Father’s Day in Heaven

Image: TheAlieness GiselaGiardino²³ via Creative Commons

Early one morning in 2002, my brother picked me up from the airport and drove me to the hospital to see my dad. He had been unresponsive since the afternoon before. His rapid turn for the worse was what had prompted the previous night’s phone calls urging me to catch a cross-country flight if I ever wanted to see him alive again.

The second I walked into his room, I was devastated. So that’s what it looks like, I thought, with equal amounts of fear and awe. It was dehumanizing. Which made sense to me. What was happening to Dad is what sets our spirit free. And our spirit isn’t human.

I sensed that although he was still with us, he was gone nonetheless. But I was wrong. Dad came back to us later that very day. Shortly after he regained consciousness, he told Mom something she’ll never forget.

“I died last night, Martha Lee.” She believed him.

And so did I.

In the days that followed, his recovery was extraordinary. So much so that the doctors even contemplated his release. But after 10 days of steady improvement, his condition gradually started to decline, as evidenced by his erratic behavior.

One time, he rummaged through his bed covers for five continuous minutes, as if looking for something before seemingly finding it, scooping it up, and showing it to Mom. “Look, Martha Lee, a diamond,” he said proudly with cupped hands which contained nothing.

In spite of such episodes, that fiercely intelligent man fought hard to maintain control of his mind. You could actually see him willing it to perform like it was supposed to.

“What’s the date, Dr. Osborne?” one of his nurses had asked.

“Oh, c’mon, lady,” he said with disgust, if not embarrassment.

“What about the year? What year are we in?”

“1959,” he answered confidently.

“Not quite. Can you try again?”

“Look,” he began, his voice just on the cordial side of angry, “I may not know what year it is, but I sure as hell know this — the Vols play Miami this weekend.”

You’re damn right we do, Dad. You tell her.

I don’t think the nurse liked us very much. Not that I blame her. Generally speaking, shaking martinis in a hospital room is a no-no. But we didn’t care. Not because we’re raging alcoholics, but simply because that’s what we do. We drink martinis before dinner, and we had suspended that ritual for long enough.

With Dad withering away in his hospital bed, the task of shaking our drinks fell to yours truly. I brought in the ice needed via a large Styrofoam cup and smuggled the vodka, vermouth, olives, and glasses in a backpack. When the nurse caught me mid-shake, she gave me a look of admonishment, one that all but asked me to stop. But before she could put that look into words, I shot her one of my own.

He’s dying, I told her with my eyes while slowly nodding my head. So why don’t you let him live a little?

I wasn’t even sure if he’d be able to drink the martini. He wasn’t in good shape. His off-and-on dementia was even worse than before, though that night you couldn’t tell, at least not by anything he said. He was silent as a mouse. The sound of ice slamming against stainless steel felt good to me. Hearing something was better than hearing nothing. So I kept doing it. When I finally stopped and poured our drinks, the unwanted quiet came back. I broke it nervously by asking Dad a question which I didn’t expect him to have the energy, or perhaps even the capacity, to answer.

“Do you think I bruised the vodka by shaking it too much?”

“Es ball-shet. Yu kahnt bwooze vong-ka. Yu kahnt. Bwooze gin? Yus. Bwooze vong-ka? Nah.”

He took his glass with an unsteady hand and held it to his mouth which was opening and closing uncontrollably, spastically even. It wasn’t pretty, but after nearly a minute of trying, he managed to get a sip down. Without spilling even so much as a single drop.

“Ahh. Dots goood. So goood,” he said as he closed his eyes and put his head back on the pillow of his inclined bed.

How often, indeed, I’ve wondered whether or not our martini-fueled happy hour was, quite literally, heaven sent. Way back when, my dad had made me my very first one. And that night, I made him his very last. And while he drank it, my father taught his son one final lesson.

You can’t bruise vodka.

When asked what year we were in, Dad had thrown out 1959 — a year which represented the prime of his life. I finally get it. When you’re fighting as hard as he was, there’s nothing but now. Without it, both your past and your future cease to exist. So by default, each passing moment is the prime of your life. No matter how old or how sick you are.

His now, however, was about to draw to a close. With less than two weeks before Thanksgiving, we hoped and prayed it would extend just a little bit longer. But early the next morning, I was awakened by the call I’d been dreading, the one that prompted me to race to the hospital.

But I wasn’t quite fast enough.

My lifeless father lay eerily on his literal deathbed, his left eyebrow noticeably askew. Tears streamed down both of my cheeks as I smoothed it with my thumb.

How I wished Dad could have improved just a little more. You know, so the doctors could have released him. If they had, it would have only been so that he could die in the ivy-covered stone house on top of the hill. With the stereo on. Listening to opera. Near his books. Near us. No beeps from machines. No lukewarm cafeteria meals served upon brown plastic trays. No nurses whose last names we’d never know.

Just us.

Though he never made it home, Dad’s valiant fight proves that there’s much magic in the melancholy, much beauty in the struggle. Which is why you bravely fight on, no matter what. Not for you. But for everyone else. So they can see that beauty. Beauty which will live long after you’re dead and gone. Beauty that looks like hope. And determination. And strength. And dignity.

And perhaps most notably, love.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad. We love you, too.

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About john cave osborne

John Cave Osborne is a writer whose work has appeared on such sites as DisneyBaby, Babble, YahooShine, TLC and the Huffington Post. He was also referenced by Jezebel one time, but he’s pretty sure they were making fun of him. He and his wife, Caroline, live with their five children and spastic dog in Knoxville, TN. Nothing annoys him more than joke-heavy bios written in the third person, with the possible exception of Corey Feldman.

  • http://twitter.com/CarlaMariaSmith Carla Smith

    Wow, John. I headed over here after your heartfelt comment on my column. I felt like I was part of your family, in that room with you. Thanks for not only sharing those precious moments but for distilling the essence of who and what he was, and who and what we are in our final moments. I’ve never heard it presented so eloquently. I’m going to share it with all I can. It’s important. Thank-you. 
    And thanks, in particular for your comments on mine. It means even more from a man, somehow. 

    • http://johncaveosborne.com John Cave Osborne

      well then i guess we’re just in the mutual admiration society b/c i was totally blown away by your essay, virtually every element of it. you’ve got a fan in me, my friend. thanks for your kind words.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000258736074 Juli Westgate

    I remember the first time I read this and thought how painful and lovely all at the same time. It was so nice to be able to read this again before Father’s Day. *And I will always remember that you can’t bruise vodka.

    • http://johncaveosborne.com John Cave Osborne

      i don’t do re-prints / re-posts often. but this remains one of my favorite things b/c it came from such a tender spot in my heart / psyche. and, also, the other day, someone found me with the following google search:

      there’s much magic in the melancholy, much beauty in the struggle. Which is why you bravely fight on, no matter what. Not for you. But for everyone else. So they can see that beauty. Beauty which will live long after you’re dead and gone. Beauty that looks like hope. And determination. And strength. And dignity. And perhaps most notably, love.

      which struck me as creepy but also cool. especially the week leading up to Father’s Day. so it was in my mind and then i dreamt about him last night, so i thought i’d repost. thanks for taking the time to read it. again!

  • Beth

    I love that I never know whether I will end up doubled over from laughing or crying from your latest adventures.   Today was both.  It made me think of my Daddy’s wayward eyebrows.  My 83 year father passed away in 2009.  He managed to convince my mother for almost two days that what was most certainly a broken hip could be healed if they just sat in their recliners and waited it out.   When my cousin, who lives just down the hill, heard the ambulance he ran to their house.  He insisted on CARRYING my father to the ambulance because the two young men trying to wrestle this now wispy man  from the recliner appeared to be hurting him.   Daddy was loved by his family in a way that was pretty close to hero worship.   My sister and I stood on either side of his hospital bed for hours his last night while he slipped back to somewhere in the South Pacific.  He was directing his squadron with hand signals and whispered warnings.  We watched as he screamed the names of fallen soldiers with tears rolling down his face.  He then returned to the patrol – raising his arms to support the rifle that wasn’t there.   In hindsight, I wished we COULD have left him in the chair beside the woman he had spent 59 years and 11 months  with so that he could have left this world under his own terms.  Reading his paper.  Watching the hummingbirds on the front porch.   Looking through stacks of pictures of his beloved grandchildren that he kept on the table beside him so they’d never be too far away.   He’s with us always.

    • http://johncaveosborne.com John Cave Osborne

      beth, your words gave me chills and filled my eyes with tears. so beautiful. i can’t tell you how much i appreciate you sharing your story about your dad. i, too, am sad he couldn’t stay on that recliner. thank you so much for your comment. it made my day. 

  • s.a.

    This is so lovely and loving and moving and powerful.
    My father died in 1990 and my mother in 2009. My mother in law is on her deathbed. We will all face death, and we as a culture are so afraid of it, of discussing it. Thank you for shining a light and sharing with us. For there is indeed beauty in the struggle.

    My father died in the hospital, my mother in my arms, in my home. The fact that I was able to be there the very moment she drew her last breath is not as significant as I thought it would be. What matters much more are the many, many minutes, hours, days we spent together when she was really and truly alive.

    • http://johncaveosborne.com John Cave Osborne

      @s.a. — you nailed it. and it’s something i’ve long said. there’s a lot of beauty if you can just find it in yourself to pay attention. i’ve seen it up close twice now. with my dad and my sister and both times, they’ve given me gifts that i’ll carry forever. thank you so much for your beautiful comment!

  • Anonymous

    This struck me hard. It’s a beautiful, loving piece. I am so fortunate to have both my mom and dad. Unfortunately, Dad is in bad health and I’m not sure how long we’ll have him. But I’ll be happy to be able to say Happy Father’s Day this Sunday. There’s still a hug to be given and smiles and laughter to share. I’m grateful. My Dad-in-law died 15 years ago, so my girls never really got to know him. I’m surprised how much that still hurts. My Mom-in-law just moved closer to home so I’m glad the girls are getting to know her better. I’m glad I’ve gotten to share so much of my life with these wonderful people, parents all of them.

    • http://johncaveosborne.com John Cave Osborne

      @surprisedmom re: your girls never really getting to know your Dad-in-law…that’s a tough one, i’m certain. i often think how sad it is that my dad never got to meet any of my children. when he died, i was still a bachelor in my early 30s. yet i’m about to have my fifth child and he’ll never have known any of them. nor will they ever know him. hope you’re giving your dad a hug and sharing some smiles and laughs today.

  • Momo Fali

    Wow. Just wow. You know, I always say that you can tell a good writer by whether or not you can “see” their story and I “saw” every bit of that.

    • http://johncaveosborne.com John Cave Osborne

      thanks much for your sweet words about the Father’s Day post. i’ve said it before, yet it’s worth saying again: it’s *always* a good day when Momo Fali stops by for a visit.

  • Momo Fali

    Wow. Just wow. You know, I always say that you can tell a good writer by whether or not you can “see” their story and I “saw” every bit of that.

  • Mr Lady

    Awww, man. Happy father’s day to you, however bittersweet.

    • http://johncaveosborne.com John Cave Osborne

      @WIMSC—thanks for stopping by the other day. awfully nice of you. if you run into Ron, tell ’em he’s a punk. hopefully he’s enjoying his time w/ his boys. and hopefully, you’re enjoying your summer, too.

  • NukeDad

    Wow. Pretty similar to my experience, but without the martini’s! I didn’t make it home in time, but I was able to talk with him a few days before he passed, and at home. My sister was in the room with him when he woke up and 2 or 3 minutes of total lucidity. She was so grateful that there was someone in the room with him to give him that last bit of normalcy. Great story, John. Happy Father’s Day to you and your Dad.

    • http://johncaveosborne.com John Cave Osborne

      your story is a great one, too, NukeDad. sorry that you didn’t make it home in time, but awfully glad that you spoke w/ him as well as that your sister got to share normal interaction for a final time. thanks for stopping by. hope you had a great father’s day, my friend.

  • http://twitter.com/TMatlack Thomas Matlack

    Great story John. There is in fact something about fathers and son that is special, challenging, and in the end rewarding like nothing else.  I am currently watching watching my sons, 6 and 15, splash around in a hotel pool and I can say they ground me on this earth like nothing else.

  • Anonymous

    I love this. My grandmother said everything she wanted to. Told my grandfather how much she loved him, then wondered what the heck was taking so long. She was ready to go. http://www.woan.blogspot.com

    • http://johncaveosborne.com John Cave Osborne

      Abby, thanks for stopping by. guess what? the misuse of ironic is one of my biggest pet peeves. people chalk everything up to irony, when often it’s nothing more than apropos. so RIGHT ON! hope that little Weiner example helps it stick for them!

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