You don’t have to read this. But I had to write it.
He was a man nobody would write about other than someone to whom he meant the world. One of his final requests was to be buried alongside other veterans in the national cemetery in Florida.
He served in Japan as part of the occupation force after World War II. He never faced combat. He wasn’t an officer. Nor was he a corporate executive. He wasn’t a first responder. He didn’t run into burning buildings. He wasn’t thought of as exceptional.
He was a civil servant. After leaving the military he worked for thirty-five years at one of the federal agencies in Washington D.C. It was an agency whose name the employees never mentioned. In fact, its employees were simply told to tell others that they worked for the Department of Defense.
He was my dad.
On those days in elementary school when the children were told to talk about what their fathers did for a living, I didn’t have much I could tell about my dad. I thought about lying and saying my dad was a pilot or that he played baseball. But my friends and I collected baseball cards and none of them had ever seen my dad’s picture on a baseball card.
I only knew three things about what my dad did for a living. First, every so often the FBI would talk to our neighbors and they would ask them if they knew what my dad did. The only acceptable answer was ‘no.’ Secondly, although he carried a briefcase to and from work—the briefcase only contained his lunch. He wasn’t allowed to bring any documents home.
Oh, and he was fluent in Russian. Fluent in Russian at a time when my friends and I and millions of other students were taught what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. An attack by the Russians—his Russians. We practiced ‘ducking and covering’ under our desks. Call me crazy, but I never held much belief in the efficacy of ducking and covering.
Even though when I was in college I held a top-secret security clearance, to this day I still don’t know what he did but that has never stopped me from embellishing the narrative of his life. I may have occasionally implied that he left rolls of microfilm tucked behind a loose brick in the southwest corner of the wall of the Metropol Hotel across the street from the Kremlin.
I prayed on the plane. Hard. My only request was that he would still be alive when I arrived at the hospice in Florida from the airport. ‘He keeps asking if you’re here,’ my mother had told me prior to my flight. I shared my concern that I would arrive too late. My friends told me that he would wait for me to arrive.
And he did wait. I held his hand and told him I loved him. With eyes that were no longer seeing he brought my hand ever so slowly to his face and he kissed the back of it and then he pressed it against his cheek. I prayed with him. I’m not sure that he heard the prayer, but I knew God heard it. I leaned close and I told him that it was okay for him to go.
A veteran of the Vietnam War asked permission to enter my father’s room. In remembrance of my father’s service, the veteran presented me with a star that had been cut from an American flag. He gave my mother a certificate acknowledging my father’s service. The veteran turned smartly and saluted the unseeing man who lay motionless in the bed and said, “Soldier, on behalf of a grateful nation, thank you for your service.” That was as ‘proud to be an American, goosebumps moment’ as I ever had.
My dad died this morning. His death won’t be written about. It won’t be reported on television. Flags will not be lowered to half-mast. His death will not create a Butterfly Effect. The world will not skip a beat.
My heart did.
My dad was the most honest and decent person I ever met. I never heard him swear. I never saw him drunk. I never saw him deliberately choose to do something that was not right. Everything that is good about my character, my faith, my integrity, and choosing to do what is right, I got from my father. My failures and failings are of my own making.
They say you are not really dead until no one ever again says your name. This Father’s Day, if you can, talk to your dad. When my three children think of me I hope they see my dad. His name was Ed.
A healthcare footnote:
The week before he entered the hospice he entered the hospital. His pulse was 120. They gave him an MRI. The authorization form asked him to indicate whether he had any kind of dental plate. He wrote that he did.
The hospital performed the MRI and took my father back to his room. They were going to discharge him that afternoon. But he refused to eat and drink and take his medicine. He refused for 15 hours. Instead of telling the nurses why he refused he made loud guttural sounds. And when he refused he kept pointing to his mouth. Finally, my mother looked in my father’s mouth and she saw that the tip of his dental plate was barely visible in his throat.
He had aspirated the plate during his MRI, the very same plate that he had told them about on the authorization form. They took him to surgery. The next day there was no discussion of discharging him. The hospital was now recommending that he enter a rehab facility. My mom, who is also 89, spent the day visiting rehab facilities. She found one close to their home and began the admitting process.
Two more days passed. Gone was the discussion of moving him to a rehab facility. His doctors now agreed that my father, the man with a high pulse, be moved to a hospice.
When he arrived at the hospice, his pulse was normal. If that sounds cynical, that was my intent.