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Dad's Last Words--Thoughts This Father's Day

Adult son and father embracing

When this Father’s Day without a father ends, I must finally decide what he said, his last words. It has been bothering me these four years. Mom tells me not to worry about trying to understand.

“His voice was so weak. His entire body had become so frail he was unable to put breath behind his voice. You know he just wasn’t as strong as he used to be. That’s all. You always think too much.”

I don’t agree. She just doesn’t understand him the way I do. She still sees him as the soldier of her dreams. The farm boy who stole her refined heart with promises to love, honour and protect. She worried he would not be the rock of her foundation as they aged, the Capricorn for her Pisces. He wasn’t losing his strength; it was just being transformed from the stone hardness developed through endless battles against his life’s obstacles into solid acceptance. Not willing to fight his demons, he learned how to coexist with them.

It is clearer to me, than to her or anyone else, because I was one of those obstacles. When younger, I feared and sometimes hated him. Some nights he would punish the eight-year-old me for not eating all the food on my plate and send me to bed crying. I would look down on him from my bedroom window, watching him return to the potting shed where he might work until early morning. I would curse him and sniffle into sleep.

I tried to love the man as I grew. Tried to respect and learn from him. He had so much to teach. He taught me how plants grow, how to find both ends of a groundhog’s tunnel, how to back up a trailer attached to his FarmAll2. When torrential rains drenched our drought-parched corn fields in July 1962, he taught me how to cry with joy and relief, instead of fear and anger. And how to pray to God kneeling in the mud.

He would push me away, then fight me, goad me into being someone I never could have been. We were on very different journeys with itineraries miles apart. Each lesson brought an opportunity for both of us to walk away angry in the early days of our relationship. It wasn’t until the turn of the new millennium approached that we each were allowed into the other’s world.

There were many health-related reasons for his change: a horrible stroke, the shakes of Parkinson’s, debilitating arthritis. He relied on Mom being his caregiver, but as she began to fail, he needed to call on his children for assistance in providing the needs of both parents. I was needy, too. Can a son live a full life, if he doesn’t have respect and love for the man who sired and raised him? Isn’t a son supposed to aid him through the end of years?

So, on this empty Fathers Day his last words plague me. Mom and I sit with him, while other family members take a dinner break. Twice he moans. His tongue moves and fails to wet his lips, so parched from medications. She puts a paper water cup to his mouth, but he only returns to stillness. Such weak breaths become more and more irregular. I imagine his blank wheezings hold words about his life. His work. Are there any mentions of a son’s failings? A thank you to his loving partner of sixty years? Perhaps he is remembering small bright details of his own fatherless childhood, riding his Rosebud sled down steep Ferncroft Hill with sister Ruth and brother Dick.

Suddenly he sits bolt upright, blankly staring past us as if we are shrouds. Lips move noiselessly like a puppet’s. They make shapes as if he is speaking. She strains her good ear down close to his mouth, wishing him to tell her what to do. But there are no words as he falls back dead.

Tonight, as I turn out the lights and climb the stairs up to bed, I realize that his last words are like an ethereal poem, a prayer left for me to interpret. His final gift is a message left to reflect the relationship we had newly forged. I choose to believe these silent words were “I love you.”


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