I received a call four days ago. It was one of those calls; the kind that even the phone knows is bad. I was told my father couldn’t speak or move. He had been found that way. “The ambulance is on its way,” she said. “We’ll call once we have more information.”
In the car, I looked through my phone and changed my background to one of him and me. Then I went and listened to my voicemails. The most recent was him saying “You’re never available.” then a click. I couldn’t move–couldn’t breathe really–and began thinking: What was it he said again? I take what money and put it where? And where are those documents? And then I call whom?
I thought of the little black dress I had bought months ago. The one I was supposed to return, but didn’t. I thought about how scared he might be. I thought about why I was in Indianapolis instead of with him. Why I hadn’t called once we’d reached the hotel. By my calculations, if I would have, it would have been minutes after the stroke hit, buying him and his brain precious time.
I thought of many things.
I thought of how my father was a snipe hunter. How he befriended them and lured them into his confidence. For those of you that know snipes are birds, good for you. At four years of age, however, I was told they were monsters (think of Stripe from the Gremlins, but more vicious, flanked by 20 of his closest friends) that hunted naughty children.
The snipes appeared whenever I was bad, which was pretty often. They laid in wait in the refrigerator the morning after I failed to eat my broccoli. They were concealed beneath my bed after I’d told yet another lie and nipped at my nightgown until I made it safely to the bathroom. Dad said they wouldn’t follow me there (a No Snipe Zone, I was told); nonetheless, knowing they were out there waiting was simply too much. I had a snipe-induced accident right there on the bathroom floor.
They were also known to vacation in the shrubbery framing our suburban home. I never saw them, but I smelled them and Dad confirmed their presence daily. My five-year-old best friend was so terrified of them and, yes, of the peeing incident, that he tiptoed home when they were around, preferring to carry his Big Wheel instead of riding it.
I thought about how Dad was well known, but not well liked in our neighborhood. Most people feared him and for good reason, including freckled Johnny. He was the bus stop bully who tormented my sister to tears. I’ll never forget the day Johnny went too far. Dad took off in his car, Johnny on his bike (not good odds for Johnny). Suffice it to say, Johnny never bothered her again.
And then there was Christmas 1984. Dad warned that Santa didn’t bring presents to little girls who bit their nails, that his trusty elves, employed year round, would out me to Santa and ruin my chances of a big haul. But nothing fazed me: not the threats, the Stop-zit regularly applied to my nails, or the sparkly Michael Jackson gloves I’d been made to wear to school.
When the day of reckoning arrived, my sister and I, clad in matching rainbow-cuffed Maui outfits, made the swift descent to the living room (okay, so her descent was swift. I hobbled down the stairs, through a minefield of Idaho potatoes.). I neglected to see the tear-streaked faces of my family then, at least one horrified, the others merely entertained, as my Dad placed an emergency phone call to the big man himself. He got Mrs. Claus instead who told him there just might be an elf in the area who’d take pity on my poor nail-biting soul if I promised never, ever to chew them again. Of course, I agreed (at four, you don’t quite grasp the finality of never, ever), after which I was sent upstairs to wait on Santa and a random elf’s good graces.
My presents finally arrived and, no, I never bit my nails again. But I never looked at potatoes in quite the same way either. I’ve made my peace with them now, but there was a time when just the sight of one made me cry. In fact, for about three years, I wouldn’t touch them, not even French fried type, which I loved nearly as much a chocolate ice cream without the chocolate syrup (the syrup puts it in a whole other category).
You can imagine my surprise then–after the snipes, the elves and the payback to neighborhood bullies–at seeing my father lying in a hospital room, stripped of any of his usual antics: no scheming twinkle in his eye, no pots of interest to stir. I watched his chest slowly rise and fall. Machines crowded the room. Tubes ran up and down his body—life giving tributaries feeding his heart—as he lay there, completely prone and tumescent. All I could do was stand and stare, praying for him to finally speak and say something funny and yet disconcerting, which only he can do so masterfully.
His hair, recently cut and still parted in that way that neither confirms nor denies boyish charm, was a soft place for my hand to fall. Nostrils, normally flared in defiance, did so involuntarily as his face turned toward the sound of someone or something familiar. The lights, turned down low, cast a sullen glow over him and I felt fear. Stabbing. Hand-wringing. Fear.
As I stood over him, noticing the deep crease in his left earlobe and the shallow pulse in his neck, I thought nothing of the man he hadn’t been. Nothing. Every harsh word exchanged, every disappointment, every hurt, vanished. All I could see was my father. And what surged my heart in those moments was simply this: Who will he become if he survives? And who will I become if he doesn’t?
Standing there, I thought about him teaching me to fish, to dance and to play dashboard drums. I thought about him lying next to me and holding my hand as I suffered our second miscarriage. I thought about the bills that arrived afterward and him handing me an envelope with an invoice slip inside; only one word was handwritten there: paid. I thought about listening to the Oldies and him quizzing me as to who was crooning.
And then I thought about time. How, depending on our stage in life, we either have too much or too little. How it is one resource that once spent, we never get back.
The truth is we each could be one car ride, one phone call, one smile, one I love you away from crossing the starry veil of this life into the next.
So today, I ask you to do something:
Forgive. Ask to be forgiven.
Speak. Be silent.
Make that visit.
Make that call.
Have that conversation (the one that could change everything).
And make time.