I opened my eyes.
Darkness. Had it happened?
No, the fire in my gut and pounding behind my eyes from another restless night confirmed I was still alive. Then, “Good morning, Dad. Time to wake up.” My daughter’s voice was always a welcome treat, and today, even more so.
She threw open the shades. Late-winter sunshine poured through the window, so sharp the dust magically materialized in the air like specks on an X-ray. I squeezed my eyelids tighter to block the light. No luck.
“How’d you sleep?” she chirped.
“Honey, I haven’t slept in days.” The lack of rest clouded my sight. I instinctively rubbed my eyes, hoping they’d clear.
“Oh, come on.” She cheerfully tugged at the blankets tucked around my chin. “I have your breakfast going downstairs. Eat a little something and you’ll feel better.”
“I doubt it.”
“Because today’s the day.”
“What’s so special about today?” Jenny flowed around the room like a spring breeze, my twenty-eight-year-old angel picking my clothes from the floor, straightening the blankets at my feet, fluffing the pillows behind my head. Maybe – probably? – for the last time.
“You know very well.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“I’m going to die today.”
Jenny slammed to a halt. Her head snapped around. Her eyes, mirroring her smiling demeanor only a few seconds ago now lasered her anger. “Stop saying that, Dad, that’s not true and you know it.”
“But it is true. That’s what that idiot doctor told me. He said, ‘A year, maybe more.’”
“Right,” Jenny said. “A year, maybe more.”
“I’m sorry honey, I appreciate your optimism, but I’m pretty sure what he said was, ‘A year, maybe more.’ Today is one year since he pronounced my death sentence, so…”
Jenny sat at the end of the bed. “OK, fine, if you insist on being like this, then please let me know when you’re going to expire so I can plan the rest of my day. I have other things to do than to sit around here waiting to hear your death rattle.”
Her flat stare was deadpanned proof of her wit, dry as a dinosaur bone in the desert. Jenny’s sense of humor was a welcome gift from her mother, and a reminder of the only other woman I ever loved. Still, it stung sometimes. “Ouch! That hurts. Your mother, rest her soul, would have never talked to a dying man that way.”
Jenny’s head drooped under the weight of a smile. “Oh yes she would’ve. If she’d lived, she would have threatened to kill you herself for talking like this.”
She laughed, and I smiled too, then took her left hand. My thumb gently caressed her beautiful ring signifying her marriage to a wonderful young man who loved her very much. Not as much as me, but enough to understand when she started spending a night, then two, now three or four a week babysitting me as this goddamned disease stole my life one minute at a time. Which is to say, enough to earn a father’s respect and appreciation. It had been bad enough losing my darling wife to her own illness just as I was diagnosed.
“You sure are one special kid,” I said, choking on the whispered words, struggling against a wave of tears.
“I’m not a kid, Daddy. I’m a big girl.” She smiled easily. Our secret code for the inside joke she’d been making to me since she was six. Memories of her childhood brightly colored by her independent spirit and piss-and-vinegar attitude filled the corners of my mind. “I know honey. I know. I know.” Suddenly, I felt tired. “Do you mind if I rest a bit now?”
Jenny stood and headed toward the bedroom door. “Only if you promise not to die before I come back.”
“I’ll do my best, but I can’t promise anything.”
I don’t know how long I dozed. It felt like a few hours, but it couldn’t have been more than the few minutes Jenny needed to whip up a light breakfast. She set the tray on the dresser and approached the head of the bed.
She gently lifted me under my arms to position me higher on the stack of pillows behind my head. “I brought some green tea, some scrambled eggs and a piece of plain toast. Nothing too heavy. Don’t want to go against your medicine and upset your stomach.”
She turned back to the dresser to get the tray. l waved her off. “Thank you honey, but really, I’m not hungry.”
“Why not? Are you sick?”
“Well, I’m going to be dead soon, if that’s what you mean.”
“Daddy, stop that, please,” Jenny said. “It really upsets me when you talk that way. And no, that’s not what I mean.”
“Alright, I’m sorry. My stomach is fine.” I tapped on my forehead. “I have a lot on my mind is all, with it being my last…” I caught myself and sheepishly avoided Jenny’s glare.
She circled the bed and laid next to me, propped on her elbow so I didn’t have to turn too much. Always thoughtful, this one, even down to the end.
“OK,” Jenny said, “for the sake of argument, let’s say that today is your very last day on this earth. What is so heavy on your mind that you won’t eat the gourmet breakfast I made?”
How does one answer such an immense, intimate question? Especially to a person – the only person — one holds above all others? Carefully, I decided. Delicately, but honestly.
“My sins. My many, many sins.”
Jenny rolled her eyes.
“All right, I’ll bite. What enormous sins have you committed?” she teased.
“Jennifer Ann, I’m serious.” I paused. “I have done some terrible things in my life. Things I am embarrassed about. Ashamed of. Things I feel terrible for doing to you, your mother, lots of people.”
“Wow. Except for when I got in trouble as a kid, the only time you’ve ever used my full name is when you told me Mom had died.” She sat up and turned again now to face me head-on, her arms wrapped around her raised knees. “Sins like what? You didn’t kill anyone, did you?”
“No, of course not.”
“Cheat on Mom?”
I took a breath, exhaled, then took another. “Let’s just say, once or twice some innocent flirting went a few steps past ‘innocent.’ But your mother knew about all of it — and held me accountable.”
Jenny gazed at me, then dropped her eyes. She traced one of the flowers on the bedspread with her finger for a few seconds. “Well, I guess there’s not much to say about that now that Mom is gone. In the big picture, I suppose that’s not such a terrible thing…”
I quickly cut her off. “But that’s not the worst of it. That’s not what’s bothering me.” Now it was my turn to look away from her. My beautiful, smart, intuitive girl. Her sharp, blue eyes could soothe one second and cut to the bone the next contracted with exasperation.
“Alright, I give up! What’s the big sin, Dad?”
“You know, I’m not the religious type…”
“I know, my wedding was one of the only times I’ve ever seen you in church.”
“…Right. So, I don’t say this lightly, but I think I’ve cut my ties with God…or Mother Nature…or the universe…or heaven…whatever you call it.”
“Darn it, Dad, spit it out!”
“I don’t know…” The ideas that had overtaken my mind the last few weeks now struggled to take shape. “This is just hard for me to put into words. I guess, for lack of any better explanation, I’ve come to realize just how disconnected I am from other people.”
Jenny expelled a loud sigh of relief. “Is that all? I thought you had done something really bad.”
“But it is bad, honey. I’ve spent years pushing people away, creating some stupid myth of mystery. I wasted my entire life building walls when I could’ve – should’ve – been building bridges with all the people in my life. And for what? To protect my privacy.”
Jenny’s eyes crinkled and she laughed. “I’m confused. Your job put you in the public eye a lot. I remember people interrupting you all the time, wanting autographs or pictures, at dinner, the movies, ball games,” she said. “I’m just your daughter, so what do I know? But it seems to me like you had good reason to want a little space.”
I’m sure it was the medicine confusing my memory, but for a moment I swore her mother stared back at me. So trusting. So kind. So forgiving.
“Of course, I had a reason. But it’s the worst possible one: I just didn’t want to be bothered. True, I don’t like many people. Most everyone I ever met was thoughtless, self-centered, mean, stupid. But honestly, it was just my own arrogance. My ego was so big, there was no room for anyone else. I created a mountain of bullshit of the highest order. Turns out I was the stupid, petty, small one.”
My hands trembled weakly as I took hers again. “I never wanted anyone near me. I didn’t want to be responsible for another life. Now that I want someone, need someone, there’s no one. I feel so stupid, so…” I dropped my eyes, ashamed of my horrible truth, then raised them again. “I don’t mind being alone, Jenny. But being lonely is a terrible thing.”
A tear wet Jenny’s cheek. “Daddy, I’m so sorry! If I had known I would have come over more, done more!”
“No, no, my love bug! You haven’t done anything wrong. I didn’t mean it that way. Goodness, you’re the only person I have left. I am so grateful you listen to me at all. No, it’s all my own fault.”
My voice caught in my throat as pain knifed through my gut and sucked the air from my lungs. My grip on Jenny’s hands tightened, then released as the ache in my belly ebbed. I breathed a few times to regain my strength, but the new words seemed heavier than usual, draining what little energy I had only a second ago.
“I finally understand what everyone means when they talk about heaven being the shared space between people,” I croaked weakly. “That’s the good news. The bad news is, I realize now that I’ve thrown away the greatest gift God ever gave — the love and friendship of others. And now that it’s too late for me to do anything about it, I’m terrified God will punish me.”
“Punish you how?” Jenny’s soft voice matched her gentle, but firm grip.
“By forcing me to maintain the distance I created. By keeping me away from all the people who cared about me.” I paused, trying to stave off the army of tears I’d been fighting for days.
“By not letting me near the one person who I ever let get close to me. The one person who understood me. Accepted me. Forgave me.” I took a deep breath, held it, then exhaled.
“I am terrified God will never let me see your mother again.”
At long last the tears came. I couldn’t help it. These thoughts had consumed nearly every waking moment the last few days. To hear them out loud from my own mouth somehow made them even more horrible. I felt like Frankenstein that awful moment his monster rose from the table charged with the life he’d given it.
“Oh, Daddy, don’t be silly. God isn’t cruel.”
“Oh Jenny, now who’s being silly? Have you actually read the Bible? How about today’s newspaper? Look around us, Jenny. If God’s not cruel, He’s at least got a wicked sense of humor.”
She took a deep breath, eased her legs over the edge of the bed and slowly, wordlessly stood. She lifted me, fluffed the pillows and lowered me back, then gently kissed my forehead. Like I’d done to her a million times when she was a child. I was grateful for her silence. My swollen throat wouldn’t have allowed a word to pass if she’d said anything.
A minute passed, maybe two. Then, “Dad, for your sake, for all our sakes, I hope and pray and trust and believe with every part of my being that you are wrong,” she said, offering the gentlest, subtlest reprimand I think I’ve ever gotten.
She tucked the blankets around me and opened the window. A soft afternoon breeze, warm enough to suggest spring was just around the corner, danced lightly into the room.
“I believe God forgives our sins, even – especially – if we don’t forgive them ourselves. And that includes the sin of refusing His gifts.”
Jenny lifted the food tray from the dresser and turned to go, but then set it back down. She returned to the bedside, gently nudged me over, took my left hand, and sat.
“Most of all, I believe God even forgives us for forsaking Him. Or Mother Nature. Or the universe. Whatever you call it.”
She smiled and winked at me. One more joke for the road, I guess.
“Otherwise, how would we possibly survive the unthinkable evil that we create? The walls we build between and around each other? The hatred that ignores and belittles God’s love? All the god-forsaken things we do to God’s own creation in God’s name?” Jenny said. “For me, a loving, forgiving God is the only thing that makes any sense in a world that makes no sense at all.”
Suddenly, the air seemed to shimmer with the glittering grace of her conviction. My chest swelled with equal parts sorrow and pride.
“My beautiful child, how did you get to be so wise?” My voice stumbled, heavy with sincere awe for this soul, at once child-like and mature beyond measure, who was the last and final bridge to whatever this world is, and the next world might be.
“I listened to the people around me. Friends. Family. You. Mom,” she said. “Then I listened to my heart.”
Her words were so beautiful and encouraging. Yet, reality gave me little hope, and even less comfort. “That’s all wonderful, and I am glad for you, but I don’t have time now to fix all my mistakes.”
“Sure, you do. There’s always tomorrow.” Jenny bent and kissed my cheek
“But what if there’s no tomorr–”
“There’s always tomorrow, Daddy.” She frowned, giving no ground.
We volleyed for a while longer about the nature of Nature, spirituality, what might come next — whether “next” would be in this room, or somewhere else — and what that might look like wherever or whatever or whenever it came.
We discussed philosophy, religion, politics. We eventually turned to less contentious subjects: memories of her childhood and comparisons of her own young marriage to her mother’s and my early years as a couple. I dozed between debate points, waking to my snores only to find her waiting patiently for me to answer. My admiration for my daughter–and regret for my imminent passing–grew with each bright, intuitive, thoughtful, sharp, funny idea and statement that she spoke.
Finally, the emotional burden of the day weighed heavy on my heart and tugged at my eyelids. The breakfast tray remained untouched on the dresser, as the afternoon sun faded.
“Honey, I’d talk to you forever, if I could. But I’m tired. I think I might really sleep more than a few minutes this time.” My thin laugh sounded more like a whisper than a chuckle. “Do you mind if I take a nap?”
“Of course not! Now close your eyes,” she ordered. “Don’t think too much. Just rest. You’ve had a hard day. I’ll wake you when it’s time for dinner.” She clicked the light switch and pulled the door behind her, leaving it open enough so I could see the light in the hallway.
I lay still, staring into the semi-darkness, afraid I’d once again find myself in the crossfire between the rest I so desperately sought, and the flashing explosions of anxiety that had kept sleep at bay for days.
Jenny’s words rolled through my brain. I thought about her faith in ultimate goodness. Her understanding of the mysteries of love. Her forgiveness of human failing.
My body pointlessly protested the pain building inside with every shallow breath, one relentless brick after another. Yet I felt a new calm. A strange, but welcome sense of peace. I turned toward the glow outside the bedroom door.
Then I closed my eyes.