The sharp report of the seven rifles startled me into tears, though I had heard the commands of the leader and had braced myself. Two more times the rifles echoed over my muffled sobs. I clutched my husband tightly as though he were the only reality in this entire day of nightmarish solemnity.
My mother and brother were nearby but they provided no comfort. Both stood stiffly, tearless, with pale countenances. Even when the honor guard commander presented the folded flag that had draped my father’s coffin they did not cry.
A cacophony of memories swarmed through my mind, each one briefly and painfully asserting its presence before blending with all the others.
All too soon the graveside service was over, the honor guard was assembling to get into the vehicles that had transported them, and my husband was ushering my mother and me back to our van. A part of me did not want to leave; the action seemed like abandonment and introduced a finality I was not ready to accept.
Later that evening thoughts chased away any sleep I might have had. Lying here in my childhood bedroom in my mother’s home I wondered how three months could have sped by so quickly, how autumn had managed to come and go like a breath.
A breath. The past month had been all about breath. Waiting that final month as the emphysema and cancer slowly robbed my father of his life. That last night and day my mother and I had kept watch in the hospice room as my father’s breaths became more labored. With each breath that seemed to refuse to be exhaled we would cast wondering glances at each other.
Is this the end? Would we be ready for it? My own worries prodded at me. Was he ready? Did I, as his daughter and the oldest child, say and do enough to help him choose Jesus Christ and salvation? Did he know, even though I had spent a lifetime in disrespect and hostility toward him, did he know how much I really did love him?
That final day, one week before Thanksgiving, was spent in making amends, though he had become more unresponsive as shadows crept into the hospice room. Hoping to elicit a response, I read to him from John chapter one. When he became agitated and tried to speak with unintelligible sounds, my mother insisted I stop.
The nurse suggested we continue to talk to him as long as he lingered. “He can still hear you,” she murmured as she left the room.
We harmonized on Christmas carols, knowing that he would not be alive to hear them after this day. Then the nurse gently closed the door so that our voices would not disturb others who were fighting their own battles against cancer. Our voices faltered and faded away.
Drawing up chairs beside the hospital bed, we spoke to my father. My mother said very little, preferring instead to hold his hand and listen, sometimes inserting a few words. I stroked his shoulder with my fingers, stopping to take my turn wetting his lips with a small sponge dipped in a glass of water. I remembered the past for all three of us.
“Do you remember the day after our baby died?” I asked suddenly. “Do you remember carrying her bassinette out to the car so that I would not have to be reminded of her death? I loved you so much for that. That was the most loving thing you could have done for me.” I prayed he had heard and understood.
My brother came to the hospital for the last hour of our watch. Helpless to do anything, he stood at the end of the bed ashen-faced and silent.
The last breath was a rasp, a rattling sound that filled my father’s lungs one last time. In that instant, I sensed his soul and spirit separate from his earthly body.
“Do you see the angels?” I cried. “They’re here to take you to Heaven! I love you!”
Then he was silent.
Even now I regret wasted time and unspoken words, and I wonder if I will search the realms of Heaven for him and my daughter. Or will they be waiting for me? Jesus knows, and time will tell.
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