It made him sad, leaving before the ending. Not just the ending of “Lost,” a television drama he was hooked on. It made him sad to leave us, too, his family.
But he knew there was more.
“I think they are all in Purgatory,” he said a few weeks after “Lost” premiered. The popular weekly series, which aired on Wednesday nights, was about a group of people who had survived a plane crash and were living on an island that seemed to exist nowhere in the real world. The show, with its twists and turns, fascinated my father. When Season 1 ended in May 2005 he said, “I can’t wait for Season 2.”
But when September came and Season 2 began, my father was in his own Purgatory. Bone cancer wasn’t just killing him. It was determined to torture him first.
My father was not afraid of dying. About cancer and pain and life and death, he was philosophical. “I’ve been lucky,” he’d tell you.
He did tell us. After his diagnosis, he sat down and wrote an essay he titled, “THE LAST HURRAH” (all capital letters) in which he wrote of his many blessings. “I have a great wife (Louise) with very good doctors. I was blessed with Dorothy (WIFE) (again, all capitals), who passed away too early in life. I was blessed with my daughter, Beverly, who has three great children.” “I lost 10 pounds in two weeks which means I can eat more Irish bread.” “Today is the ninth day of radiation and the pain in my side and my back is down to a one,” he wrote.
And then two days after he finished radiation, bad news: “The pain in my lower back is back to an eight.”
I watched him battle with that pain. He was a strong and determined man. He fought in World War II. He was a police officer for 25 years. (A sergeant, he’d tell you.) He changed his own oil and tires and carried me from the car to my upstairs bedroom every time I fell asleep at the drive-in, even when I was 9, 10, and 11 and big enough to wake up and walk. He carried me in so many ways over the years. He was indestructible. He was my hero. He was my father.
Even as he lay dying, he chose to play these roles.
“I’m fine. Go home. You look tired,” he’d say, shooing me out of the hospital if I stayed a minute longer than an hour. But the next day when I came back and pulled up a chair and sat by his side? He’d smile. Until an hour passed and he shoed me out again.
Before pain incapacitated him, he had organized everything so we’d be OK without him. He made files and labeled them with embossing tape he bought at Home Depot. He dated old photographs with this tape and put the photographs in books he labeled. He printed and dated every column in which I mentioned my mother or him.
“Do you really believe in Purgatory, Dad?” I asked him one afternoon when the pain was down to a three, and we were laughing and talking about “Lost” again.
“I’m not sure about Purgatory. What I think is that you get a choice. You can choose Heaven. Or you can choose to come back.” He paused then and looked out the window. It was a hot and sunny day in late August, a picture perfect day right out of a guidebook. “If I could come back as a doctor and save lives. If I were given the right mother and father,” he mused.
And then he turned from the window and shook his head and said more to himself than to me, “No. I don’t want to come back. I’ve had too much of this life. I choose Heaven. I want to go back to your mother, when we were young, before the bad times began. Louise would go back to her first husband, too, when they were young and happy.”
He smiled then. A real smile. “Go home,” he said. I wrote down his words in my reporter’s notebook so I wouldn’t forget. And came home and tore out the pages and pasted them in my journal.
My father died six weeks later, at his home, on sheets I bought at Marshalls. New sheets. New pillows. A new comforter.
But nothing could make him comfortable. He suffered.
“My Darling Daughter,” he wrote in his last e-mail to me. “Life is the way it is. Think how lucky I have been, watching my grandchildren grow up, seeing my great-grandchildren enter this world.”
“My Darling Father,” I write to him today, “I was lucky, too.”
Beverly Beckham’s column appears every two weeks. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.