Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: Father (as in paternal parent, not God) (04/10/08)
TITLE: I Love You, Pop
By Beth Muehlhausen
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His mumbly voice rumbles like a receding thundercloud: “I’m … just … an old man.”
Hannah doesn’t know what to say, and yet feels she must respond with something, even if it’s trite. “Aw, c’mon Pop, being old isn’t such a bad thing.”
But she sees the truth in his eyes, and hears the unspoken desire of his heart: he is ready to die.
A plastic feeding tube slithers like a skinny snake into a spot between his shirt buttons, carrying nutrients to keep him alive. He eyes it skeptically, with his famous raised eyebrow, and then glares back at his daughter.
“I said … I’m just an old man.”
Other gray-haired geezers surround him. In their wheelchairs they form a nursing-home version of a line-up: retired football players, military men, farmers, businessmen, golfers, fishermen; husbands, fathers, brothers, grandfathers.
Pop’s head droops; sleep provides numb escape.
Rosie, his favorite nurse, clips in quick steps from around the corner on her way to bedside duties down the hall.
“How’s he doing?” she asks Hannah, nodding toward Pop.
Hannah shrugs. Her helpless expression inspires Rosie to sit and chat.
“Tell me about him … about his earlier life, I mean.”
Rosie’s medicine tray rests in her lap as she crosses her ankles and grasps the sides of the chair. She plans to stay until she gets an answer.
“Well … he was raised on a farm without electricity … learned to drive the horse team behind a plow when he was six years old … and was the valedictorian of his one-room school.”
“So he lived without elegance as a child, learned how to work hard, and was bright. What else?” Rosie probes without embarrassment, seeking perspective.
Hannah sighs, wondering how to summarize. “He’s private, doesn’t talk a lot. But he’s always been intense. He was the first in his family to earn a college degree. He taught himself to study the stock market and make wise investments … and owned a thriving business for a while. He always been ethical and moral … loyal to his friends … and took hunting and fishing trips to Canada. He tried to make dreams become reality; sometimes he did, sometimes he didn’t.”
Rosie studies Pop’s bowed, balding head. “So, maybe it’s fair to say down deep he was a visionary and an adventurer. Am I right?”
In reality, Hannah remembers how anger mastered her father’s heart; how pain eventually ruled their home. She glances at this delicate-looking man, remembering how she used to shrink from his violent outbursts.
“Y-yes … I suppose so.”
“What do you think has been the hardest part of growing old, from his perspective?” Rosie speaks softly, almost in a whisper, while leaning toward Hannah in anticipation.
Hannah pauses before answering. “His whole life has been an odd mix of extreme successes and failures. From the time my parents had me at age forty-three, life got tough. My mom was chronically depressed and they both constantly worried about money. But I suppose Pop always thought things might get better. You know how HOPE keeps you going. I guess now he knows he’s at the end. The dreams and ideals are gone; the boldness is gone. There isn’t any hope.”
Various bottles in the medicine tray rattle as Rosie shifts in her chair. She ignores them, and presses on, intent on the matter at hand. “Do you think he feels hopeless in an eternal sense?”
It is a big question, one that begs for an answer against the backdrop of the old man’s raspy breaths. “I honestly don’t know. He’s never talked about God or heaven to me. He prayed before Thanksgiving dinners when I was little, and we went to church occasionally. But I don’t know what he thinks about his own life after death.”
At that moment her father snorts. He painstakingly lifts his head, and his steel-gray eyes pop open. They’re focused, and seem clear and direct, almost as if seeing into another realm.
A wisp of a smile slips across his lips. Could he have been dreaming about some grand adventure? He looks at me, then Rosie, and addresses us both simultaneously.
“I told God I’m ready. I think He’s coming…”
Rosie carefully places her tray on the floor and takes his hand in hers. “He will come … and you’re ready. That’s all that matters.”
Hannah takes the other hand and blurts the words she’s waited decades to say: “I love you, Pop.”
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