14 years ago at Christmas my Mom and Dad came to visit us in New England. They arrived on a cold day and left on a colder one.
It's an 8-hour drive between where they lived and where we were, and they made the trip willingly, I suppose, to see their daughter and her husband, who were too poor or obstinate or confused to make the trip. I forget now which ailment precluded our trip South to see them, but I imagine now that it was a combination of several factors, one of which was that my new-ish husband felt like we ALWAYS traveled to see them and now it was someone else's turn to come see us.
At the time he was trying to cut what he believed were my "apron strings," to little end, because they're still there, tied firmly around my wait and leading straight to my past. I'm proud of them, I think they're pretty, and they suit me remarkably well. Besides, I'm a people-pleaser, and will go to great lengths to be sure everybody is happy, and what's a little trip down the road to see family anyway?
Truth be told, I probably also didn't have much vacation at the time, and likely would have used up all that time just to go south to see people I already knew in a place I was already familiar with. We wanted to save up for something "special."
Whatever the cause, and whatever details my memory has fogged over with the passage of time, the end remains the same - my folks came to see us, in the burgundy Buick my Dad had bought my Mom for Christmas either that year or the year before.
At that time we were renting a house with 3 bedrooms, a nice kitchen, and a big living room with a huge picture window. There were old chicken sheds out back, long ones that were nonfunctional and housed dusty bits of farm equipment and a smelting room that some friend of our landlord's family still used. We were pretty comfortable there; my husband had his small office, we had a nice bedroom for us, and we even had a guest room for anyone who wanted to stay with us. I had outfitted it with 2 twin beds and matching linens, and felt pretty proud to have all that space to call my own. Who cared if the kitchen floor was peeling or that the water pressure was so weak that taking a shower was akin to standing in the middle of a spitting contest between 2 six-year-olds? It was ours, we could afford it, and it was the biggest place I'd ever called my own.
Mom and Dad, of course, stayed in the guest room. On the morning of their departure I walked past their room on the way from the shower, and saw them lying side-by-side on his bed, snuggling and talking softly. They saw me and smiled and waved at me; their comfort in one another perfectly plain and wonderful. I felt like a kid again, trying hard not to believe that my parents really like each other "that way," but was old enough now to enjoy knowing that they did.
I made them turkey sandwiches for the road the way my family likes them, with turkey AND stuffing AND cranberry sauce on it, topped with mayo. It's a happy sandwich, full of the tastes of the holiday, and bound to get you going where you need to be on a full stomach. Mom and Dad took their showers, had a little breakfast (I think I cooked eggs), and prepared to take their leave.
Dad pulled the Buick up to the back to load the car. I said goodbye to them both, my husband shook hands with my Dad and hugged my Mom, and then, just before they walked out the door, I hugged my Dad really hard, pressing up against his leather jacket and telling him I loved him. He told me he loved me too, and as they drove away I saw both their hands out the car windows, waving us out of sight.
He was dead by midnight.
My Mom called us a 4 a.m. The first call went unanswered, the second, more insistent one I picked up. I heard my Mom's voice saying abruptly:
"Dad is dead."
I replied -"Grandpa?" (because he was sick)
And she replied, with anguish in her voice
"No, my HUSBAND!!!"
My world stopped. Tears sprang to my eyes. I pushed my husband away when he asked what was wrong. It wasn't possible.
But it was. He was dead. He had died not but about 15 feet from my mother, in the middle of the night, of an apparent heart attack that he thought was just a day-long case of indigestion. Sure, he'd had an acid stomach on the way home, but a couple of Tums cured that almost right away. And yeah, the heartburn had come back later that evening, but a couple more Tums fixed that right up.
But when your heart stops, Tums don't work. When it stops so suddenly that you can't cry out for your wife of 35 years who's asleep in bed right outside the bathroom door, you don't have time for Tums or prayer or much of anything, I guess.
My mother had tried to give him CPR, but she said she knew as soon as she saw him that he was dead. The paramedics didn't even try.
He was gone. The end.
On my mother's birthday.
10 days later we laid him to rest at Arlington National Cemetery, with caisson and horse and 21 guns and taps, and a pain in our hearts that hasn't really ever gone away. Some days it catches me by surprise and nearly takes my breath away.
He never was famous, he probably won't be written into history, he never was rich, but he was my Dad. And for that I'm truly thankful.
I love you, Dad, and miss you more than I ever thought possible.