My dad’s life had ended, but not our con­ver­sa­tion

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Contents - SHERRY HEMMAN HO­GAN

A plain white cot­ton hand­ker­chief has myr­iad uses.

When in treach­er­ous wa­ters the mar iner trusts the re­li­able beam of the light­house to guide his pas­sage. My de­pend­able bea­con was my fa­ther’s hand­ker­chief. He didn’t care for fancy French silk or Ital­ian lace and had no need for those with elab­o­rately em­broi­dered ini­tials. Dad pre­ferred plain white cot­ton, the best buy from the lo­cal shops.

The uses of Dad’s hand­ker­chief were in­nu­mer­able. It was a white f lag hang­ing from the car win­dow when the old sta­tion wagon over­heated on hol­i­days, filled with five squab­bling kids, a dog, a cat and worn-out par­ents. The hand­ker­chief, ever ready for back­seat dis­as­ters, sponged up melted ice cream and ooz­ing egg salad sand­wiches.

Amaz­ing that a sim­ple piece of cloth can evoke so many mem­o­ries. It bound the wound of my favourite kit­ten af­ter a close en­counter with the neigh­bour’s dog, then han­dled my snif­fles too. It was Dad’s am­a­teur ma­gi­cian’s prop for his dis­ap­pear­ing coin trick. The first time I ever saw my dad cry, the crum­pled cloth wiped his tears af­ter he car­ried the life­less body of his beloved Ger­man shep­herd, Princess, to her grave.

As a teen dis­traught over a crush on a boy, my water­works ceased only when Dad of­fered me his hand­ker­chief with the ten­der ad­mo­ni­tion, “Here, take mine. You never seem to have one when you need it.”

I re­mem­ber go­ing to him when I was 20 just be­fore leav­ing on my first solo ad­ven­ture, a trip to Europe. As the big mo­ment ar­rived, I was scared, not so sure I was ready to be in­de­pen­dent af­ter all. The tears came as I con­fronted leav­ing ev­ery­thing I knew: my fam­ily, my home, my friends and my boyfriend. “You’ll see, this is go­ing to be one of the best ex­pe­ri­ences of your life,” Dad said re­as­sur­ingly as he of­fered his fa­mil­iar cot­ton square. “Trust me,” he said with a wink.

Three years in France and Africa was, in­deed, the great­est jour­ney of my life. And upon re­turn­ing, my first sight scan­ning through the throngs at the air­port was Dad’s white hand­ker­chief wav­ing over the crowd.

It would make many ap­pear­ances in my life – never more mov­ingly than when my mum wept into it tears of joy at the tri­umphant birth of my daugh­ter, Shan­non, fol­low­ing two mis­car­riages.

Some 12 years later, and newly di­vorced, quite a few hand­ker­chief ses­sions with Dad were in or­der as my daugh­ter and I faced a whole new life to­gether. Af­ter heart-wrench­ing dis­cus­sions at Mum and Dad’s, my search for a tis­sue in­vari­ably ended with my fa­ther’s fa­mil­iar of­fer. Then, con­cerned about my go­ing home to a dark house, my par­ents es­tab­lished

a rou­tine for their peace of mind as well as mine. Within min­utes of my ar­rival, I would al­ways call to say, “Hi Dad. It’s me. I’m home.”

My fa­ther was then fight­ing his own bat­tle, a 12-year war with prostate can­cer. By Christ­mas 1997, the ill­ness had taken over his body. Know­ing that we could lose him any time, we did our best to make it a joy­ous oc­ca­sion. But when asked what presents he needed, Dad could only say with a grin, “There’s noth­ing I need where I’m go­ing. Ev­ery­thing’s pro­vided for.”

Still, we had to get him some­thing. Af­ter dis­cus­sions with my sis­ters and brother, I sug­gested hand­ker­chiefs – he still kept a fresh one with him every day. I went to a bou­tique and bought some beau­ti­ful, ex­pen­sive linen ones with the ini­tial R for Robert, his first name, em­broi­dered in black, red and sil­ver. Then know­ing my fa­ther, I went to a dis­count store to pur­chase a few of the cheap va­ri­ety. At home I placed them in three dif­fer­ent gift boxes.

For the first time in 55 years, my par­ents were sep­a­rated, liv­ing in two con­stant-care rooms near each other in a re­tire­ment home. From his ­favourite chair, Dad opened the trio of gaily wrapped pack­ages. “Well, what do you know!” he said each time, giv­ing us the imp­ish smile we cher­ished. “Just what I needed.”

Set­ting aside the el­e­gantly ini­tialled linens, he chose a bar­gain hanky and waved the fa­mil­iar flag. “This is how I built that lit­tle nest egg for your mother,” he said. “I’ll only use the ex­pen­sive ones for very im­por­tant oc­ca­sions.”

Dad knew his time was shor t. As was his way, ev­ery­thing was pre­pared, in­clud­ing his obit­u­ary. Un­daunted, he and I spent sev­eral evenings writ­ing it to­gether. On a stormy night in Jan­uary, I brought him the fi­nal draft. While he re­clined in his favourite chair, I be­gan to read aloud. Although strong dur­ing all our dis­cus­sions, I could no longer sup­press my emo­tions look­ing into the eyes that had seen me through 45 years. The tears just would not stop.

Wi t h t re­men­dous ef for t , he squeezed my hand. “I’m ready to move on. You know that. But look ­af­ter your mother, OK?”

“You’ve…al­ways been there for me, Dad,” I barely choked out.

“And I al­ways will be, just in a dif­fer­ent way,” he said. “Trust me.”

I dug in to my hand­bag for a tis­sue. Smil­ing, Dad said gen­tly, “I’ve got

I could no longer sup­press my emo­tions look­ing into the eyes that had seen me through 45 years

lots of these – thanks to you. Now dry your tears and blow your nose, OK? A good, hard one.” He glanced out at the blus­tery weather. “You shouldn’t have stayed so late. Driv­ing may be tricky. Why don’t you call me when you get in?”

Dur­ing the ten-minute drive home, his words “trust me” echoed in my heart. He was the most trust­wor­thy per­son I knew. If he said some­thing, he meant it. I felt far more peace­ful now, but still found my voice catch­ing when I phoned him as soon as I ar­rived. “Hi, Dad. I’m home.” Would this be the last time he would hear those words from me?

It was. Dad passed away just ten days later. We knew he was ready.

In the weeks af­ter the fu­neral, we did our best to stay strong for Mum. One of the most dif­fi­cult chores was clear­ing out his room, which held so many re­minders. My mum had no ­ex­tra space in her room. So Dad’s chair found a home in my liv­ing room, where Shan­non, now 18 years old, adopted it as her favourite spot to snug­gle, nap and do home­work. Her grand­fa­ther had been her hero too.

Eight weeks af­ter Dad’s death, Fri­day, March 13, the per­ma­nence of such a ma­jor loss hit. This date, gloomy for the su­per­sti­tious, was al­ways one of op­ti­mism for our fam­ily. My fa­ther was born on the 13th day of Septem­ber in 1919, and he as­sured us from child­hood that it was a lucky day.

This Fri­day the 13th, how­ever, pro­vided no rea­son to cel­e­brate; Dad was no longer with us. Yes, I knew he was in a bet­ter place, but the fa­ther I could al­ways rely on was gone.

Even the prom­ise of spring, due to ar­rive in just seven days, seemed too much to hope for. Easter, the essence of re­birth, was only a month away, but I couldn’t even bring my­self to un­pack the dec­o­ra­tions. I felt life­less, as I had dur­ing other crises. And to whom had I gone then? Dad. In tears, I called my sis­ter. “Dad ­al­ways helped me through things like this. He had the an­swers.”

“Talk to him, Sher,” she said gen­tly. “I do all the time.”

I hung up, tears still stream­ing down my face. I wan­dered aim­lessly around the liv­ing room and scrab­bled in an empty box of tis­sues. Then I talked to him. “Oh, Dad. I know you’re in a bet­ter place. I have that faith, mostly be­cause of you. But I miss you so much. And I just wish I knew that you’re all right.”

Si­lence. Noth­ing. I felt worse.

That’s when I saw it. Out of the cor­ner of my eye, a big square of white peeked from be­neath Dad’s chair

Sob­bing un­con­trol­lably, I could feel grief wash­ing through my en­tire body. My hands turned icy cold, and I started to shake all over.

That’s when I saw it. Out of the cor­ner of my eye, a big square of white peeked from be­neath Dad’s chair. “What on earth is that?” I mum­bled, im­pa­tient be­cause I had just ti­died the room that morn­ing. Stoop­ing to pick it up, I stared through the fog of tears. It was one of Dad’s new hand­ker­chiefs with the em­broi­dered de­sign. I clutched it, stroking the ele­gant black let­ter R.

I took a few deep breaths and tried to calm my­self. My mind worked. I clean this room every morn­ing, I thought. And I vacuum the en­tire rug, mov­ing his chair, twice a week. Where did this hand­ker­chief come from?

I felt silly. But when we’d emp­tied Dad’s room, I had care­fully ex­plored that chair, col­lect­ing pens and pa­per clips and other odds and ends that had slipped be­tween the seat and arm­rests.

Once in my liv­ing room, that chair had been lov­ingly cleaned. It had been bounced upon by my neigh­bours’ grand­kids and sur­vived my daugh­ter’s slum­ber party with seven teenage girls scram­bling in and out of it through­out the night. So why had the hand­ker­chief shown up now?

I paced through­out the house, shak­ing my head. This I could not ex­plain.

“All I have seen teaches me to trust the Cre­ator for all I have not seen.” I could al­most hear Dad quot­ing ­Emer­son. And then his own words to me at Christ­mas came back: “I’ll only use the ex­pen­sive ones for very im­por­tant oc­ca­sions.”

Gen­tly tuck­ing the em­broi­dered cloth in my pocket with new re­solve, I re­trieved the Easter dec­o­ra­tions: the bun­nies, eggs and but­terf lies – all sym­bols of cre­ation, new life and re­birth, the very prom­ise of spring.

Yes, I could trust that spring would ar­rive – it al­ways does. And I could trust the words of my fa­ther.

That hand­ker­chief now had a trea­sured place on my desk. It’s a re­minder that per­haps some things in life are bet­ter left un­ex­plained. Leaps of faith can be very good ex­er­cise for the heal­ing heart.

As far as I was con­cerned, it was Dad’s way of send­ing me a mes­sage. It was his way of say­ing, “Hi, Sher. It’s me. I’m OK. I’m home.”

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