Lying beside my husband, I traced his brow bone with my index finger and played with the three little white beard hairs that all grew beside one another on his chin. His handsome face was relaxed and he was sleeping soundly, heart beating steadily. No worry lines showed and his beautiful brown eyes were now closed to the haunting grief that had flooded him last night.
We had just gotten home from dropping my stepdaughter off at her mother's house, about 30 miles away. We dropped her off on our way home from Kansas City, where we attended a friend's baptism for her infant daughter and her spouse. Rick went inside with my stepson and I stayed outside chatting with the neighbor. Pretty soon, Rick came outside, talking on the phone and furiously waved at me to come back over. My heart sunk, as my sandals furiously weaved through the neighbor's hostas and I was haphazardly babbling, "Sorry, sorry, sorry" for trampling through their landscaping.
I knew the instant he waved that it was his Dad. As we were driving home that evening, we were just outside of the town where my stepdaughter lived with her mother, and I had this feeling of dread. I thought then that Ernie was going to die very soon and how would Rick and the kids react. I shook it off as just my anxiety playing mind games. Less than an hour later, we received the news.
Grief poured out of my husband's eyes and sobs wracked his wide shoulders, as he tried to process the information. The anguish was elemental and, like water, ebbed and flowed through him. At times he would sit and contemplate, quietly reflecting on his father. The next minute he would rasp, "I miss him so much" and the tears would frantically chase each other down his cheeks to crash at his feet.
Rick expressed regret over the times in his life that he didn't appreciate his father as much as he could have. He bemoaned the fact that he couldn't make it all up to him the way he felt he should have. Rick was eternally grateful that we were all able to see him one last time, a few weeks before. My husband was utterly devastated, his spirit crushed. He would talk about his Dad, the steady and stable, unshakeable rock. A man who, in his prime, could bring a high school football player to his knees, just by placing a giant hand on their shoulders. He could outrun his kids well into his forties. He sent his teenage son, kicked out by his unbalanced mother in high school, what he could, even though he was barely able to do so.
That's the moment that my husband said he truly understood that his Dad loved him unconditionally. His father welcomed him home with open arms, when Rick wasn't able to sustain himself on his own, once passing out from malnutrition in high school, because he didn't make enough working nights to pay for his rent AND food. His Dad, afraid Rick would leave again, allowed his son liberties he probably wouldn't have under normal circumstances. Rick would bemusedly consider the times that he was out far later than a high school kid should have been, drinking and carrying on, crawling into bed at the crack of dawn on a Sunday morning, only to have his father bellow downstairs for the boys to get ready for church.
His father was a big, burly man, who in his declining health, started gaining a lot of weight in his belly and had to rely heavily on oxygen forced into his nostrils, to keep him from passing out. The last time we saw him, he asked Rick to take a look at the mower out in the barn and Ernie accompanied his son in the truck. Rick recalled this torturously last evening. He said that he knew his Dad didn't care about the mower, but only wanted to go out to the barn one last time. As we were getting ready to head out, Ernie asked his granddaughter, my stepdaughter, to help him up. She assisted him, arm locked with his, to his recliner, and helped get him settled. After some long, lingering hugs, we finally left.
So it is today, that my husband opened his eyes, pulled me close into the crook of his arm, and sighed heavily. Today begins the heavy task of preparing to say goodbye to this man, this unshakeable rock, that we all clung to like moss. My husband got out of bed, scrubbed his tear-stained face, and ran his hands through his shaggy hair. He grabbed his one good suit to take to the cleaners and left to get a haircut. The deep brown sodden eyes gave me a lingering, woeful look, and took a breath. There were tasks to be completed. This steady man, so much like his father, will have several more devastating days ahead. Last night, in reflection, when he felt miserable and completely swathed in grief and loneliness, my husband said something both utterly soulful and completely heartbreaking. His rejoinder to me stating the timeless platitudes of loss, saying once again that Ernie was in a better place and at peace, was to state that he knew he would be a great man if he could leave half the legacy that his father Ernie had left on this earth. What he doesn't realize is that he's already well on his way.