“Dad’s had another heart attack and it looks bad. You’d better come quickly,” my brother said when I picked up the phone on a gloomy November evening. I drove across the city as fast as I could but didn’t make it in time. When I arrived at my parent’s house I saw the flashing red lights of the yellow ambulance driving away into the dark, drizzly November night. I followed it to the hospital only to be told my Dad was gone, and they were preparing a room where we could say our last good-byes.
Silently, my mom, my brothers and I gathered around the bed where he lay. It was a surreal moment and none of us seemed to know what to say or do. Then my eyes were drawn to my father’s hands. They were covered with age spots and a little gnarly with age, but I’d know those hands anywhere. Maybe that’s because when I was little, they’d always been a source of comfort to me. They were steady and warm and my smaller hand always seemed to fit perfectly into one of his. I think I might have first noticed this on one of those landmark childhood moments that stay with you forever.
I was six years old and in first grade. My parents had arranged for Valerie, an older girl in the neighborhood, to walk me safely to and from school that year. Early one cold, January morning, the phone rang and my mother answered. After she hung up, she said “Valerie is sick today. She can’t take you to school and Daddy’s already left for work with the car. Do you want me to dress your brothers and walk you or would you be OK by yourself?”
I left for school alone that morning, aware of the butterflies in my stomach but giddy with my newfound freedom and autonomy. Spying a group of older girls walking on the other side of the street, I waved proudly with one hand and clutched the handle of my little leather school bag tightly with the other. I made it to school in plenty of time and waited patiently all morning for the lunch bell to ring. When it finally did, I dashed into the cold winter air as fast as I could.
At the last major intersection on my route home, I carefully looked both ways before crossing. Pleased with myself, I started to skip on the crunchy, hard-packed snow, but a nagging feeling made me stop and look behind me. I was mortified to see my father walking a safe distance behind me. “You’re following me!” I accused him hotly. He smiled and reached for my hand when he caught up to me. “Yes,” he admitted. “But it was tough keeping up with that hop, skip and jump you were doing.”
I looked up and as my stormy eyes met his kind, blue ones, my anger dissolved. Suddenly, I was just happy to see him and to walk the rest of the way home with my mittened hand snugly in his gloved one.
That seemed like the perfect memory to hug close to me in what I knew would be difficult days ahead. I touched his hand gently. “Bye, Dad, sleep well,” I said. That was in November 1998. I still miss him. His quiet, reassuring presence always had a way of calming and soothing me, even once I was a grown woman. But when I feel I need it, I remember his hand reaching for mine on that cold January day and feel the warmth all over again.