A QUESTION OF TRUST
My dad’s life had ended, but not our conversation
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.”