I Wish You Could Have Known Him

Dear Will:

It is with a combination of sadness and joy that I write to tell you that on April 17 my father passed away. He was 86.

We were fortunate to have him at home and alert for several days prior to his death. On Easter Sunday (just five days before he died, as it turns out), the family gathered at his home, where he was under hospice care. There were nearly 20 of us there, and in spite of his condition it was fun to be together. We took turns sitting around his bed and keeping him posted on the Masters golf tournament.

Earlier that day he had asked me to give him a Priesthood blessing, “releasing him,” as it were, to let go of mortality. So when the meal was over (he ate nothing) he said to me, “Let’s get on with it.” After a family prayer, I placed my hands on his head and pronounced some simple words, blessing him with comfort and peace and the assurance that he was “free to go” whenever he felt ready to do so.

It was one of the hardest things that I have ever had to do. Afterwards, the grief I felt was overwhelming—a physically crushing sensation that all but consumed me. After pronouncing the blessing, each one there took a moment to express their love to him, one at a time. When each person had had a turn, he gathered us around his bed for some final words of counsel: He asked us to take care of my mother, to love one another, and expressed his confidence that God would watch over us after he was gone.

We cried a lot that day. But as I look back on it—now two weeks later—I recall the day with a great sense of joy and gratitude. What a wonderful blessing it was for us all to be together when he was still lucid, for us each to have some time with him to express our love, for the Spirit of God to be there in our midst and bless us in our moment of grief. I realize that often death comes so quickly and unexpectedly that we don’t get the chance to say our most tender goodbyes. Because we had that chance with my father, that Easter Sunday will remain a favorite memory of his dying days.

His funeral was last week. It became a great celebration of the man as we reminisced together about my father’s life: his charm, his idiosyncrasies, his talents, and his many accomplish­ments. Friends and family gathered from across the map, including some elderly lifelong friends of his. I was comforted by their presence there, for I saw it as an affirmation of a life well-lived.

I had the chance to speak at his funeral service, and although it wasn’t easy, I was honored to do so. I told some favorite stories, including this conversation:

Me: “Dad, if you really loved me you’d buy me a car.”

Dad: “Well, now you know.”

I expressed my thanks for all he taught me and all of the ways in which he blessed my life. In conclusion, I echoed the testimony of Job: “For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God” (Job 19:25-26). I know I will see my father again, and when we see each other, we shall embrace and enjoy the richness of eternity together. And until then, he’s in a better place, freed at last from his crumbling mortal body.

I’m sorry you never got the chance to know Jay Watkins. He was a good man. You would have liked him.

PW

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Silent Conversations

Dear Will:

My dad is dying.

He has congestive heart failure and a mild form of leukemia (can leukemia be mild?). A damaged rotator cuff in his right shoulder makes his right arm useless. He has had both knees replaced and is recovering from a recently cracked patella. In other words, he can barely use his arms and legs. (Think of all you that have to depend on others to do for you if you can’t raise and lower your arms or bend your legs.) And a week or so ago, pneumonia sent him to the hospital where he “celebrated” his 86th birthday. Whoopee.

His doctor expects him to “recover” and go home, but it won’t surprise you to learn that my father is about out of patience with being a patient. “I wish I could get some dread disease and just be done with it,” he told me. “This business of falling apart bit by bit is nuts” (which shows that his mind is still sharp). Who can blame him for being fed up with life when the life that is left is so difficult to live?

He has put his affairs in order for the most part to simplify things for my mother when he goes. In fact, when we finally got him into the hospital and settled into his room, he insisted that I immediately retrieve his papers to make sure that there is no ambiguity: He does not want life support or resuscitation. If his body finally gives out, that will be that.

The only real remaining question is how effectively the rest of us will be able to entice him to stick around a bit longer. There is time, but who knows how much? Considering his condition, even if he returns home from the hospital, there may be little more that we can do together—and so we are all left to ponder the final conversations of our remaining time together in mortality. What do you say to each other when words become so precious and time so short?

Sometimes nothing. Before he went into the hospital, I went to visit him in his home. He felt so awful (his pneumonia had not yet been officially diagnosed) that mostly he lay silently in bed. But when I offered to leave him alone to rest, he asked me to stay put. “It’s a comfort to have you there,” he said. And so I sat in silence as we shared a moment in which words were not required.

Selfishly, I hope that once his illness is under control his spirits will lift and he’ll begin to fight for more time. I’d like him to see my daughter’s next ballet recital, to listen to my 10-year-old describe his team’s come-from-behind Little League victory, to discuss with my oldest the implications of what he’s learning in his Evolutionary Biology class at UCLA. I want to sit and watch the ballgame with him from time to time, to call him for advice as I so often do, to listen to him argue politics with my wife and tease my children. These are all things that have always brought him joy and that bring me joy to this day. And I’m not ready to give up that joy just yet.

But if, indeed, his time his short, I can tell you this: He is a good man. He has given 86 good years and created a legacy of integrity and honor. Come what may, he has made this world a better place.

PW

One of the Greatest Gifts Ever

Dear Will:

My family is going through some nervousness as my sister and her husband (and their five small children) prepare to move to Turkey, where my brother-in-law has accepted a position working as a civilian contractor on a military base. We hope that it will turn out to be a great adventure for them, but we can’t help but feel anxious about their welfare.

Most anxious of all are my parents. My father will be 82 in a couple of weeks, and his body is really starting to show some wear and tear. Just this last week, in fact, he was in the emergency room with a slight case of pneumonia, a frightening condition for someone his age. It gave me a jolt, and when I saw him in his awkward gown and heard his scratchy voice, I could see clearly what I rarely see in full light: he has become an old man.

My sister’s imminent departure has caused my parents to consider the stark and upsetting possibility that after they kiss my sister and her children good-bye, they quite possibly could be doing so for the last time. Three years—the theoretical minimum length of my brother-in-law’s contract—is a really long time when you’re 82. Thus it was perhaps not surprising—even if it was disconcerting—when my dad called me to his home to “go over some things.”

My wife Dana and I were given a brief list of items my parents thought we might consider valuable: paintings mostly, the chair built by my great-grandfather, the clock that my grandparents used to have on their mantle—stuff like that. They said they wanted each of their children (there are seven of us) to pick the top two things we would most like to have once my parents are gone. Dana and I wandered through their house “shopping.” And it felt . . . really . . . strange.

They do have several pieces of art that I like quite a lot, but to be honest they mean nothing to me. The ones with the greatest apparent value are not valuable to me. And asking for any of them seemed trite and cold. I didn’t really want to play along. Nevertheless, I dutifully filled out my “order form,” but I felt like I didn’t really care whether I got the bronze or it went to one of my sisters.

When we were finished, my father showed me the location of his important papers: the will, the trust, the durable power of attorney. We stood in his office and discussed insurance policies and safe deposit boxes and burial arrangements. There was no sense of sadness as he did this, no woe-is-me, I’m-about-to-die melancholy. It was just matter-of-fact and business-like—something that had to be done.

That’s when I spied it: a tiny, 4-inch replica of a red Radio Flyer wagon. My father has had it on his desk my entire life. I can remember visiting his business when I was maybe five and playing with it in his office. He always used to keep a navy blue Superball in it. Just looking at it filled me with tenderness—and that’s when I knew. I reclaimed my form, crossed out my original choices and indicated instead that I wanted only that wagon. To have that symbol of my father on my own desk, for my own children to play with when they come to my office, would be a lot more valuable to me than any work of art ever could be.

Of course, I’m hoping that wagon remains on my father’s desk for many years to come, and that my parents stick around long after we hold a big Welcome Home Party for my sister.  Until then, I’m determined to spend a little more time in my parents home, looking at the paintings, listening to the chime of that old clock, and enjoying my mom and dad, one of greatest gifts God has ever given me.

PW