The halls of my Junior High School were overrun by hundreds of scurrying feet after the last bell rang. Shouts of “FREE-DOM!” and lockers slamming and laughter filled any lapse in the general mayhem of a typical Friday’s dismissal.
Not the usual time for a message, the intercom squeal arrested us quickly. Our principal’s voice cut through the pandemonium, stopping us all in our tracks.
“I regret to inform you that our beloved president, John F. Kennedy, has been assassinated. Please go home quickly and find solace with your families during this terrible time.”
As if in slow motion, our mouths gaped in horror, girls sobbed against their jock boyfriends’ shoulders, teachers wrung their hands. November 22, 1963, we left our school in shock and sorrow, observing flags flying at half-mast, portraying a mourning nation. I watched television broadcasts with my father’s arm around me, reassuring me that in his presence, everything would be okay.
Saturday, Jackie Kennedy in her pink, bloodstained suit as Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson took the oath of the presidency, was televised. She moved in a trance, like my brother’s mechanical robot. I felt so sorry for her. I wondered if the muffled sounds I had heard in the night were my father’s, weeping for our country. He awoke with a sore throat.
At 3:00 Sunday morning, Dad came to my bedside so I could read the thermometer, his arms shaking badly. It registered 103 degrees, and I was worried. By 5:00 a.m., he was groaning. I called Grandpa to drive him to the hospital. They returned within the hour, the doctor having prescribed aspirin and bed rest. Through the interminable day, my father complained of stiffness. His fever stayed high. My brother called an ambulance. Dad was again taken away from me to the hospital—but this time, he didn’t return. . .
“You kids stay in the waiting room. Your father may have spinal meningitis, and he’s quarantined.”
My grandmother again voiced her opinion to this doctor, that Dad had rheumatic fever, his symptoms very familiar to her.
(Twenty years previous, my father was dying from rheumatic fever, his body worn down by the excruciating rigors of the army’s Fort Knox Boot Camp. Our minister drove Grandma several hundred miles to Kentucky to find Dad’s temperature at 105 degrees. Arrangements were made for the transportation of his body and his funeral. The Reverend laid hands on my father’s head, praying fervently. Miraculously, the tide turned, the crisis of death averted. It took Dad ten months to regain his health.)
Meanwhile, the waiting room television was announcing the death of former John Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, at the hands of someone named Ruby. I numbly watched in disbelief.
Monday was Kennedy’s broadcasted funeral. I cried as his children stalwartly saluted his casket. Caroline is younger than I, I thought, and I felt a connection with her, wondering if my father would die, making us fatherless together.
My father did survive. He was transferred to a Veteran’s Hospital. His diagnosis: rheumatic fever, lupus, and pneumonia. Severe rheumatoid arthritis set in. High doses of a new medication, prednisone, kept him alive, but the ravages from the then unknown side effects left him crippled for the remaining twenty years of his life. So, in a sense, I did lose my father when Caroline Kennedy lost hers, but differently.
Returning to us and to part-time work eventually, my father, though amazing in his strong faith in God and his perseverance to live for his children, was never the same. He walked me down the aisle at my wedding, but became bedridden soon after, the crumbling of hip and shoulder bones complete from the drug that saved his life seven years before.
Twelve years later, I received a frantic call from my grandmother at 3:00 a.m.
“Please come—I can’t read the thermometer—your dad is really sick!”
I rushed to his bedside, but he was gone. The thermometer Grandma couldn’t read was on the dresser and I absently picked it up. The mercury had gone all the way to the end, past the 106-degree marks. I clasped his arthritic, still warm hands in my own strong ones, murmuring,
“No more pain, Dad, no more pain. I’m so glad you’re with our Jesus now. Thank you for your love, your Christian example, your bravery, and the rich spiritual heritage you have given us. And for the memories I will always cherish."
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