n Jug,” the “Kum & Go,” and the now-defunct “Cork ‘n Bottle,” which was once owned, not too long ago, by my stepfather. And that’s the last time I’m going to use the phrase “stepfather” in this post. It’s technically true, but a lie on every other level. The man I want to write about is my father.
He hasn’t changed position — not from the moment I entered his hospital room until now, several days later, when I’m working up the strength to leave. I’d tried to rush there, but a series of mishaps lengthened my fourteen-hour drive from Santa Ana into twenty-one. At the tail end of the journey, when I had but 50 miles to go, I took a wrong turn along a snaky river and found myself on a road that disappeared into itself when the homes on either side dropped away and the asphalt frittered into pebbles and potholes. I should have known something was wrong when armed, camouflaged men began popping up along the road with their dogs and big coolers. I’d somehow timed my errant drive to collide with the start of hunting season.
I made some new friends, and they helped me off the mountain. I’d gone 35 miles in the wrong direction, and on a slow, slow road. I felt sick as I turned around and tried to urge my rental over the washboard road. What if my mistake cost me my last moments with my father? I wanted to fly, and I tried, but along with my sick feeling came fear. My cousin, Steve, had warned me about the deer along highway 13. As he said, “Around here, it’s not a matter of if you’ll hit a deer — it’s a matter of when. With the sun setting and my anxiety rising, I pushed my car as fast as I felt to be safe, and honked sporadically the last 22 miles, just in case a deer happened to be lurking in an unseen bush, debating about whether or not this was a good time to cross. I wanted to win that debate. My cousins got a good laugh at my horn-honking later when I shared my story in Dad’s hospital room. But I’d seen six deer carcasses and two live deer along my frenzied route; I’d honk again with no apologies.
He looked vulnerable when I finally perched on his bed. “Dad,” I said, trying to wake him with as quiet a word as I could speak. But he didn’t open his eyes until I said, “It’s Shannon.” I heard my sister say from somewhere behind me, “He’s been waiting for you.”
“There you are,” he said. And I honestly can’t tell you if he added, “Baby doll,” or if I simply heard the echo of those words from the hundreds of times he’d spoken them before. “It will be all right, baby doll,” he’d said once when we hunkered together in a mattress-padded hiding place, listening to the sounds of an approaching tornado. “Where’ve you been, baby doll?” he asked another time when I’d ridden my bike into town to gawk at the plastic, blue-gowned princess in the window of the toy store, and completely forgotten the meaning of curfews and setting suns. His voice was worried on that occasion. But all the rest of the time, “Baby doll,” or “Baby girl,” as he’d sometimes vary it, meant simply, “You’re mine … and I couldn’t be happier.”
He was the righter of all things wobbly, the stabilizer of a family that had suffered before his coming. He was constancy, and goodness, sweet tea and hominy, swimming holes and lightning bugs. He was the best part of my childhood, and a far-away anchor when the growing-up me needed something solid to clutch.
But now he’s the one needing something to clutch. “I don’t know what to do,” he said when I took his hand at hello. We talked about dying and living, and the crossroads upon which he’s standing. His body wants to rest, but his heart can’t let go. He’s been the stabilizer for more than my sisters and me. He’s been the anchor and the heartbeat for every person who filled his hospital room and all the souls lining the hall outside, waiting their turn at his bedside. He’s taught them how to live and how to treat each other; he’s straightened them out and bailed them out and bawled them out, when that’s what they needed. And as their children have come along, he’s loved them the same. Those little ones don’t know about the dying inside the room. They rush in with their cowboy hats and big grins and their happy, high-pitched greetings of, “Hi, Uncle Roy!” Every one is a testament to my father, and the love he freely gave.
He doesn’t want to leave them. And so we talk about the going, and the staying. We talk about Jesus, and when I hear him say that he’s not relying on one shred of his own goodness (impressive enough, surely) but that he’s relying completely and solely on the righteousness of Jesus, I find my own rest, finally. I have no worries after that, except for how the rest of us will keep living in a world that’s been emptied of Roy Southard.
A deer walks slowly past his hospital window, just inches from where we sit. Only in Craig.
When the days have gone and I have to turn for home, I can’t keep him from seeing my tears. They’re falling freely and dropping onto his hospital sheets, but I find a way to say the words you always hope you’ll have time to say. I tell him I love him, and then I thank him for being my father. “You didn’t have to do that … but you did.”
“Oh,” he says, “and I love you. You’re my firstborn — don’t ever forget that.”
My mind goes back to the first time I saw him, when I was a troubled, fatherless girl standing on the sidewalk in front of our house. “Hello,” he said then, in a tone that sounded like we already mattered to one another.
He looks up at me and I discover he’s remembering those days too. “I put my hand on your bike seat and held on tight. And then there we were, running together down the road, with you peddling with all your might. Then, without you knowing it, I let go … and you took off all by yourself.”
And I see the way it is. We’ve changed roles, if only for a moment. Now I’m the one walking alongside him while he steadies himself for a journey he can only take alone. I give him a last kiss, and squeeze his hand once more before slipping my hand from his — so lightly I’m not sure he can tell that I’ve done so.
I’ll see you soon, Dad.