My father died when I was just beginning my junior year in high school. It was October, my favorite month of the year. October meant smoky hills in the valley from field-burning. It meant a scarlet and orange colonnade of trees down our street. And it meant Halloween, a night of great adventure for a young boy still immune to realities of true terror.
During this particular October of 1977, autumn took on a pale cast for me. Dad was dying of cancer. Had been, in fact, for quite some time. We just didn’t know it.
I think he did, though. He’d been in pain for months. There were tests. Potassium pills, adjustments to diet. But that wasn’t quite it. When he went in for exploratory surgery, the kindly surgeon saw a gray mass that had destroyed most of the vital organs. Dad was sewn up. There was nothing else to do.
During the next month, Dad was in and out of the hospital. When he was home, the house often was a parade of friends who visited and cheered. Sometimes they’d tell stories; sometimes they’d simply sit in silence with my father. And there was lots of laughter. I recall Mom saying that Dad was as funny as he’d been when she’d first met him, before the stress of jobs, the years, the fights and the alcohol. I think Dad finally relaxed into life and let go, something he’d never really been able to do before. There was nothing else to do.
When the small crowds left, Mom would escort Dad to bed and he’d say, “Go get your cigarette and drink and come back.” It was their little ritual, as well as a monumental turning point in their marriage. See, these were two people who had been at war with each other most of their lives. A real love had brought them together in 1947, Valentine’s Day, in fact, after Dad had returned from flying 34 missions as a bombardier in a tenacious B-17 named Miss Bea-Havin.
After VE Day, he spent time in Europe working for Army intelligence before returning to the small Oregon town where he grew up. And Mom was there. They’d grown up together, although Dad was four years older. Mom had always admired him from afar. But they’d kept in touch through the years. Finally, together back home, they decided to get married.
As most couples do, they brought their hopes and dreams into their new shared life, as well as their hurts. In Dad’s case, the hurts ran deep. He not only brought some nerve-racking experiences back from the war but also a gaping, unhealed wound of always being left. First as a young man, when his mother literally left with a traveling salesman one day, not to be seen until a couple years later and then rarely after that. Then, during the war, my father received a letter from a woman he’d courted for seven years and hoped to marry. Unfortunately she didn’t feel the same. Dad was abandoned and alone once again.
My mother brought her own scars into the marriage, and combined with Dad’s distrust and their alcohol-fueled coping skills, it made for a toxic mix.
As a young boy, I instinctively knew that they loved each other but could never understand why they couldn’t just say so. There were subtle olive branches, but tension and the threat of explosion were the alchemy that created an unstable atmosphere in our home.
My parents had been divorced at least two times, married to different partners, divorced and remarried to each other. I know. Soap operas yearn for such story lines. Theirs was a relationship filled with hurt, regret and resignation, but they loved me and my sister and never hesitated to show us. They just seemed to be without the ability to reach out to each other.
So it was in the last month of my father’s life that my mom and dad truly came together, perhaps for the first time in their lives. After Mom retrieved her drink and cigarette and sat on the edge of Dad’s bed, they really talked. About the reality of life. And death. About me and my sis. About each other. Dad expressed words of deep regret, of remorse for how he treated her. And there were words of sympathy. Of empathy. And forgiveness. From both of them.
Mom told me when Dad was in severe pain she’d help him into the shower and turn the water up high, the hot pulse of water providing a momentary sanctuary from the agony. He would moan in pleasure as she would scrub his back, massaging his skin. Holding him. Dad gave into letting his wife care for him, something I’m not sure he’d ever done before. And Mom brought forth the compassion she’d waited years to give.
A dear person gave me a sign that reads: “It’s never too late to live happily ever after.” I believe that. Life grieves us all, sometimes devastatingly so. But hope is also grief’s best music, as someone once said. If my parents proved anything, it’s that it’s never too late for love’s healing power.
It took me years to fully come to grips with the loss of my father. But watching Mom and Dad come together at the end of his life kindled hope that I would fall back on in even the bleakest of moments. And I think Mom received a gift in her giving of herself for my father. They finally had a joy and oneness that reminded them of why they had come together in the first place.
Those last weeks were not wasted. But then, nothing is wasted when we give our lives away for another. No matter how much time is left. Even if it’s only for a moment.
John Kelly has published short stories and articles in such publications as American Way, Horizon Air, Grit, Inside Kung-Fu, Stage & Screen and Prairie Business Journal. He’s the co-founder and creative director of Adams.Kelly. Austin, a brand-development company. Raised in the Northwest, he lives near Austin, Texas.