A year ago today I was heading home to Arkansas, because my Dad was dying.
I had the girls with me; Russ had concerts that weekend, but he was going to join us as quickly as possible. I had mixed feelings about bringing the girls, because none of us had ever done this before and I didn’t know if witnessing the deathwatch of their beloved grandfather would bring comforting closure or be a traumatizing mistake. Madi Rose pretty much took the decision out of my hands– “Of course we’re going,” she told me firmly. “It’s Papa.”
The hospital bed had already been moved into my parent’s bedroom, though Mama had strenuously objected at first. It’s so final and symbolic, that sterile-looking mechanical bed with the formidable iron railings on the side. We knew it meant the beginning of the end for Daddy, but we also knew that in the not-so-secret recesses of Mama’s stubborn little heart, she was still thinking that if she could just get some solid food in him and get him up and moving… Regardless of how many times the hospice nurse (and every dang one of her children) had patiently (and impatiently) explained to her that Daddy was losing his ability to swallow which made eating unpleasant and choking a very real possibility, and assured her that he wasn’t experiencing any sense of hunger because his system was shutting down (blah di blah blah/white noise)– I can’t tell you the number of times that week we would literally catch her in the act of sneaking back to the bedroom with a small dish of applesauce and a determined look on her face. If love and sheer force of will could keep a person alive, Daddy would sitting at their big round oak table right this minute, drinking his morning coffee and reading the Benton Courier.
I had left Daddy’s bedside the Tuesday before, in order to return to Nashville and tape the Homecoming Radio show. I knew the guys would completely understand if I cancelled, but we tape six months worth of shows at a time, and they were already scripted and ready to go. And to be completely honest, I just wasn’t sure that I had a deep need to actually be standing in the room with my father when he drew his last breath. One of the greatest gifts Dad ever gave me is the fact that our relationship was so completely uncomplicated and pure– we were secure in our love for each other, there was no unfinished business, no need for forgiveness to be asked for or given. I didn’t want him to go, but I knew I could release him into the arms of the God he believed in his entire life without regret, whether I was there at the moment it happened or not.
So I made peace with my decision to leave, and I felt strongly that things would unfold the way they were supposed to– if Daddy passed while I was gone, I would accept that, and if I made it back in time to be there, then I would know that was the way it should happen. When I said goodbye to Daddy, he was still aware of things and able to talk little bit. I put on a cheerful face and explained I was going to run home to Nashville for a couple of days to tape the radio show, and then I’d be right back. I told him I’d say hello to Bill for him, and he smiled and nodded. I held his hand and kissed him and said, “I promise I’ll be back on Friday. Don’t skip town or anything, OK?” Another smile. And then I left.
The next couple of days were a whirlwind of activity. The long drive, the Homecoming Radio tapings, and the preparations to leave again were all accompanied by a constant stream of phone calls and Facebook messages checking in on Daddy’s condition. In the meantime, my brother Matt and his wife had arrived in Arkansas, as well as my brother Joel and his family. Daddy was losing a little bit of ground every day, they reported, but was not in any pain. And then it was Friday, so the girls and I packed up and headed home.
What happened next is one of the most treasured memories of my entire life, and though I was completely unaware of it at the time my brother-in-law David actually captured it on film. When I finally saw this photo, I almost shared with all of you here, but it just felt too private and I felt too raw. Now, a year later, this image still makes tears spring to my eyes when I look at it, but recalling the unbearable sweetness of that moment makes me smile, too. And I’m ready for you to see it.
I walked into the house, dropped my bags in the hall and went straight to Daddy’s bedroom. He was resting, but opened his eyes when he heard my voice. His face, almost as familiar to me as my own, looked ancient and pale– until he saw me. He broke into a wide smile of delight, and said my name. “I TOLD you I’d come back,” I said. He reached up a wavering hand, and cupped my face. I kissed his fingers, and then we just stared at each other for a few minutes, grinning like possums, holding tight and not letting go. Within just a few hours, he was no longer able to speak and was drifting in and out of consciousness. He slipped away at around 4 a.m. Easter morning, with all six of his children and two of his grandchildren sleeping under his roof.
I miss you every day, Daddy.
(And Sunday morning the girls and I will eat a big ol’ chocolate bunny in your honor.)