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The last thing my father told me

A posthumous essay about facing a parent’s too-early death and, decades later, facing one’s own.

The author with his father in 1964.Shirley S. Winer

Our station wagon pulled up to the pile of snow at the curb. My mother leaned across me in the front seat and pointed up wide, white marble steps to the entrance of the hospital. Eleven years old, I stepped over the snow alone — so thin, with such a big head and so much thick hair, that I looked like a pencil with a novelty eraser. I carried a traveling chess set.

It was early February 1973 in New Haven, Conn. My father wasn’t fighting cancer anymore. He was dying. We had seen him at home a few times, for a few weeks, since last summer. Each time he returned to the hospital, they changed his room. Each time they changed his room, I learned to find him. Turn left here. Take a right there. This door. That stairwell. This floor. Trousers high above my ankles, shirt sleeves far from my wrists, I was the only child among gurneys and wheelchairs, doctors and nurses.

He died in March. March was a few weeks from where I stood now, in the doorway of his room, clutching the chess set. He lay in bed. He was so emaciated that his head looked huge on his body like mine did, except he wore his wig.

I waited for him to notice me. The wig made him look like he was wearing a costume. The costume was himself, the way he used to be. Last spring, in the months before he fell sick, we started playing chess. A scrap of paper hung thumbtacked to the bulletin board above the kitchen trash where we marked how many games we each won. I passed the paper at eye level all winter, and it reminded me of how the kitchen felt with him inside it. He used to sit leaning back in his chair, feet straight out in front of him, laughing and teasing and asking exactly the right questions. We would take out the thumbtack and hold the paper on the counter, marking it. One mark each time we won. I had won only once before.

We opened the chess board on the rolling table that crossed over his bed. I had to stand because the chairs weren’t high enough. Doctors came and went. Nurses came and went. There was no missing how sick he was, although I stared hard at the chessboard. For minutes at a time, I managed to see only the brown and manila squares, the crease in the middle where it folded into a box, the two tiny, tubular hinges, the hook that held it closed.

I won that day, which I appreciated. My mother planned to return to that same curb and that same pile of snow at 4 o’clock. She expected me to be waiting on the steps. Now it was a few minutes before 4. The chess set went back together — board folded, hook clasped, pieces rattling inside. I tucked the box under my arm and remembered my coat.

My arm was in the second sleeve when he said, “I will miss you.” He had been sitting up to play. Now he lay back in bed.

I stood holding the zipper. At that moment, I saw he was going to die. “I’ll miss you too.” Then I unsaw it.

But he saw. He saw very clearly how close to death he was, and he knew what he wanted me to hear. “I’ll miss seeing you grow up.”

My coat was zippered. Holding the box against my chest, I faced his head on the pillow. I saw and unsaw again in an instant.

He watched me, solemn and careful. “You will be a good man,” he told me. “You’ll grow up to be a good man. And I wish—” He lost control of his voice. He choked and tried again. “I wish I could be here to see that.”

We cried together. I hugged him on the bed because he was too tired to sit up again. I basically lay on him. I felt the crinkle of my coat and the pressure of the zipper. I didn’t know what to do with the hand that held the chess set.

There is a strobe-light effect to knowledge at that age — or really any age when the truth impacts you that much. Even in that split second when the light was on and I saw he was dying, I didn’t know what that knowledge meant. I had no concept of a lifetime, no way to understand what it would mean to miss him for 45 years — the day I graduated from college or the day I married, the birth of each of my children and the people they are becoming, my decisions across the length and breadth of a career, or a simple summer evening on a porch, feet up on the railing, the first sip of cold beer together after hard work on a hot day.

He was 39. He had the concept of a lifetime, and he gave me what words he could in advance. It was the best gift he could give me at the time, this vote of confidence. I am grateful for it still, though praise like this also sets an expectation. “You will be a good man” becomes “You must be a good man.” What is a good man? What kind of choices does a good man make? What does he say? What does he do? Within weeks of our conversation, he was no longer there to help me know what he had in mind with those words.

Now, at age 62, I am sick as he was. Now I am days or weeks from dying, as he was. Now I am saying goodbye to each of my children. So much makes it hard. But above all is my knowledge of what it’s like to live an entire life with a hole beside you that you wish you could fill with even one more conversation.

Douglas Smith, a writer and educational software developer, blogged about his experience living with and dying from leukemia. He died on October 18.