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Just Breathe

We grew up almost like cousins, or perhaps displaced siblings - close enough to play but not entwined enough to fight.

So early Sunday morning, when I spied her unmistakable e-mail address with a subject line that read "My Dad," I felt an unwelcome stab of fear and foreboding. "This message may be a little less personal than a phone call," it began, "but it's easier for me to let you know."

And there it was, the sentence I dread more than almost anything. Her father had died suddenly the night before, leaving an empty place at the dinner table and a hole in the family that will never be filled.

The day before, he had driven with his wife to Monterey for a day trip, returning to the San Francisco Bay Area in time for a family meal. Except he died, presumably of a heart attack, before he could take his seat with his family, which was waiting for him to say grace.

All week he had worked in the garden, enjoying his efforts and confident he could restore an abundance of color and texture to the yard so recently decimated by frost. He said he felt good, better than he had in a long time. And that comforted his wife of 52 years.

One night later, the man who had towered over his family with a lank and lean frame, the father who had kept his family fed and their teeth healthy with a long career in dentistry, the dad who had taught his kids to balance on bikes and fish from a boat, to play hard and to play fair, and to watch each other's backs, was gone.

His only daughter among five children sent out an e-mail at 4 o'clock in the morning because she couldn't sleep, because she needed to talk about it, because she couldn't bear to pick up the phone, to say the words, or to hear the reaction to her father's death.

"Never in my wildest dreams," she wrote, "would I have thought I'd be sending out an e-mail notifying friends of my dad's passing, but I guess with this electronic era, anything goes. I don't actually know how the next couple of days or weeks are going to go; I've never dealt with this, even imagined it before. It's all so unreal. I don't know if I'm hungry or tired or numb or grieving or sad. But one comforting thought is knowing how close our families are and that we can all lean on each other."

Her dad didn't have a long convalescence, no prolonged medical condition she knew of. Except maybe that persistent heart condition that had seemed to parallel my own dad's. There was her dad's bypass all those years ago, a procedure my father skirted by reducing his cholesterol and losing
more weight than we thought reasonable at the time.

And there was that extreme episode a few years back, when her brother had gotten their dad to the hospital in time. Not this time.

I sent an e-mail back to her and then to my own sisters, likely some kind of desperate attempt to sort out my own feelings. This really happens. It had happened to them. It could happen to us.

The telephone rang. It was my dad.

"Hi," he said. "I thought you might want to talk."

How many times had I heard that warm, rich voice come across the phone? The calls always seemed to come in the moments when I was rushing out the door, writing on a deadline, waiting for another call; minutes that seemed like months as I waited for him to recount his morning, the antics at the bird feeder, the wandering back through his college days, his career highlights, his cross-country vacation.

But then, how many times had I hoped he'd be home, prayed he would answer the phone, counted on him to guide me through a home project, counsel me on a career move, help me handle another heartbreak?

On this day there was no impatience when he called, no haste, no multitasking, no regret. Only gratitude for the tall, slim man with blue eyes and broad shoulders who had bought me a patent-leather purse for my 4th birthday and a piccolo for my 14th, who had helped a clumsy kid bring ball to bat, and who had clapped a little too long at spring concerts; the man who'd explained math problems in minutes and told stories for hours; the dad who was there to give me away and who was there, years later, to take me back.

As I listened to his stories, I memorized his voice, delighted in his laugh, and asked him everything I could think of. And mere moments after we finally hung up, I picked up the phone and called him back. Just, I suppose, because I still could.