THERE MUST NOT BE UNFINISHED BUSINESS BETWEEN MY DAD AND ME WHEN HE DIED`
I sat alone, jammed elbow-to-elbow in an airplane full of people. They were flying to vacations, business deals, reunions.
I was flying to see Daddy die.
He was dying, I was sure of that. It was July 1990, only a few days since the doctor had found the tumor that was growing around his esophagus. ``Six months,`` the doctor had said. But, trying to keep the situation from sounding hopeless, ``They`re always finding new things at Duke. Talk to them. Don`t take my word for it.``
If you need a miracle cure in North Carolina, you go to Duke University`s hospital and its cancer center. But I had to take the doctor`s word. If a miracle were to happen, I was quite sure I could handle that. What I needed to prepare for was Daddy`s death.
Five years before, when I had moved from North Carolina to San Jose, Calif., I accepted the reality that my parents probably would die while I was far away. There would be a phone call, a sobbing voice telling me of an automobile accident, a heart attack - something sudden, final. I would be left with memories of our last time together and regrets about things not said.
If there was good news when my brother Lee called with the word of my father`s cancer, it was the opportunity this warning gave me. There must not be unfinished business between my father and me when he died. He would know how he had shaped my life, and how proud I was of him. I would tell him again how much I loved him.
A debt to repay
I would tell him these things because a father deserves to hear them from his son. But I would also tell him for myself. I did not want to have to live with the knowledge I had kept something back. And I had a debt to repay.
When I was 3 years old, he had stayed with me in the hospital when my tonsils were removed. The night before surgery would have been frightening enough, but there was also a thunderstorm.
Lightning flashes turned the night into blue-white day. Thunderclaps shook the room. Trees, invisible in the darkness, would lunge at me with gnarled fingers that clattered against the glass during those split seconds of illumination.
Then I felt Daddy`s hand.
The palm was rough with callouses, but it rested ever so lightly on my eyes.
``It`s all right,`` he said. ``Go to sleep.``
I did, and his hand never moved.
That memory replayed again and again as the plane rushed eastward. I told myself that if I could, I would be with Daddy when he died.
Even though I was now 40, he was still Daddy. It`s that way in the South.
Daddy was Joseph Thomas Meacham Sr., but Joe to everyone who knew him, and everyone in Hamlet did. I am Daddy`s namesake, Jody. Hamlet is as small as its name. Most of the 5,000 or so folks who live there worked for the Seaboard Railroad when I grew up. Because Daddy worked for the post office, I was the only kid in the neighborhood who had to buy a ticket to ride the train to the state fair, and so I was the only one who never went.
But most summer evenings, Daddy and I went downtown to the train station. Sometimes the railroad men would give us a ride on the locomotive while it switched cars on the passenger trains. We`d see the Silver Star stop by on its way to Florida, carrying old folks playing cards behind frosty air-conditioned windows in the observation car. A little while later, the northbound Silver
Meteor would rush through to New York. After we`d seen the Silver Comet pull out for Atlanta, we`d go home.
We liked to talk about the world those tracks led to, and we dreamed of trips we`d make to explore it.
We dreamed our dreams together because, just as that night in the hospital, he was always there for me at every significant moment in my life: Little League games, the tap-dance recital, more hospital stays. For six years, from junior high through high school, he walked the sidelines of every football game I played.
He was even there for me when I wasn`t there for myself. I won a sports writing award but skipped the ceremony. Daddy didn`t.
He also knew when to let me go my own way.
He didn`t want me to go to UNC-Chapel Hill. Too big, too liberal. But that disagreement ended when I made my final decision.
I agonized for weeks before telling him I didn`t want to be a doctor and was changing my major to journalism. I cried when I told him, certain that I was disappointing him. But he said if that`s what I wanted, that`s what he wanted.
I wrote him a long letter once telling him that I planned to take a student-chartered bus to Washington to protest the Vietnam war. The day he received the letter, he drove 85 miles to Chapel Hill to talk to me. Before he drove back home that night, he gave me money for the bus ticket.
When I said I was moving to California, he asked me why I had to be so far away. I lived only two hours` drive from Hamlet at the time, close enough to visit home every few weeks for hamburgers or a round of golf. When I told him about the sportswriting job he said he thought I should go.
It wasn`t that he had agreed with my choices necessarily, only that he agreed that I should be the one choosing.
Ordinary - and special
In many ways Daddy might seem an ordinary man. He repeated a grade in high school. He tried college but never finished. He held every job at the post office from letter carrier to window clerk to acting postmaster. But he was never the real postmaster.
I think he disappointed himself. Maybe that led to his alcoholism. When I was in my early 20s, his drinking nearly pushed us apart. But I had seen him conquer alcohol. In the process he made me change the childish image I had of a hero - a strong man with no shortcomings – into something different: a man strong enough to openly face his weaknesses.
He had another strength: unselfishness. Nothing bound me tighter to him than his unselfishness in letting me be myself, in being proud of what I wanted to be, not in what he wanted me to be.
Now I was on the other side of this most delicate of balancing acts. I had to be there for my father just as he had for me, to hold him close and in doing so let him go forever.
Letting go took 11 months and many more trips to North Carolina. There was time for more backyard barbecues, another Christmas. Last February he came to San Jose. We talked on the phone almost every day. I never forgot to say ``I love you.``
He couldn`t play golf, he couldn`t eat more than a few bites, and he couldn`t pick up my year-old son, Gordon, although he could cuddle his grandson on his lap.
But the end was coming. Daddy wasn`t afraid to think about his death, but at the same time, he couldn`t give up.
``I`m going to fight this,`` he said on every visit. ``I think I`m going to win.``
It sounded like a canned response to encourage the rest of the family. Partly it was because he couldn`t stand a quitter. Yet he sold the Toyota pickup he used to drive to his retirement job as a security guard. He sold his garden tiller. He got his will from the safe deposit box and kept it at home. He sold the family car and bought a new one, titled only in my mother`s name.
He didn`t want Mama burdened with a lot of details.
There was chemotherapy, radiation, surgery. At one point, the doctors at Duke announced the miracle had been achieved. ``You are cancer free,`` his surgeon told him last Thanksgiving.
It was a huge relief. At Christmas we were talking about recovery and his plans for a summer long transcontinental drive.
But the surgeon`s words seemed a bit too certain to me. ``I think he`s gotten past a big hurdle,`` I told my sister Julie. ``Daddy might be with us several more years, but we know what he`ll die of.``
I was too optimistic. In March 1991, the cancer reappeared, and it had spread to his lungs and liver.
When Daddy told me on the phone he was resuming chemotherapy, he passed along the news that the gravestones he and Mama had ordered were finally ready. They`d been ordered several years before, when they retired. ``The day we ordered them, he asked us if we were in a hurry,`` Daddy said.
The first drug proved ineffective after a few weeks, and a second drug offered little hope at all.
Should he stop chemotherapy?
``There`s a 2 percent chance of success,`` the doctor said. ``Or we can stop the treatments. We can make sure you`ll be comfortable. Take next week to think about it.``
We talked by phone every day of that week.
``I`m leaning toward stopping chemo,`` Daddy said, but I had my doubts. It wasn`t like him.
And when the week was over, he decided to try more treatment. ``I just felt like I would be giving up if I didn`t try this,`` Daddy said.
The Lord will provide`
I couldn`t help thinking of a joke he told me once about a religious family whose home was flooded. As the water rose higher and higher, the family retreated upstairs and finally to the roof. A tree trunk floated by, a boat stopped briefly and so did a helicopter, but the family refused these means of escape.
``The Lord will provide,`` the father always said.
But the family drowned, and they were angry when they met God in heaven.
``Why didn`t you come save us?`` the father demanded.
``I sent a tree, a boat and a helicopter,`` God answered. ``What the hell more did you want?``
I didn`t need any more signals about what I needed to do. It was time to take another plane trip.
The visit lasted only a few days, and it was difficult to move into the conversation we needed. I didn`t want Daddy thinking I was giving up. Mama knew why I had come, and she helped create the opportunity. She left us alone one June night on the screened porch. It was late for him these days, nearly 11 o`clock, but it was still awfully hot, around 80 degrees.
I sat in one of the cane rocking chairs he had built, sweating in my shorts and T-shirt. Across the porch, only a soft silhouette in the darkness, Daddy rocked slowly in the swing. He had on a flannel shirt, wool trousers and long johns.
We talked about old times, vacations and Christmases. But we both knew we were not sitting here in the dark for chitchat. We could no longer count on the future, on being alone to talk again.
I hedged. ``If,`` I said.
I disappointed myself by saying it. This was not a time to hide any feelings, but I simply wasn`t strong enough.
``If this cancer kills you, I want to speak at your funeral.``
I could see his head drop into his hands the way it had so often the last few months. He looked so pathetic like that, but he said it was the most comfortable way to sit as weak as he was.
This time I could hear him crying. I had hurt him, I had said the wrong thing. . . .
``I appreciate that,`` he finally whispered.
``I just think there are some things that need to be said that nobody else can say,`` I said. ``There`s not a minister at our church now, so there`s nobody to speak who really knew you.``
``Don`t go on long. Don`t be boastful.``
``No. No, that`s not what I want to do. But I want people to know who you were and how brave you`ve been. Everybody has either had somebody in their family or a friend die like this. I think I can say some things that will be a comfort to them because it will be coming from someone who`s just gone through the same thing.``
``I think that would be good.`` I knew he would. After he quit drinking, Daddy had gone to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings several times a week. Sometimes he`d drive 100 miles to speak to a handful of people and then return the same night. He`d counseled inmates with drug and alcohol problems at a nearby youth prison.
After so many people had helped him during his troubled years, he felt this was the best way to repay the debt.
But I was having trouble acknowledging my debt to him. ``Daddy, I just want to be able to raise Gordon the way you raised me. And it makes me mad that he`ll never know you.``
He was crying again. I was crying. It was a while before either of us spoke.
``You just watch out for him,`` he said. ``He`ll be all right. You`ll be all right.``
``I want him to be who he wants to be, the way you let me.``
``Just watch out for him. He`ll be all right.``
Is it that easy, I wondered? Is the rare gift of helping your child find his own life as simple as just watching out for him? These were the instructions from a man who had that gift.
``I love you.``
``I love you, too.``
I had wanted to comfort Daddy, but he was still comforting me. He was still trusting me to do the right thing. He was still being Daddy.
The next morning we drove back to Duke. The doctor, who had always refused to talk about the possibility of dying before, spoke differently this time.
``We`ve reached the point where we`ve got to consider this question,`` the doctor said. ``In this state I`m required to use whatever life support is necessary unless I have instructions to the contrary from the patient. It makes it much easier on your family if you decide beforehand. If it becomes necessary, do you want us to use life support?``
``When do you need me to answer?`` Daddy replied.
``Whenever you`re comfortable answering,`` the doctor said.
I flew back to San Jose, staying in touch each day by phone. His brother and sister visited him, and one day the family crowd was so large that it moved across the hall. Lee helped move Daddy and his IV apparatus into the small sitting room so he could enjoy the reunion.
It was two weeks until I saw Daddy again. I had been in New York to cover a track meet when he was taken back to Duke ahead of schedule.
Julie sounded worried on the telephone.
``Daddy`s real weak,`` she said.
He had been really weak for months.
``Have any of the doctors said anything to you that tells you I ought to get there right now?`` I asked.
I got to the hospital at 2 p.m. the next day, June 13.
It was the weakness in his voice that bothered me most. Every word was a breathy whisper.
And though I had seen him regularly during the spring, his emaciation was even more pronounced.
Daddy had lost 82 pounds, down to 112. The bones in his shoulders protruded more than an inch. I could put my hand around his calf and touch my thumb with my forefinger. The skin on his face had sunk back to the bones, giving his head the appearance of a flesh-colored skull.
Daddy asked my mother to sit and take some notes on her pad. It was the same pad she carried with her for the first chemotherapy session the summer before. In it she had recorded the sender of every get-well card, every one who had called through those months of hope and despair. It contained the phone numbers of people we might need to call for help, who would have to be notified in an emergency or simply updated on Daddy`s progress.
``Virginia,`` he said, ``I want you to take some notes on my funeral.``
The last details
And he went on to name the men he wanted as pallbearers - friends of 68 years` living in the same town - men he played golf with, who had been at his wedding, who had seen him through alcoholism and recovery.
It was an exhausting recitation, spoken in a whisper, and Lee or I would have to repeat occasionally to be sure Mother heard the name correctly. He wanted specific music: the Navy hymn, ``Eternal Father Strong to Save,`` as his casket was carried out of the church, because he had been a sailor in World War II; ``Amazing Grace`` sung by the choir because it had been sung so often at an AA convention he`d attended in Montreal.
He was ready for death.
I wanted death. That`s how much seeing Daddy fight, hope and persevere had twisted me. As he marshaled strength for each new breath, I wanted him to give up.
Outside his room, the doctor told us it was a matter of hours. By 10 o`clock it was a matter of minutes.
``I`m here, Daddy,`` I said, even though he may not have been able to hear. ``Don`t worry. Everything`s going to be all right. Rest.`` I was holding his hand when he died. He was buried on Father`s Day. I spoke at his funeral.
These days I miss picking up the phone and hearing his voice. I`ll miss his handshake and hug when I go to Hamlet for a visit. It`s most difficult when I think of the things we`d planned to do but never will.
But I can`t help smiling when I talk about him, when friends stop to offer their sympathy. I see no disrespect in saying my last visit with him, and his funeral, were good experiences.
I had been there for him, and I had let him go.
Jody Meacham is a sportswriter for the San Jose Mercury News. He was an assistant sports editor at The Observer and covered racing and UNC Charlotte basketball for The Charlotte News.