Story by Peter Woodruff
“Promise me two things”
Not today, Dad, I thought. Please not today. But my plea went unheeded. When my father had something to say, he said it.
“Promise me I’ll die in my own bed.”
Really, Dad, can’t this wait?
“Promise me I won’t die alone.”
There it was. Almost three years ago Dad asked me to make those promises. Foolishly, I promised him he would die in his own bed, and he wouldn’t die alone. Predictably, I broke both promises.
I gazed at my two-year-old grandson. Yes, two years old today, his birthday. I was babysitting while his dad and mom shopped, buying, decorations, an expensive bakery cake and overly indulgent gifts for the party later in the afternoon.
“Promise me two things.”
He wouldn’t let up. Stubborn in life, he was just as stubborn in death. Or perhaps that was me, stubborn in my own right. And why not? I was his daughter, one of three. We all seemed to have inherited his stubborn gene. Thanks, Dad.
“Promise me two things.” The voice from the grave. Or was it simply my own guilt ridden imagination? Whichever, I wished it would leave me alone today. Come on, Dad, let me enjoy my grandson’s birthday.
The little boy called to me, wanted me to see the masterpiece he was constructing in my yard. I didn’t want to look just now. I even resented the intrusion a little. Oh, I love my grandson. Love him? I adore him, worship the ground he walks upon; and crawls upon, falls upon. . . Lord, this kid was getting a bath before his party. But I wanted to be alone with my thoughts. I wanted to focus my attention on something other than my Dad and my Grandson. But it was not to be. Dad spoke from the grave, Grandson spoke from the ground.
First things first. I lavished praise and admiration on the little fellow’s house – fort – whatever. Okay, so it looked like a pile of sticks. It was his, so in my mind a work of art. He beamed up at me, a smile that never failed to warm my heart. I blinked back my tears. That was the easy part.
Dad was more difficult to handle. Especially today, two years after my beautiful grandson was born. It was also two years to the day following my dad’s death.
A memory so vivid. I sat by my dad’s hospital bed, his home for the last month. Yes, it had been a full month since I had broken my first promise. But what else could I have done? The battle against his cancer was lost. All that was left was to keep him comfortable and manage his pain. My sisters were right. It was too big a task for me, for all of us. So we, I, decided his remaining days would be in a hospital.
I spent most of my time with him. When I wasn’t there, one of my sisters sat in the room. Determined to keep one of my promises, I made sure he was never alone.
And then came that blessed, horrible day, exactly two years ago.
It was early morning. I was alone with Dad, would be until the evening when one of my sisters promised to spell me. My son called on my cell, exuberant. It’s started! Water broke. Contractions every two to three minutes. Other intimate details of his wife’s labor I had no need to know about. But that was my son. Once he got started, there was no stopping him. He’s an awful lot like his mom in that respect.
I did get one useful piece of information from him. They were in transit to the very hospital Dad and I had called home for the last several weeks. Now, if only my daughter-in-law could hold off delivery until my sister came.
A few more calls from my son. Then silence. For the next two hours I stared at my phone, willing it to ring, to bring news. The phone stared back, refusing to divulge any information. I heard only my dad’s respiration and cardiac monitor, monotonous sounds, my dad’s only voice for over a week.
I couldn’t stand it. I had to run to the maternity ward and see if all was well. My dad had been stable for several days. He certainly would last the short time it would take me to check on my daughter-in-law.
A nurse directed me to the maternity ward, two floors up. Did I imagine that look she gave me? Not exactly accusatory, more puzzled, as if not understanding how I could abandon my duty at the last. But then, it may just be my memory in hindsight.
Not willing to wait for the elevator, I sprinted up the stairs, bursting into the maternity ward like an insane person. A large, no-nonsense nurse stopped me in my tracks. I told her my story, she promised to look into it. She sauntered off, not about to be rushed by the impatient madwoman, who was barely half her height anyway.
After about ten years, or more likely, ten minutes, big nurse returned. Mother is about to deliver. Yes, everything is fine. No, you can’t go in. Shall I show you to the family waiting room?
I declined, thanking the nurse as I headed back to the stairs. The feeling came to me one flight between the maternity ward and my dad’s floor. I stopped, cried out. I knew it, felt it. In desperation I flew down the remaining flight and burst out onto the floor.
I was too late. I knew before I reached his room, before I saw the nurses unhook his monitors. I broke my second promise. Dad had died alone.
It had been a strange day, an emotionally exhausting day. Joy, sorrow, guilt. The miracle of new life, my grandson, and a terrible failure, my broken promise. I grieved for my father, still grieve for him. The grief has tempered with time. But not the guilt. Nor the overpowering sense of failure. Two years later my father still spoke from the grave, accusing, stern.
“Promise me I will die in my own bed.”
“Promise me I won’t die alone.”
It was all too much. I sat on the grass and wept, my head buried in my hands.
I felt two little hands, little but strong, pull my own hands away from my face. I looked into the smiling face of my Grandson.
I blinked, looked at him closely. Did he just say . . .
The little boy pulled on my hand, compelled me to stand and follow him into the house. He led me into my living room and pointed to a drawer in the desk.
I opened the drawer and took out the picture, Dad’s s picture, the framed eight by ten I had stashed in the drawer over a year ago, hoping in vain to silence the voice.
My father, a handsome man, smiling out at a world full of optimism and hope. The picture been taken six months before the diagnoses, before the world became full of suffering and pain.
“Poppa!” My grandson held the picture, smiling. But it was Dad’s smile I saw on the little boy’s face. A smile full of optimism and hope.
How had he known about that photo? How did he know it was his great grandfather? I had never shown him the picture, had never taken it out of the drawer since shortly after my dad’s death.
Maybe there is a perfectly logical explanation. Then again. . . I discovered a couple of things since that day in the hospital. First, the delivery room where my grandson was born was immediately above my dad’s room, with one floor in-between. Second, the official time of birth and the official time of death were exactly the same.
A new life entering the world exactly the moment an old life leaves. Could these two lives have somehow passed each other, maybe even knew each other? Two souls passing, one entering the world, the other departing. Perhaps Dad didn’t die alone after all.
Of course I’ll never really know. My dad still talks to me on occasion. His words still make me cry, but for a different reason.
“This is my daughter, with whom I am well pleased.”