Two days ago, I held my father’s hands for the last time. They were the hands that showed me how to use a fly rod, pulled covers over my shoulders while I slept and picked up the phone to call and tell me not to drop out of medical school when I felt like a failure. I saw them change through the years. They were beefy when he was younger and so calloused during his years running cattle on his ranch that he could barely feel touch. But two days ago, they were soft from age, frequent massages and Lubriderm. In his right mind, he would have hated their softness.
During his final five days, I held vigil over them because I didn’t want him to feel me let go. My thought was irrational because he had dementia, but somehow, I believed that he knew that the hands that gripped his were mine. But as his death grew closer, I realized there was a different reason I held them so tightly. It had nothing to do with me comforting him.
Just before he died, his pneumonia caused his temperature to spike to 106.7. Even as a pediatrician, I had never seen such a high fever. I hated the fire that death brought. It hurt my hands. It caused him to suffer and I couldn’t do a thing about it.I tried to hold on through the fire but it hurt. So I sobbed. How could his hands hurt me? Death was ugly.
Suddenly a stream of coolness shot into his hands. As quickly as this happened, he opened his eyes so wide that it startled everyone around his bed. He had been in a coma for five days. The nurse on the side of his bed shouted, “Wally, what do you see?” My sister jumped up from her chair.He took several deep, long breaths. The marbles that rolled in his chest from the pneumonia disappeared. His face quieted and he exhaled for the last time.
What did he see? Was it God? Was it an angel-or Jesus? One day I’ll know, but for the meantime, I don’t care because there is one thing that I know for sure. Someone poured love over him and embraced him. I saw it all over his face and I felt it in his hands.
In that moment I recognized the real reason that I held onto his hands for so long. It wasn’t because I wanted him to feel loved. I held on because he didn’t want me to miss his final gift. He wanted me to see that God is real. The great mystery is, that he couldn’t have done this alone. He was collaborating with God; rather God was collaborating with him.
I will miss you Daddy. But for now I thank you that until your last breath, you gave me good gifts. And to the God that loves us more than we can fathom, I give even bigger thanks.