In the South and especially if you grew up in the country, the evening meal is not formally called dinner - it is supper - and the noon meal is dinner. There are variations of this, of course, but when I was a child I rarely heard the term "let's do lunch" or "let's go out to dinner."
Last Monday evening I had the privilege of having an intimate meal with my father. In his honor, I shall deem it supper. My mother tends to hover when I visit. My dad and I rarely have time to spend alone and really talk. This time, however, for some reason, she left the room and took her meal elsewhere. I found myself staring tenderly at my date for the evening, all decked out in a Carolina Tarheels sweatshirt and matching pajama bottoms. I couldn't believe my luck.
He's been quite ill for several years and in declining health; in fact, we have stood by his hospital bed and said our goodbyes twice in the last year. Each time he shocked the supper out of all of us and came home. I wrote about one such experience in the fall of 2006 in this post called An Imaginary Conversation With Daddy. I really didn't expect to be sitting across from him sharing a meal ten months later without tubes and emergency respirators and such.
During that time of intensive care rooms and Living Will conversations I heard the man who'd doubted and loathed man-made denominational practices his whole life say, "When the good Lord decides it's time for me to go, I'll go."
This statement was remarkable to me for two reasons...
My father was never a religious man. And talking about God was out of the question. The only time I've ever seen him in a church was to attend a funeral, some type of ceremony or hear me sing somewhere. He had a scathing skepticism for piety and piddling one's time away in a pew. When he became desperately ill with complications from diabetes and heart disease, all that changed. He will never be a preachy sort and there isn't a judgmental bone in his body, but now, he watches Sunday morning preaching with Charles Stanley from his recliner in the living room. He is his own amen corner.
I'm sure Dr. Stanley appreciates the sentiment but daddy could care less who hears.
Or who doesn't.
He still mistrusts most things evangelical but has gained a private and personal respect for the experience of "knowing God." As a child, my grandfather was the one who taught me about faith and I am eternally thankful for that. My father would have none of it.
As sure as he used to be about those "hypocrites down the street in their Baptist Sunday suits" - he is just as sure now that what one wore underneath was what mattered anyhow. And in the battlefield of facing his own mortality, he quietly changed his clothing while no one was looking. He was never one for fine suitery, but these days, my father is full of something akin to peace.
It is a beautiful thing to watch.
And he's failing.
The hugs I missed growing up are now painfully and achingly bittersweet when I visit - because I know his time is short - and so does he. Of course, we've been saying that for several years now, and each time he lives to prove us wrong; this time, however, there is something different about his resolve. His gait is steady. His eyes hold a let's-cut-to-the-chase-and-not-waste-time look, and these days, his hand grabs mine haphazardly at times and holds on, each finger curled around my own, spelling all the I love yous I never heard. Fifty years of silence has melted with the covering of that strong smoldering father shadow, and suddenly, the bruises -mine and his - matter not. My father's wrinkled and well-worn mantle has risen at the eleventh hour.
I wonder if he knows - as I do - what time it is.
I look into his dark brown eyes and see my own - the one thing from him that is undeniably tethered between us. His features, his humor, his laugh, and for the first time tonight, I see something I've never seen before.
I need to ask him a million questions. I am still a babe and need the blanket of his wisdom. I don't know what to ask. I don't know what to say. If I say too much it might break the spell. If I say too little I might regret. I want time to stop so that I can sit with him and watch.
I can't breathe.
Somehow, I know he has fences of his own to climb - with me.
Is it my imagination? There are words scrawled behind the deep brown. Of that I am sure....but why do I suddenly feel like a newborn baby at his rebirth? It is his resurrection, not a therapeutic opportunity for father and daughter. It is hardly necessary. Love covers all the dross that clouded our turbulent timetable.
All that matters is my spoon on the side of the bowl at this moment, his careful buttering of my mother's pan-fried cornmeal
and the wink. Oh the wink. I would give insane amounts of serious anything to be able to feel -in the eternal realm of what the hell matters in this world - the power in that crooked grin of his - volumes of unmistakable adoration found in one tired twinkling brown eye.
He knows a secret.
Down the hall from the supper table is a room equipped with a Hospice bed and an oxygen tank. He was not supposed to ever leave that bed. They sent him home to die with morphine and mercy. Three nights in that thing and he moved back into his own room, used a walker to get about and refused to give in. No oxygen. No Hospice. No way.
Always his way.
A few months ago I sat with him once again in the evening in his hospital room. In typical fashion, he'd just been flirting with the nurse on duty when the doctor came in to discuss - of all things - the cheery subject of DNR aka Do Not Resuscitate. His surgeon was about to go on vacation and they needed his decision "just in case."
After some discussion with the doctor and a few strokes of the pen, my dad sat up on the edge of the bed in his less-than-dignified paper thin gown and frighteningly paper-thin skin, looked me straight in the eye and said very matter-of-factly, "Sis, I've lived a good long life. I've done a lot of things I wanted to do. Whatever happens is OK with me."
This was not bravery talking.
This was not drama.
He meant every word.
I had a teary conversation with him, trying to convince him that he shouldn't give up no matter what - a million adages he would have told me had the tables been turned - but it wasn't about me. Not at all.
This was about his resolve, his understanding, his making peace with the world - and the inner joy he'd somehow stumbled into with his Maker. Clearly shining in his eyes was a love for me that found no need for hesitation. With his salvation came my own. What he had just given me was a gift.
I was no longer afraid
because he was no longer afraid.
And so this week when I sat down to have a simple meal with my father
in the tiny house he'd built himself fifty years ago, at a tiny table laden with pinto beans, homemade cornbread, onions, tomatoes from his garden, mashed potatoes and stewed cabbage
- I saw my father for the first time in a different light. The way I wish he could have been when I was a little girl.
And yet, the transformation before my eyes might well be one of the truest examples of what happens when a person forever changes on the inside that I've ever seen unfold.
I have no idea exactly when or how he came to the conclusion that "all that God stuff" wasn't "bull" as he used to tell me. And it really doesn't matter.
It was, indeed, a fine supper.
My mind wandered back three years ago. I'd had an emergency appendectomy and was home alone recuperating. Knock knock. In hobbles Daddy. He came to my door carrying a sack of apples, his homegrown tomatoes, a new chain for the garage door and two quarts of WD40. He'd just gotten out of the hospital.
He wasn't even supposed to be driving, much less the twenty mile trip to Bloggingham in his over sized Cadillac. He could barely see over the steering wheel - and with that Braves baseball cap hiding the sun he looked like a scrunched up kid illegally taking the car for a spin. "Daddy! What are you DOING?" I asked. "You're in no shape to be out like this. I'm really fine." I instantly knew I'd said the wrong thing. He was hurt. His helping was helping. His helping was helping him. Number one daughter needed to hush.
With hardly a word he toted the paper grocery sack to the kitchen, sat it down on the counter, instructed me which window to set the tomatoes in for the best light and "not to wait too long to eat them" and went straight back out the front door. Mission accomplished. He paused at the door (on purpose) and I kissed his cheek. "Thank you," I said. "I feel better now." Momentarily feeling like the parent instead, I added, "But you take care of yourself and go on home and get some rest."
"Oh I'm alright, sis," he said, and started to leave again, pushing the door open and carefully placing his feeble foot on the porch. It pains me to watch him. His slow-moving once-a-brilliant-ballplayer-body shuffled cautiously onto the step before turning back one more time to twinkle a whimsical wink my way and said with a smile,
"I'm OK if you're OK."
I'd forgotten about that sack of apples until now. His feeble hands shook as he finished the last bit of soup from his favorite food - pinto beans with onions. Trembling fingers and all - he was happy. Number One daughter was humbled.
"Eat that last piece of cornbread, Mimi" he coaxes with a you-really-need-to-eat-more look, as if his thinness has suddenly morphed into a hulk-like presence.
I start to protest but change my mind.
He is full of overdue father words and I so need to hear them.
"OK, daddy. I will."
And I did.
Update: This piece was originally posted September 2007. Today I will visit my dad again for Father's Day 2008. He is doing well. I imagine his tomatoes are just right....See you tomorrow for Monday Mimisms. Happy Father's Day to you.