As far as deaths go, my father’s was a good one.
At nearly 86 years of age, he had lived the American dream. The youngest of a poor family of seven in Brooklyn, he grew up to marry his high school sweetheart, climb the corporate ladder, buy a house in the suburbs, raise five children, sing at our local church, create a wood shop in the basement, coach Little League baseball and help out with the town Boy Scout troop.
After 44 years with Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, he retired with the gold watch, was thrown a party and received his pension. He and my mom spent their days volunteering and tinkering. During the summer months, they walked the Long Island beaches hand in hand. Once a year they took a big trip – a cruise or a world tour – and in between their globe-trotting jaunts visited their kids and grandchildren, all of whom were scattered around the country.
But nothing lasts forever.
He passed away on the last Friday in April, just 30 minutes after his beloved Yankees had defeated the Red Sox. All of my siblings were there, just as he had wanted, and prayed.
The last few years of my dad’s life were hard ones. After 57 years of marriage, he lost my mom in 2012. He was dazed without her. Lonely and spiraling, my siblings and I invited him to move in with our respective families.
He chose mine, largely because he had been stationed in Colorado Springs during the Korean War and loved everything about the Rocky Mountains – and because he could volunteer at Focus on the Family.
My dad’s physical condition deteriorated precipitously soon after he joined us. You name the ailment, he seemed to have it. “I’m falling apart!” he would lament, only half-jokingly, and I couldn’t disagree.
After a series of serious setbacks, he transitioned to palliative or comfort care – the softer term for hospice – and slowly faded as winter turned to spring in 2017. He passed away on the last Friday in April, just 30 minutes after his beloved Yankees had defeated the Red Sox. All of my siblings were there, just as he had wanted, and prayed.
The silence of that night is what I remember most of all. After months of being hooked up to constant oxygen, we flipped off the noisy concentrator and a sacred hush enveloped the room. I had hoped to see something miraculous – like when my mother reached out with her weakened hand, as if reaching for something or someone as she breathed her last – but nothing like that happened. There in his bed by the window in our sunroom, as the snow swirled outside, by father silently slipped from this life to the next. As I waited till late in the night for the funeral home to arrive, I listened to a conversation I had recorded with him – back when he was strong and sharp.
Since my dad lived with our family, it only made sense for me to manage the final clean out of his rooms and closet. The first round was productive – we donated all of the medical gear to a local nursing home – his walkers, canes, unopened bandages and magnifying reader.
Then came the task of emptying the contents of his closet and dresser drawers. A few friends took some items, and we donated some more to Goodwill.
Yet, nearly two years later, the job remains undone.
I could blame it on a busy life – our three young boys, work, church, and coaching, to name just a few excuses.
But if I’m honest, I’m dragging it out because finishing the job means closing the book on my dad’s life – and letting go and moving on from a season that’s never coming back.
Life isn’t the sum of our possessions, but the sight of some of them can still elicit memories worth more than a million dollars.
It’s hard not to smile when I see my dad’s red-plaid Pendleton robe hanging in the closet, the same one he wore every Christmas morning since 1955, the year my mom gave it to her newlywed husband.
Then there’s the “pep shirt” – what my dad called sweatshirts – that he often wore when we played catch in the backyard. When I see it, I’m seven again and dreaming of life as a major leaguer.
Inside my dad’s medicine cabinet are half-used bottles of Old Spice aftershave – an aroma that triggers thoughts of him stepping off the train after a day of work, picking me up into his arms and pressing his cold cheek into mine.
My wife has been patient with me, as I let go little by little. It’s true that the farther we get from my dad’s death, the less important these “things” seem to me. On a shelf in my office, I have my father’s baseball glove, along with a few of the fedoras he wore as he walked from the train each night.
If that were all I had, the hats and the glove, that would be enough – because the memories of my dad arriving back home and the ones of us playing beneath the shaded maple and sycamore trees are the richest memories of my childhood.
That’s how I remember my dad – a man in full-stride in midlife, not the weakened warrior who traded in his worn-out body after 86 years of life.
I plan to take pictures of the rest of the stuff. The best pictures, though, aren’t physical renderings but instead those of our best memories – the snapshots that sweeten with time and the ones that could never fit in a frame or on a shelf.
Someday, I believe I’ll see my dad again. But instead of me waiting for him, this time he’ll be the one waiting for me.