Holding Pop’s Hand…and Heart
Stale air fills the hallway leading to my father’s room. My high heels tap the linoleum with staccato precision; shadows creep along the walls like escaping fugitives.
There…over there is that drooling young boy. His wheelchair always sits right beside the nurses’ station in this same place; his empty eyes search with longing stares. Today I clip on by without even a smile. I don’t have much time.
The door stands ajar; I slowly push it open. Pop lays in bed with sterile white sheets smoothed across his chest and tucked under his thin, pale arms – the same sun-tanned arms that flexed when he dug fishing worms in that swampy place down by the lake when I was little. Now his hands lay quietly on the white blanket; his thin silver hair stands on end like dandelion fluff blown by a gust of wind.
His eyes are open as I walk to the side of his bed. He turns his head slightly, as if in greeting.
“Hey, little sis.” He used to call me that often. Now I have four children of my own.
“Hi Pop. How ya doin’?”
His eyes seem soft, almost tender. He turns his head the other direction for a moment. “Oh, I’m just….an old man.”
The pang – it grabs my chest as it has so many times before. Why must we tiptoe around the hard things in life? We both study whatever is beyond the window in the direction of his gaze. “Look, Pop, the sweet corn will be planted soon.” He’s in this particular room of the nursing home because it faces farmland…the link to his heart.
He turns his head back toward me without answering, then issues a gentle command: “Hold my hand.” His right arm drapes over the stainless steel bed rail.
In that moment, history replays in my mind. As a child, this man willingly provided for me, tutored me in math, and invited me to help him clean the fish he caught in the lake. And yet he also carefully guarded his emotions. I can’t remember him ever saying, “I love you,” or hugging me, even on my wedding day. He was a hard-working farm boy at heart – one who knew what it meant to plow fields behind a horse. But he finally ran out of grit and sweat. Now he’s helpless.
I clasp his hand in my own for the first time - ever. He clutches my fingers warmly; we become locked together as one. He blinks his eyes at the ceiling tiles and clenches his jaw with unspoken thoughts. Fifteen minutes pass.
“I can’t stay too much longer, Pop…it’ll be time for Sunday school and church, and everyone’s ready to go at home.”
He looks at me with those familiar piercing eyes – now clear and childlike. “I know.” He holds my hand even tighter and closes his eyes.
I feel something surge through our hands – an unspoken connection of sorts. He doesn’t want to watch the big wall clock; he doesn’t want to know how much time we have left.
Finally, I must leave. “Okay Pop, I gotta go…I hope you have a good day.” What does a daughter say to a failing parent? Is it reasonable to want to fill years of conversational gaps; to fulfill relational destiny?
His grip loosens and I lay his baby-soft hand next to the other one, then gather my purse and jacket and walk toward the door. He cocks his head off the fat pillow and calls after me, “Be good – and be careful,” the same farewell he used in my teenage years whenever I left the house.
“Okay, Pop, will do.”
I reverse my steps through the hallway, darkened on this Sunday morning to encourage a sense of rest and quiet, and hurry to the car. Within ten minutes I am home, surrounded by the banter of my children who have miraculously gotten themselves ready for church without me. My husband helps herd them to the car - “Hurry up you guys, we’ll be late!” – and I delegate my visit to the nursing home to a back corner of my mind.
At 4:00 that afternoon the phone rings. “I am calling to inform you that your father just passed away…”
Shock…tears…God’s timing…he’s gone. That very morning as we held hands for the first and last time, my heart’s cry for father-intimacy was fulfilled.
“Little sis…be good; be careful.” His hand would remain in mine.
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