I walked into the hospital room and began to back out again in confusion. The young man sitting in a chair upholstered in sanitary white plastic stood up. A lanyard with a picture ID identified him as hospital staff.
“Who are you looking for, ma’am?” he asked quietly.
“My dad, Bob Green,” I replied just as softly, not wanting to wake the elderly gentleman in the bed. He was breathing through an oxygen mask with great effort, more like labored, gulping sighs than the easy breaths we all take for granted. Wisps of thin white hair fluffed crazily above the straps on either side of the mask.
My hand was on the doorframe and I turned, ready to go back to the curved desk at the end of the hall where Mom had stopped to chat with one of the nurses. We had come to pick Dad up and take him home – he’d had throat surgery to remove a nodule of cancer a few days before and was chomping at the bit over the phone the night before, impatient to get back to his La-Z-Boy and big screen TV.
“Come get me out of this hellhole,” were his exact words, if I recall correctly. Not the most "patient" patient, if you get my drift? Obviously, I was in the wrong room.
“This is Mr. Green, ma’am,” the young man said. “As you can see, he’s had a little setback. I’m sitting with him. Mr. Green? Mr. Green! Your daughter’s here!” Loudly. As though the elderly man’s breathing difficulty affected his hearing as well.
The old man’s eyes opened and I walked back into the room, stunned. Who was this tiny, diminished man with wispy hair, slack jaw, hands trembling and pulling at IV tubes in agitation as he desperately raked in air through his mouth – this frail face with my father’s eyes?
This wasn’t possible – I had argued with Dad about which football team is the greatest over coffee on their back deck just the weekend before (Iowa [of course] vs. Iowa State [his alma mater]). I forgave him his prejudice in the matter. This was not the same man. It couldn’t be. And yet it was.
The man in this bed was unrecognizable . . . until he smiled. Tremulous, but still . . . Daddy’s smile. He reached up a hand to play with the colored stones in the necklace I was wearing and I burst into tears. He was Daddy . . . and yet he wasn’t, you understand?
He died just hours later. My niece and I stood on either side of the hospital bed and held his hands till the end. I watched his face when he hitched in his very last breath and exhaled it in a final rattling sigh. He wasn’t smiling.
At some point during every day since then, I find myself wondering why I didn’t recognize my father until he smiled. And I think about the people we all have in our lives – family, friends, coworkers - the faces you see every day in the grocery store or gas station.
The greatest gift you can give someone is your smile. I can’t randomly think of anyone I know without seeing a smile on their face and I’ll bet you can’t, either. Given a choice, people choose happiness. There’s hope for us yet.
In the end, I just want to say (because it’s almost Father’s Day and on Father’s Day you tell the truth <grin>) “I love you and miss you, my Papoo – more than anyone will ever know.”
And that’s all I have to say about that. Hug your dad, OK?