Today marks the 36th anniversary of my father’s death.
He passed away around noon on August 29, 1981. I find it difficult to comprehend–how could it be so long ago when it seems as if we last spoke only yesterday? But it has been that long. Recently, I wrote about the months leading up to his death because of the serendipity of life. I’m honored to have been a part of the circle of life as my family struggled to accept the passing of our leader. Here’s the story of that time.
I love you, Dad, and always will.
THE CIRCLE OF LIFE
Written in 2017
One week in May in 1981, my family went from the depths of sorrow to the heights of joy.
It all began on Mother’s Day. But, in actuality, serendipitous events swirled behind the scenes unbeknownst to us gathered at my parents’ house to celebrate my mother. I had been married for a year, and our carefully plotted life did not include children …not yet. We had other things to accomplish first.
We posed for various photos, and in all of them, my father is pale, and his shoulders droop. He had been suffering from a nasty cold for weeks and he’d been unable to shake it.
“We’ll call the doctor tomorrow,” my mother assured me. “Don’t worry. He probably just needs some vitamins.”
The next day my mother called after his appointment.
“The doctor wants to run some tests.” No. I didn’t want this news, and I certainly didn’t need to hear the rest. “The doctor wants them done in the hospital.”
We had a diagnosis within days of his hospitalization.
Liver cancer. Three months to live at the most so far had the cancer advanced. They could only give him small doses of chemotherapy, which would allow us the summer with him. It wasn’t a cure, the doctor warned. It was simply a prolonging of the inevitable. The cancer had progressed speedily without detection, and within days, my father faced the end of his life.
I cried with my mother and my brothers. I threw up. Then I cried some more. We all hugged and wept. And when I wasn’t doing all those things, I longed to crawl in bed and sleep. Grief gripped me, but I fought to remain strong. My mother found me in the waiting room of the hospital nearly asleep one afternoon.
“Could you be pregnant?” my mother asked exactly one week after Mother’s Day.
“No way.” I huffed at the question. Pregnancy wasn’t in the plans. “Why would you ask me that?”
“Every time someone hugs you, you cringe as if your breasts are tender. Same thing always happened to me during the first months of my pregnancies with you five kids.”
I looked at my mother. Could she be losing her mind over the grief of losing her husband of forty-five years? I certainly questioned her grip on reality. How could she be thinking of my tender breasts at a time like this?
Tender breasts. That gave me pause. My breasts had been terribly sensitive during all the hugs and embraces during the past few days—meaningful hugs from my aunts to convey their sympathy.
My mother smiled at me—the first smile I’d seen in a week of tears.
All my symptoms, suddenly took on a new significance. I couldn’t keep food down. I felt nauseous all day. And then I remembered the most important one of all. My period was two weeks late.
The next day I went to the clinic to be tested. In those days, we didn’t have the pee sticks purchased at the corner drugstore. I had to pee in a cup and wait hours for the results. I filled out a form when I arrived. The final question asked on the little piece of paper, “What will you do if you’re pregnant?”
Suddenly, the last thing I wanted before that moment became the thing I wanted more than anything else. I knew exactly what to write on the form.
“I’ll scream for joy.” Loudly.
Not only were there no quick tests in 1981, there were no cell phones, either. I called the clinic later in the day from a pay phone.
When the nurse came on the line, I impatiently went through all the details of my life to assure them of my identity. Finally, I finished.
“Well, Patricia, you can start screaming,” the nurse said.
We raced to the hospital where my father lay waiting for his first treatment. We wanted him to hear the news before anyone else.
“You’re going to be a grandfather once again.” I stood at the head of my father’s bed. His eyes filled with tears, and I heard my mother gasp.
The door opened, and my father’s cousin walked in the door.
“How are you, Harmon?” she asked.
“I’m going to have a granddaughter,” he announced. Loud and clear. We all laughed that he’d decided the sex of the child only six weeks into its gestation.
We brought my father home soon afterward. Between my brothers and mother, we rotated shifts of caring for my father. As my father’s cancer ate at his liver and the chemo prolonged his life for a few weeks, he lost his hair and his body mass. I would sit by his bed and read his favorite Bible verses to him. He reminded me of a newborn. Perhaps it was my pregnancy that made me think this way. But the skin on his face grew softer and shinier. When the pain killers worked, he lay in repose with a slight smile and blue-veined lids that reminded me of the fetus pictures I studied as my pregnancy progressed.
He did not want to talk about my pregnancy. At first, it hurt me. But then one afternoon, sitting by his side, I realized he didn’t want to talk about it because he knew he would never meet the child growing inside of me.
I sat by his bedside in those final days, watching his face change from a man dying of cancer to the face of innocence. I put my hand on his and the other hand on my belly. The life cycle beat through me to my father and to my child.
One cloudy morning in August, my father’s breathing became labored. Then, the breathing suddenly stopped. My champion and my hero was gone.
Sobbing, I walked outside. As I stepped onto the back stoop, the sun came out from the clouds and a swoosh of movement somersaulted in my womb. My baby moved inside of me for the first time.
My family assured me it had happened because of my grief.
But I knew better. And five months later, I knew for sure.
From the moment, my father made his pronouncement that I carried a girl, I always believed the same thing. I wouldn’t even consider a boy’s name.
On January 26, 1982, I pushed a baby out of my womb. When the crying bundle was placed on my chest, I discovered that my father had known what others had not.
“Welcome, Anna Christina,” I said to the granddaughter of my father. I had named her after his mother.
The birth of Anna was a serendipitous event, and one that brought much joy for my mother. Her grieving was lessened as she held the new life within hours of Anna’s birth.
Now thirty-five years later, I still feel my father’s presence. Anna, an artist, often does self-portraits, and every one of them resembles the face of my father. That’s not her intention, but she tells me it always ends up that way.
Recently, I showed a friend a photo of my father as a young man.
“It’s Anna!” my friend exclaimed.
Yes, it is. And the circle of life continues.
This essay is one of dozens in my collection of writings, which I’ve spent the summer putting together in one slender volume.
On September 5, 2017, Eclectic Leanings – Musing from a Writer’s Soul will be released. The book is a collection of my columns, essays, articles, and short stories and represents the breadth of my writing career over the past twenty years. The book is available for pre-order now on Amazon.