A tear-jerking tale of a father's love, and the ultimate gift before his passing.
A short story
Well, here I am: seventy-eight years old, lying on my deathbed, expiring from cancer. The hospice nurse just came in to change my bedpan for what’s bound to be the final time.
How do I know? Well, when you get to this point, you know it’s only a matter of time. I don’t need the Grim Reaper, any light at the end of the tunnel to warn me. I just know. My life is running out, my existence about to conclude.
I’ve had lots of friends, lots of loved ones who’ve already moved on to the Great Beyond these past few years. I’ve seen how it goes. My dear departed Gladys left this world seven years ago this very afternoon in fact, so in a sense, my demise today will be fitting. I’m about to join my dear wife now wherever she happens to be.
Quite possibly, you might think my leaving this world would leave me excited, or mournful, or even relieved depending on my circumstances, which of course you don’t yet know. At the very least, you’d think it’d leave me pensive. But honestly, I’m not feeling any of these things now. No, the main sentiment I’m experiencing right now is that of worry, concern.
Concern for my son, John.
Now, why would someone my age be worrying about his son, you might ask. It’s a valid question, especially when considering John is forty-seven years old. Most people his age are more than capable of taking care of themselves, after all – indeed they’re often responsible for everyone else around them, too. So why should his case be any different?
Well, mainly because John’s case has always been different.
No one ever figured out the reasons he was born the way he was. Back then, medical technology wasn’t as advanced as it is now. All we knew at the time was that when he came out of the womb, something wasn’t right.
Nowadays, they have all kinds of fancy terms for his condition. Autism, Catatonia, Mutism – all of these diagnoses have been bandied about at one time or another, depending on whichever was fashionable. But none of them ever described John perfectly, completely. As more than one doctor has commented over the years, he’s been a case all his own. Yep, a case all his own: that’s my John.
It was hard at first, for Gladys and me. No matter how much you love your child, you can’t help but be a little disappointed when you find out your son won’t be like all the other kids. That he can’t focus, or keep his attention on anything for more than a second or two. Or talk. Or understand what you’re saying, outside of a few basic commands.
That’s just on the surface level and – believe me – it’s disappointing enough in itself. But then, you go ahead and dig a little deeper. And once you do, you begin now to tap into the real vein of disappointment, into all of the little things you realize that your son can’t do. Like go out back with you and have a catch. Or bring home his first date in high school. Or disagree with you someday on politics or sports or religion. Or give you a grandchild when he finds his own soul mate.
See, as much as Gladys and I always loved John, I don’t know if either of us ever completely overcame the disappointment of him not being “normal.” To be honest, our lives were irrevocably changed by this fact. Indeed, John’s upbringing was such a chore in itself that we couldn’t imagine even having a second child, with all of the work it would entail. Therefore, it’s only been John, John and us, alone, for all these years.
That is, of course, until seven years ago, when Gladys passed away. Since her death, it’s been only John and me during all this time. And even that’s about to end in a manner of minutes now, on account of this terrible disease. And then, once I‘m gone, it’ll only be him.
Then what will he do?
The very thought sickens me now – my poor, defenseless son, forced to face the world on his own. I’ve never been able to gauge just how much he understands what goes on around him, but I’m almost positive he’ll be aware that I’m gone, and he’ll be terrified by the realization. John’s never been on his own before – how will he manage now, at the age of forty-seven? Oh, it makes me so sick I don’t even want to think about it.
Rest assured, though, he will understand, at some basic level. Regardless of what any of the doctors say, I can say with absolutely certainty that he knew when Gladys was gone. I don’t care how anyone’s brain is wired: when your mother passes on from this world, a mother as devoted and loving and special as Gladys was, you are going to know it, you are going to realize it, no matter who you are. And John did realize that his mother was gone, and it grieved him terribly – I could tell.
How did I know?
Yes, something as simple as pudding. All his life, John loved the taste of tapioca pudding. Sure, most people would say there was no way to verify this – it’s not like he’d actually say “Mmmmm”, or lick his lips, or rub his tummy in satisfaction, or anything of the sort. Of course not. But place a cup of tapioca pudding and a plastic spoon in front of him during the first forty years of his life, and he’d eat it, right down to the very last slurp, no matter what time of day it was, no matter how much he had eaten before, no matter what type of physical condition he might be in when he began.
All of that changed, however, when Gladys died. He hasn’t touched the stuff once in the seven years since her passing. Not a single spoonful.
That’s my John.
I could tell.
I’m not a rich man. I was a plumber by profession. I made decent money working the trade, but I always made only enough to just get by. John’s medical bills always ensured that Gladys and I would have to cut every corner, milk every penny from every last payday. And now, with my cancer these past six years, it’s sapped almost every dollar I’ve ever had. On top of that, Gladys and I had already hit up all of our relatives and friends for donations so many times over the years that even they are tapped out now. Simply put, there’s nothing left. As the saying goes, I have nothing to take with me, and nothing to leave behind.
So, as a result, as much as I hate to consider it, John’s care after my passing is going to be left to some no-name non-profit agency that probably won’t have his best interests at heart. Sure, in an ideal world, he would end up in the hands of a genuinely caring social worker who’ll look out for his well-being like he was a child of her own. But I’ve heard so many horror stories over the years about the neglect and abuse of psychological patients that I can’t help but be terrified for my son now. Why, if someone were to lay even so much as a hand on my John… My God, I can’t even imagine it.
And, yes, speaking of God: please, Lord, please, watch over my son when I’m gone.
Oh no, there I go: I’m crying again. I realize it’s just a matter of seconds now before I have to leave my John behind. I guess I’ll just have to go ahead and place him in God’s hands, and hope that He sees fit to put my son in a place where he is cared for and given the dignity he’s due. I don’t care that he can’t speak. I don’t care that he can’t read. I don’t care that he can’t write or play sports or do any of the things that the other kids can. As far as I’m concerned, he’s the best son in the world, and I wouldn’t trade him for anything, for anyone. And whosever hands John ends up in, they’d better damned well treat him the same, or I just might have to come back from the grave and haunt them. Believe me, if I’m determined enough, I will.
And now, again, here it follows: the wave of regret. It comes crashing down like a breaker from an offshore hurricane. It reminds me of all of the wicked things I’ve muttered over the years, all the envious thoughts I’ve had about other parents, about parents with children who were “normal.” I know that I have been so blessed to have a son like John, but why couldn’t I always appreciate him for being the son that he was? Why did I have to sometimes covet a child who was someone else, who wasn’t him? It sickens me now, sickens me worse than any malignant tumor, any chemotherapy ever could. Indeed, at this very moment, I want to retch out my own insides, the thought makes me feel so ill.
It’s almost done. The room has become a blur.
“John… my boy… take care of my boy… take care of my boy,” I plead to the orderly, who has just walked in. Sensing my distress, the imminence of my expiration, she runs out the door to seek the physician. By the time they return, of course, they’ll have long since been able to pronounce me dead.
Or perhaps not.
Because, there, in the doorway, stands a silhouette. “Doctor,” I stammer to it. “Take care of my son. My son.”
The figure approaches. Closer now. Closer.
It comes into focus. My eyes widen.
It is. My son.
“John,” I whisper. “I’m so sorry. I tried to hang on for you, for so long now. I just don’t have anything left.” My tongue is too tired to go on. I am gasping for breath.
And then it happens – what I’ve been waiting for, for forty-seven years.
“Dad,” he says.
I am overjoyed. John has spoken. He has called me by the one word I’ve been waiting to hear all these years, the word that until now, I have never been called in my lifetime.
“Dad,” he repeats. “I want to thank you now, for everything. You’ve been the best parent a son could ever hope for.”
“But John,” I struggle to whisper. “What will happen to you? There’s no money… left… to take… care of…”
“Shhh,” he says softly, putting his finger to my lips. “It’ll be okay. God will provide.”
He puts his hand to my cheek, and repeats it. “God will provide, Dad,” he says. He looks now with love, with unbelievable affection into my eyes. He adds, smiling, “He always has.”
My chest struggles to inhale, but no air arrives. This is it.
“I… love you, Son.”
“I know, Dad. I love you, too.”
I give a feeble nod.
“And Dad?” he asks.
I open my eyes, for one final time.
Upon hearing these words, at last, I pass from this life. I don't know what will happen next, indeed if anything will at all. But regardless of whatever may or may not occur after death, I can say with certainty now that no moment in eternity will ever top this instant. The day my dear son, John, spoke to me for the very first time.
A miracle? A hallucination? Wishful thinking? I guess that's for others to decide.
All I know is that I've already been to Heaven.