It was two years ago last Thursday.
You never know when eternity will co-opt a date on the calendar so that each year following that particular day is shaded in your daytimer, and also in your heart.
For me, that day is the 19th of November. On that morning in 2007, I huddled with my family around my father’s hospital bed in Peoria, Illinois. For weeks we had alternated as caregivers, ebbing and flowing like ripples in a current around the rock that was my dad as he grew weaker. For 17 months, Truman Wallem had battled Stage 4 colon cancer like the Navy veteran he was: following orders from his medical superiors, submitting cheerfully to the tubes pumping 5-FU through his veins, keeping his affairs shipshape. When he fought in the South Pacific, his only goal was to win the war and go home. 60 years later, that’s still all he wanted.
As a survivor of World War II, Dad was positive he would come out on the winning side of this battle too. But it wasn’t to be. Surgery to repair a blockage to save his life weakened it instead, and an urgent call from my brother pulled my husband Mike and me out of a church business meeting and back to the hospital three hours away that we left just two days before when it seemed Dad was improving.
The grandchildren arrived. Dad’s hospital bed became the center of our universe; we orbited around it like planets held in place by the gravity of his condition. Dad’s clear blue eyes searched our faces; his strong farmer’s hands gripped ours. I kept thinking of things I wanted to tell him. My brother and sister and I shared stories, prayed, pulled remembered words and melodies out of the shared past of our Baptist childhood. Dad was too weak to sing the old hymns, but his lips moved with ours even as his eyes closed against the pain.
November 19th arrived. The Monday before Thanksgiving. The young blonde doctor examined Dad a final time that morning and looked up at us, tears in her eyes. Wordlessly, she held out her hands to take ours and led us in prayer as we circled around Dad’s bed one more time. You’ve got another daughter caring for you, Dad, I thought. She’s our sister in Christ.
At the amen I blurted out, “Doctor, all my father has wanted is to go home. We promised him we would take him home.”
Like the family member she had become, Doctor Adams barked an order and an ambulance was summoned. The attendants carefully placed my father in the back of the vehicle. His eyelids were closed, his breath rasping against the chill of the November afternoon. “Please hurry,” I begged the driver. “We have to get to my parents’ home in Streator before …”, but I couldn’t finish the sentence.
The driver coughed and looked at me apologetically. “Ma’am, if your father, uh…passes..en route, we’re required by law to take him to the nearest hospital.” He looked at my dad and back at us, shaking his head. “But I know Truman – he’s one stubborn man – and I’m darned if I ain’t takin’ him home.”
Mike and I stayed on the ambulance’s bumper during the 75 mile trip north to Streator. I didn’t think it was possible to hold your breath for that long. When the ambulance pulled off Route 18 and into my parent’s driveway I was out of our van before it stopped moving.
The ambulance attendants lifted my father’s stretcher from the vehicle and gently carried him up the front walk and through the front door where a hospice nurse was waiting. I trotted alongside, leaning over my dad and whispering, “You made it, Dad. You made it! This is Streator, Dad. You made it home.”
And then I saw the driver look almost apologetically at the nurse as he said, almost too low to overhear, “He had a faint pulse when we took him out…”, but she shook her head. My mom dropped her head and turned away, my sister and brother’s arms reaching out to her. In shock, I looked at my husband and then at the grandfather clock in the corner. 3:52 pm.
I knelt on the floor next to the bed where they laid Dad as the shadows lengthened in the November twilight. I felt for the warmth still in his hands, howling out my grief like the emotional child I’ve always been. Mike sat quietly behind me, rubbing my back. With the sensitivity that makes him as fine a pastor as he is a husband, he said nothing until I finally sat up, blew my nose, and searched for his face in the dark.
He heard the question in my voice before I could form the words.
“You kept your promise, Maggie,” my husband said quietly. “But more importantly, God kept his. Your dad has gone home.”
The anniversary of my father’s homegoing will never be just another day on the calendar to me. I warily watch November 19 approach each year as if it’s a strange dog coming at me on the sidewalk. I don’t know whether it will bite me or lick my hand.
It’s said that when you lose a parent, you lose your past. There’s truth to that. I still think of things I want to show my dad, things I want to tell him. But there is this truth as well, and it foretells my future: my dad is seeing new things that he is going to show me one day; he has wondrous new things to tell.
©2009 Maggie Wallem Rowe
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