By D.G.  Heath

I notice the caller ID number before I answered the phone. Mom and dad kept in touch with me almost every week since I moved to California. I should have called them this week, but between work and my so called busy social life, I simply forgot. My partner, John and I were living on the peninsula in Belmont Shores, California with the Pacific Ocean to the front of the house and the Bay of Naples on the backside. I lifted the receiver as I took a seat on the sofa, “Hi there! Sorry I haven’t called. What are you guys up to?”

I was surprised to hear my dad’s voice instead of my mom’s. “Well son, I didn’t want to bother you but I thought you’d want to know.” I sensed from the sadness in his tone this was not good news. “I had to put your mother in the hospital yesterday. She’s been having trouble breathing again even with the oxygen machine. It doesn’t look good but they’re doing all they can for her. I’m leaving now to check on her before my cancer treatments at the radiation center. She said not to bother you but you never know what can happen.” Dad was never short for words.

How quickly a late spring day can change. Mom had been suffering from bronchitis and emphysema for several years but she wouldn’t give up smoking.  When they visited us for Thanksgiving at our house in the Tehachapi Mountains, I noticed how the altitude affected her, even though she tried not to show it. But it was dad’s last sentence that worried me.

“I have some vacation time saved up and we aren’t that busy at the store until the big sale in June. Maybe I can fly back for a visit. I’ll check with my manager and see if he can spare me for a few days. I’ll call you back tonight and let you know.”

“Thanks son. I know she’d be happy to see you if you can get away. I have to go now or I’ll be late. We can talk tonight and maybe I’ll know more by then. I love you.”

“Me too.”

Business in the men’s clothing department at Saks Fifth Avenue had dropped to a snail’s pace since the “after Christmas” returns and the January Sale were over. Our next major events were Father’s Day and the Men’s Clothing Sale in June. With three other sales people working in the department, I didn’t think I would be missed for a few days. I checked with the other salesmen first to see if they would mind.

Billy and Michael understood but Marc wanted to know who was going to do my stock work and inventory while I was gone. I told him that would be up to Leith, our department manager and not his worry. Marc had been the top sales person in the department before I came on the scene. He had a cocky attitude and thought he ran the department. Leith said to take as much time as I needed – my job would be there when I returned.

John drove me to the airport the next morning. Sunday flights are always full and I would lose two hours going east to Texas, so I had booked the first direct flight to Dallas-Fort Worth airport, with a return on the following Friday evening. It had been five years since I’d been home. But changing jobs five times in fifteen years, getting settled in my new life on the west coast, meeting my life-time partner and moving six times in that same period could be the reason. Vacations were not spent visiting relatives. However, the urgency in my dad’s voice and his concern for mom convinced me I needed to be there. He said he would pick me up at the airport and we could go straight to the hospital – no need to rent a car.

Having worked most of his life for the railroad as a brakeman and conductor on freight trains, my dad retired at the early age of 62. Diagnosed with mesothelioma cancer two years later, he and mom had named me as executor of their wills. Glenda, my older sister, didn’t like the idea and Carol, my younger sister, couldn’t have cared less.

Our grandfather told me my parents thought I had a better head on my shoulders than either of my sisters. Glenda, my older sister, had been married five times and Carol, who was a year younger than me, had been through three husbands. Neither of them had to work for a living unless they wanted to. I guess that made me the more stable sibling.

The heat and humidity hit me like a sauna as I stepped out the door of the plane and tread down the stairs to the tarmac. Dad was waiting in the lounge – I almost didn’t recognize him. It’s strange how people can age so much when you are not around them daily. On our way to the hospital, I noticed him shaking as he drove. I could tell that the radiation treatments and chemo therapy had taken their toll.

When last I saw him I recalled a vibrant man of sixty, his grey hair, cut in a flat-top and his square jaw always clean shaven, but sitting beside me was someone I didn’t know. The deep wrinkles, sunken cheeks and dark circles under his eyes made his once handsome face like a skeleton. His strong muscular arms were now just sagging skin stretched over bones. Even when he tried to smile I could tell he was hiding the pain.

He said mom was out of intensive care and appeared to be doing better. He asked about John, our jobs and the house in the mountains which had so impressed him. He couldn’t believe we had built it ourselves. In general he needed to talk. His actions told me he wanted to tell me something but didn’t know how to say it. I would learn later what he couldn’t say.

Mom, sitting in up in bed eating some Jell-O when we arrived, smiled as I gave her a kiss on the cheek. “Wow! This is a surprised. When did you get here?”

“Just arrived today. A little bird told me you were in the hospital so I thought I’d come and rescue you.”

“Well, more likely it was probably some old crow.” She winked at dad. “But I’m so happy to see you sweetheart. Is John with you?”

 “Not this time. He couldn’t get off work – some big project or other. You must be feeling better, you look great. Why are they keeping you here? We should take you home.”

“Oh boy! I would love that, but the nasty old doctor needs to run some more test tomorrow so I’ll have to stay here over night.” She grabbed my hand and whispered, “Can you bring me a Lotaburger and some fries? The food here sucks – even this Jell-O.”

To tell the truth, mom was craving a cigarette, I could see it in her eyes. She was ready to get out of that place and light-up. I had tried to convince her and my sisters to stop smoking, but I couldn’t be there to make it happen. Dad had already quit because of his lung cancer. Not that it made much difference after years of breathing asbestos from the brake-shoes on the trains. The doctors said he had from six months to three years left at best, even with the treatments. We visited for a while until mom began to tire. I gave her a hug and said we would see her at noon the next day. “Trust me,” I said, “I’ll have your burger and fries with me.”

My grandfather, known to everyone as Gran, lived with my parents. Mom was an only child and Gran was her father. He cooked dinner at home that evening for the three of us. At the age of 84, he suffered sciatic nerve issues but still drove to work every weekday morning. An accountant for forty-three years with Mobil Oil, he now worked in a small, CPA office a short distance from the house.

Dad, looking exhausted, said he needed some rest. I gave his frail body a hug as he hung on to me. I told him I too was tired and said good night. I slept on the sofa in the living room even though it was a three bedroom house. Gran had his bedroom and my old room was being used for storage.

I awoke to the smell of coffee coming from the kitchen and checked my watch. It was still dark outside and the illuminated dial showed 5:30 am. Gran was an early riser. We had coffee together as we discussed mom’s health. He wanted to go to the hospital with us at noon, so I said we would come by and pick him up at work. My sisters were coming over around ten o’clock to go with us.

The house was still and quiet as I roamed from living room to dining room and kitchen out to the den and dad’s ham-radio workshop remembering the wonderful times we shared as a family. I peeked in my old room but didn’t go in – boxes were stacked everywhere. My sister’s shared room was now Gran’s room and still had their twin beds, a dresser and a vanity with a beveled mirror.

I made myself some breakfast wondering what time dad would be up. I didn’t want to disturbed his much needed rest. Glenda, with her wavy auburn hair, arrived at ten sharp. After we greeted each other, she began bustling around the kitchen. “Where’s dad?” she asked.

“Not up yet. He was tired last night so I didn’t want to wake him too early.”

“Well you need to go wake him now. He’ll want breakfast and we can’t wait all morning. We should be at the hospital before the lunch hour or they’ll shoo us out. They have strict visiting hours you know.” Glenda sounded like an army sergeant barking orders.

I knock on his bedroom door but there was no sound. Perhaps he was in the shower. I open the door to a dark room and could barely make out a figure lying in bed. I went to the window on dad’s side of the bed and opened the blinds. “Time to get up – Glenda’s making breakfast.” I turned to see his body still lying in bed. I touched his shoulder to wake him – it was stone cold. A shock went through me. He was dead. The soft morning light from the window behind me fell on his face ravaged in silent pain. I pulled the bed sheet up over his head, shut the blind and closed the door behind as I entered the hallway. He had not uttered a sound during the night.  Perhaps I was so tired I didn’t hear him.

In the kitchen, Glenda had started fixing his breakfast. “You don’t need to do that.” I spoke with a lump in my throat. “Daddy’s dead – he died in his sleep last night.”

She quickly became hysterical – sobbing uncontrollably. “No – no, he can’t be. This isn’t happening.”

I turned the stove off – grabbed her shoulders and shook her. “Glenda, he’s dead, you have to get a hold of yourself. We have calls to make and things to take care of.” I stopped her as she headed for the bedroom. “I don’t think you should see him right now – it’s not a pretty site and I don’t want you to remember him that way.” I hugged her tight and let her cry for a few more minutes. Carol arrived about that time and she and Glenda consoled each other while I made the necessary calls.

I phoned the funeral home first. Dad had made all the arrangements ahead when he learned of his cancer. He’d arranged everything for mom at the same time, even to their obituaries for the newspapers. Their headstones were carved and ready except for the date of death. The hearse arrived and they remove his body in less than an hour. They said his body would be ready for viewing the following day in the Garden of Gethsemane room at Forest Lawn Cemetery. The funeral would be held in three days. I notified their doctor so he could sign the death certificate at the funeral home.

I arranged a meeting with their lawyer for the next morning. Now it was time to break the news to our mom – a task I tried in my mind to prepare for. We stopped to get our grandfather and I told him the sad news while he sat at his desk. I knew when he got to the car he would wonder why dad wasn’t there.

Standing in the hospital hallway, a nurse informed us visiting hours were over until after lunch had been served to the patients. I explained what had happened and why we were there. I asked her to have someone standing by in case mom needed a sedative when I told her about our father. I wasn’t waiting for visiting hours. On hearing my sad message, she called another nurse over, told her to be prepared and allowed us to enter mom’s room.

She had just started eating her lunch and was surprised to see all of us there. “Where’s my Lotaburger and fries? Is your dad bringing them?”

I sat on the side of her bed and took both her hands in mine. “Daddy won’t be here today.” I whispered. “He’s now with the angles.” At first, she wasn’t sure she heard me.

“He’s where?” she said – and then it registered.
“Oh no! No – no…not my baby.”

I wrapped my arms around her and told her he had died peacefully in his sleep at home. She shook with deep sobs and continued to cry on my shoulder. The nurse looked in and I nodded my head as mom leaned back in the bed – one hand in mine and the other covering her mouth, the tears rolling down her pale cheeks. The rosy color had drained from her face. The girls gather closer to comfort her while I chatted with the doctor by the nurse’s station.                                             

We stayed as long as we could until the sedative began to make her drowsy. The doctor said he would let us know if there were any changes. He phoned later that evening and recommended she stay in the hospital a few more days. She’d experienced a relapse with the news and her breathing had become irregular. He wouldn’t sign her release until she improved.

I called the airlines to cancel my return trip and find out what they would need to reschedule a flight when I knew a date. They were understanding and most helpful. I then contacted the personnel office at Sax and arranged to take the additional time off until mom could return home.

Our dad had more friends than I realized and I was surprised to see such a large turnout for the funeral with standing room only at the back of the large chapel. A male vocalist sang I Come to the Garden Alone, and Clifford Williams our Presbyterian minister preached the eulogy. I took care of the floral arrangements with our family florist and made sure dad was buried with his Masonic ring and apron. Eight men from his lodge served as pallbearers. I had served as a DeMolay Grand Master in the same lodge. 

As I stood by the open grave, and placed a single white carnation on the casket, I finally understood what he had wanted to tell me when I arrived. He knew he was dying and wanted me to be there when it happened. I would be the man of the family now and he trusted me to know what to do. How did I miss that?

Meanwhile, back at the house, neighbors had arrived with tons of food. It’s traditional in Texas to gather at the home of the deceased and provide the family members with food and beverages as many people come to offer their condolences. No time to be alone and reflect on the happenings of the day. All will be well.

My sisters and I decided to redecorate mom’s bedroom before we brought her home. We painted the yellowed, cigarette stained walls a bright cream color, purchased a new mattress that didn’t sag, hung new floral drapes with a matching bed comforter and moved dad’s clothes to the closet in my old bedroom until she decided what to give to Goodwill.

After collecting mom from the hospital, we drove out to the gravesite. She couldn’t attend the funeral since she was still in the hospital. Sitting in her wheelchair beside the grave, she asked to be alone for a few minutes as we stepped away.                                    

She had saved a white carnation from one of her many floral arrangements at the hospital and placed it on his grave.

Back at the house, the girls made her comfortable in her recliner chair, while I went to Lotaburger and returned with lunch. She smiled as I opened the bags and placed the cheeseburger, fries and a large coke on her TV tray. “Now that’s what I call a lunch.” She said.

So much had changed in so little time, but a Lotaburger will never change. Everyone dug into the bags for their burgers and fries as I filled her in on what we had done. Several neighbors dropped in to say hello.  A few days later, when things calmed down, I returned to LA leaving mom in the care of my sisters.

John met me at the airport and I filed him in on all the details. He’d wanted to come to Texas for the funeral, but I told him there was nothing he could do and he shouldn’t miss work. We ate dinner out that evening. Exhausted, I crawled into bed and passed out. John left for work early the next morning.

I fixed my breakfast and sat at the dining room table alone staring through the floor-to-ceiling windows at our lush patio garden and began to cry. I hadn’t been able to shed a tear for the past three weeks and I couldn’t stop. I hadn’t told the store when I would return so I stayed home and talked to my dad the rest of the day. There hadn’t been time for tears but I knew he would understand.

About the Author:

David Heath

At the age of 75, David Heath is currently enjoying life as a writer in the tropics of the Yucatan along with John, his life-partner of 48 years. Originally from Ft. Worth, Texas, David worked as a lifeguard, a Latin dance instructor, an interior designer, and a private secretary before moving to Los Angles, where he sold real estate, wrote music, did some fashion modeling and founded his own visual merchandising company. For twenty years, David & John owned and operated the Rancho de San Juan Country Inn and Restaurant northwest of Santa Fe, New Mexico, where they were honored with numerous awards in the hospitality industry. Having traveled most of Europe, the continental United States and Canada, David is busy writing, poetry, mysteries and a memoir titled Adventures in Life. His recent published works include:  Tales from a Country Inn – The Rancho de San Juan Story. The D.G. Heath – Mystery Collection (Double Martini – Web of Intrigue & Codes and Confessions). David is currently writing – D.G. Heath – Mystery Collection – Book Two (Vortex – Casting Shadows & Blood Moon). Fiction, fantasy and mystery are his tools.