A few weeks ago, my father was seriously ill and also 1,243 miles away. While flying to him, I thought back to our conversation mere weeks ago, when I was in Florida for the winter and we saw each other at least once a week, just the two of us sitting in chairs at my sunroom table where we enjoyed the majestic palms stretching down the boulevard. On these visits, Dad became softer with me, more open emotionally, and I felt I could talk to him about anything.
I asked him about my grandmother, his mother, who had died in Florida when I was a teenager. I remember my father in 1971, dressed for his flight down south. In his sharply creased trousers and his caramel colored sweater with the black strip over a crisp white shirt, he looked as handsome as a movie star. His normal handsome was James Dean but this handsome was toned down, more serious and refined, as befitted the occasion. I asked him to take me with him and he said it wasn’t possible.
I loved my grandmother so much, and had missed her since she’d made the permanent move south. I’d been down to see her a few times, she’d been north a few times, too, always with crates of oranges and grapefruit, but this was different. This might be the last time. But when Dad said no, he meant it. I mourned for her from afar, the only person who’d ever shown me physical affection when I was a child. She hugged me tight. She held me in her arms. She kissed me and told me she loved me. She put her hand in mine and held tight. Nobody else in our family did those things. Not my parents or my maternal grandparents. For a long time, I thought that meant Grandma Hines was the only person who really loved me. And she was dying. Or maybe already dead.
“I never made it in time,” my dad confessed almost fifty years later as we sat in the same Florida sun where many generations of his mother’s family had been born and raised. “She was dead when I got there.” We sat in silence, remembering the robust six-foot tall woman with the warm heart and arms that wrapped around you like a love package. I noted the guilt in my father’s voice as he recalled his inability to see his mother one last time. He’d been unreachable for awhile, working out of town or maybe just unavailable. We weren’t a real family then. Neither Dad nor I lived with my brothers and mom. Mom had a habit of kicking us both out with regularity, but the shadow of death had brought the whole family together for a little while.
Now I was flying to see my father under similar conditions. Would I make it in time? It had been such a difficult decision to go back to Florida. I’d only been home from my extended winter stay for two weeks. I’d sorely missed my husband those winter months. I didn’t want to leave him again so soon, but remembering the regret my dad had held on to all these years made me determined to see him, maybe for the last time.
My brother came down too. I got to St Pete just a bit before him, rented a car at the tiny airport, and dumped my bags in the condo. Then I went to the hospital. My dad was not my dad. He was in intensive care, as his vitals were not good, he looked so pale, hooked up to many machines that jabbed him with needles up and down his arms. His eyes were closed. I told the nurse I’d just sit with him. I’d made the right decision to come; he wasn’t dead yet, but he looked terrifyingly near it.
My hand reached for the one part of his arm that wasn’t taped to his skin with an IV. His eyes fluttered open. When he recognized me, his whole face smiled. We chatted in our familiar way. The doctor came and listed the possible grim outcomes. It could be this or that or the other or a combination. But they had a plan and were giving medication and running tests. I was warily optimistic. My brother joined us and soon I left so Dad and Bob could have some one on one time.
And thus we went on, my brother and I making sure each day one of us went to the hospital early and the other later. We’d then debrief each other via phone or text. My brother was staying at my dad’s condo, but he came to mine one day and we sat and talked about a lot of difficult things, including our mother, politics and religion.
Since Trump has been elected, I’ve wanted to know what his supporters think of him now. But I didn’t want to risk the friendships that had survived the election, so I had stayed silent. Bob said “I hate his ego but I love the economy. Nearly everybody has a job. The market’s doing great and thank God we aren’t granting asylum to busloads of thugs who not only get medical insurance but Social Security! Did you know Mexico supplies bus transport and pays their fare to our border?”
I didn’t and still find it difficult to believe that last one. I need Snopes for that. But, aside from saying having a job was not the same as earning a living wage, I was able to agree in theory with the rest of it. Our views on both politics and religion differ wildly but somehow that day we found common ground.
I’m not one to try to convince another they should see things (like the inexplicable workings of the universe or our current president) as I do. But my brother, a religious scholar of the evangelical sort, who studies both Hebrew and Greek, the better to translate God’s Word, has a more open line to the Holy Spirit than me. I told him our octogenarian father had heartbreakingly confided, during one of our weekly winter talks, that he was afraid of dying. I asked Bob if he knew of a way to help ease our dad’s mind on that. If Dad was afraid when he was healthy, what must he be suffering now? My brother agreed to have a chat with Dad about Jesus.
Every day we watched our dad improve bit by bit. The first bite of food. The first successful procedure. The final diagnosis, which was not as bad as we thought. He needed to heal from an infection and, in due time, have a gall bladder operation.
Whoosh, the relief.
Another blessing, my brother had felt the spirit come upon him and had talked to Dad about life after death. Dad, who moved from atheist to agnostic as he aged, heard the good news that heaven was real and awaited him whenever his sojourn on this planet ended.
The next day during my hospital visit, I said, “So Dad, Bobby tells me he talked to you about God and heaven.” Dad, still in a world of hurt and under the influence of heavy pain killers, said “Yes, and it was good news, but, Cindy, what about the frog?”
“Frog?” He had me stumped, so tried to explain further. “You know, the one that you say we all came from.” Ah, I got it now. Dad meant the primordial soup that created single cell organisms from which, over millennia, humanity evolved. My brother and I had not discussed the frog. Bob had agreed with me when I said I didn’t think religion and science had to be irreconcilable. “Absolutely,” he’d said, “they complement each other.” We talked about black holes and dark matter and the Great Attractor, all of which to me seem cohorts of a mysterious, maybe even benevolent, universe. But we didn’t talk about the frog. I knew my brother takes the Bible quite literally and that there was a line at which we could meet and where that line could not be crossed.
I had explained evolution to Dad during one winter visit. Neither of my parents finished high school, as they were very busy being teenage parents, so biology and the origin of the species is not something on their everyday minds. Dad found all of what I’d said interesting but pretty darn unbelievable. He didn’t like thinking he was descended from mud, but neither did he absolutely believe the Bible, which he had read some years ago, perhaps in an attempt to lift the burden of disbelief. “Some of those guys were nuts,” is the way Dad put it.
“Dad,” I said, “I know Bobby thinks the earth and all its creatures were created in a single week. But Einstein’s time-motion theory of relativity proved that everything that has ever happened or will happen in the future is also happening now, all at once.” His eyes wandered to the clock on the wall. I tried to simplify the explanation. “Time, as we think of it, is a human construct that helps us make sense of our lives in the world now. But time, when considered with motion over the broad range of the known universe, really is happening all at once. God’s ‘week’ could have been billions of years. God could have dabbled with his creations for an eternity.”
Dad closed his eyes for a minute. Science is a wearying subject for many people, particularly those flying high on opioids. When he opened his eyes again, he said, “But Cindy, you have to admit, most of us don’t look a damn thing like frogs.” Dad was back. And he wouldn’t be dying any day soon. He had too much thinking to do, sorting out the universe, frogs, and his own sprogs.