I was born on Father’s Day. All children are of course a wonderful “gift,” to their parents, but I must confess that being born on Father’s day made me feel like an extra special gift to my father. A gift from above, 5 lbs. and 12 oz. of baby girl, flown in with pink ribbons on the wings of love. I share my birthday on June 20th with all fathers every seven years, but I only shared it once with my own father, on the day I was born. By the time my birthday landed on Father’s day again, at age 7, my father was 6 months gone. I was given the honor of placing the flowers on his grave when we visited the cemetery after church.
It was a cold winter night, with memories of Christmas and New Year’s fresh in our minds. We were living in a 3 bedroom, picket-fenced house on Epworth Circle that we had recently rented. I was 6, and already savvy that kids can be cruel, that dogs will bite and that the cookies and beer left out for Santa Claus were happily enjoyed by my parents. My sister, Claudia and I were tucked into our beds, no doubt tired from a full day of Niagara’s cold winter fun, sleeping like the little angels that we always were when we slept.
Suddenly, we were awakened to our mother’s hollering for my brother, Ted. My brother was the first up, and he ran into her bedroom. My sister and I jumped out of our beds and poked our heads into the hallway. We were clinging to each other, afraid from the screams. We headed to our mom’s room. The door was open. My mother was perched in the middle of the bed, kneeling over my dad. My brother, Ted stopped in his tracks, taking in the scene. She jumped off the bed and ran out of the room. “Stay with him,” she told Ted. She raced by us. “Girls, don’t go in there,” she warned. She flew down the stairs to call the doctor. I don’t think her feet touched a step.
My sister and I stood frozen outside the bedroom door. Peeking in we saw my father’s still body, a mound beneath the covers, my brother’s back blocking my father’s face. Suddenly, Ted turned to us, his face white, silent with fear. Claudia and I stood holding each other, obediently waiting outside the door. My mother came flying up the stairs, passed us and jumped back on the bed yelling, “No, no, no!” Soon others arrived, first the family doctor. He rushed into the room and went to the bed. Ted moved over to us. The doctor and my mother huddled at the bed.
Suddenly the upstairs was filled with the heartbreaking cries of my mother. We all burst into tears. I had never heard my mother cry. Her body heaved with sobs as she bent over my father’s still body on the bed. The doctor moved us into the hallway and closed the bedroom door, our mother’s weeping escaping through the barrier. He told my sister and I to wait together and my brother led him downstairs to use the phone. We stood waiting. Crying. Trembling.
The remainder of the night is a dark flurry of comings and goings. My mother stayed in the room with my father. My sister and I were sent to our room to wait behind a closed door. The ambulance came, red lights circling in the night streamed through our frosted window. Men’s footsteps and voices came up the stairs, went down the stairs. My brother was taking charge of this or that, helping out where he could, quickly growing into the 11-year old “man of the house.” Eventually, our bedroom door opened. The minister of our church was there, Ted stood behind him.
Claudia and I sat on the bed, looking to this man for some sort of explanation. Our mother was still absent, still in her own world of pain and grief. The minister stepped into the room, and the three of us stood there as he tried to comfort us. He wasn’t very good at it. He quietly said, “Your Dad has gone to heaven.” I remember asking, “Why?” He answered, “He’s in heaven, it’s as if he’s gone to sleep forever and he’s sleeping in heaven.” “Is he going to wake up?” I asked. The minister responded, “No, he’s never waking up.” My 6-year old brain was reasoning, “If he’s not going to wake up, then he’s not sleeping.” The minister did not make sense. The doctor came out of my mother’s room. Her crying had stopped.
The doctor and minister exchanged a few words. “Did you talk with them?” the doctor asked. “Yes,” the minister replied, satisfied with his “sleeping in heaven,” analogy. We wanted to see our mother, but the doctor explained that he gave my mother something to calm her and help her sleep. She was resting. The two men looked at each other. The doctor took my brother to his room, the minister took my sister and I back to our room. He tucked us into our beds. Maybe we said a prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, If I should die before I wake…”. I didn’t want the Lord taking anyone’s soul tonight.
The minister told us, “life will be different now,” and we needed to be good for our mother and help her out as much as we can. The doctor poked his head in, and the two men left us in the night, our mother in a drugged sleep in her room, our father sleeping in heaven.
The house was dark. The house was quiet. Ted was alone in his room. My sister and I lay shocked in the dark room wondering what just happened. Why is my dad sleeping in heaven? Why isn’t he sleeping here? Is my mom going to sleep in heaven, too? Will I wake if I fall asleep?
I did wake up in the morning. We all did because life goes on. That’s another lesson learned too early. My mother, now a 40-year old widow with three kids; ages 11, 7 and 6 years old, sat with us the morning after at the kitchen table. We didn’t know at the time that she had no means of support, no money in the bank and only an 8th grade education to carry her on. She was gentle but serious when she spoke with us and she was the first one to actually say the truth. “Your dad died last night.” As this truth sunk in, she continued. “So it’s just us. I don’t want you to worry. We’re going to be OK. People will want to split up this family, but I’m not going to let that happen. We’re going to have to pull together. I’m going to need your help, but we’ll be OK.” Then we all hugged and cried. “What do we tell our friends?” I asked. “If anyone asks, just tell them your dad is deceased,” my mom answered. It was a practical, honest answer that I filed into my 6-year old brain for future use. I didn’t really understand everything she was saying, but I did understand that my father had died and that we would be OK.
My father was 36 years old when he died. His heart stopped working. It was a cold truth. He was gone and he wasn’t coming back. He’d never again walk through the front door. He’d never again swing me through the air or lift me high so I could touch the ceiling. A Sunday drive with Dad for an orange pop or a Dairy Queen is a sweet, faded memory. A hug and kiss under the Christmas mistletoe is a black and white moment in the family album. No more memories to be made. No more father to adore. No more birthdays and Father’s Days to share.
Slowly I Learned that my relationship with my father didn’t die that night. I also learned that I am the person I am and have live the life I’ve lived because my father made that early exit. Many of my interests and studies were a direct result of seeking to know my dad in his expanded existence. I’ve had multiple profound and mystical experiences that carry the absolute reassurance that his spirit exists. I came to understand that death wasn’t final but merely a transition and not to be feared. I also learned to cut the minister some slack for the “sleeping in heaven,” analogy. He was doing his best to ease a hard truth. Slowly I Learned that my Mom was as tough as they come, she always rose to a challenge and never let anyone stand in her way. I learned that life can change in an instant, that life goes on and that with challenges come benefits.
I learned that the night my dad died, my parents enjoyed a date at a hockey game, probably cheering the Niagara Falls Flyers. My dad ate a hot dog and drank some beer. They had a good time when they were out and they had a good time when they got home. He had fun that night. I don’t remember ever getting advice from my dad while he was alive. The one and only time I ever asked a spiritual psychic if my father had any message for me, it was simple and sweet. She smiled and said, “Have fun. He wants you to have fun.”
That may be the best advice I’ve ever gotten!