Death-bed admission of love from dad

Paul D. Wilson

Paul D. Wilson

Fifteen years ago today, at 10 a.m., I lost my father to a seven-year battle with Emphysema.

He was a difficult and complicated man who always found himself unable to communicate loving, affectionate, positive words. A sterile ER trauma suite at St. Luke’s South became the setting where he would mumble the words, “I love you,” and “Thank you for all you’ve done for me,” to me for the first time ever. Those two sentences came amid a life and death struggle for each breath of air. A struggle that would end less than five minutes after he said those words.

The doctors wanted to place him in a medically induced coma for a week or two, clean his lungs, then wake him up with new meds on board. My dad was afraid his lungs would get too lazy over that period of time and they wouldn’t be able to get him off the respirator. The doctors assured him they had no concerns about waking him back up and left the room, giving him and me time to discuss the decision.

We’d already been told if he decided to not have the procedure, he likely had less than 30 minutes to live. In this final stage, he was suffering from carbon dioxide retention; a process where fresh oxygen is not replacing carbon dioxide. He was getting sleepy; he would get increasingly sleepy.

After giving him time to think, I asked if he wanted to proceed? Surprisingly, he nodded his head yes. Talking was increasingly difficult. As I left the ER suite to inform the physicians, he grasped my hand one last time and said, “Remember what I said, I love you and thank you for all you’ve done.” I told him, one last time, that I loved him, too.

Those would be the last words he would ever speak.

I pushed the draped curtain aside and walked out to a waiting medical team.

“He agreed, but he also just told me goodbye.”

The doctors tried to assure me that wasn’t his intent and that I was reading too much into it. I explained what he said to me and that those words had never been spoken in 45 years. Even they seemed concerned at that point.

The pluminary and ER SWAT team came back into the suite, Mark asked if he was ready and dad nodded his head yes. Oddly, he smiled a strained smile and winked at me. Since two of the doctors were friends of mine, they allowed me to stay in the room to be by his side through the procedure.

A nurse extended his head and neck to begin the intibation. Within 15 seconds a long, steady flat lined beep overpowered the conversation in the room and Mark yelled out, “Where’s my pulse?” Two nurses began to check various leads, suspecting an equipment malfunction, but my heart sunk. I’d heard his words. I knew what they meant; he did, too. The charge nurse looked at Mark and said, “We’re good, it’s not us…”

Mark looked at me and said, “Paul, we have a Code Blue, do you still want to stay?” to which I nodded my head yes. Twelve minutes of life-saving heroics took place. During those minutes, which alternated between feeling like seconds and hours, Mark would look at me repeatedly and say, “Paul, I’m so sorry, we didn’t see this coming.”

Mark asked for a three-minute countdown on the clock and said, “I’m going one more time.” I put my arm around his shoulder and asked, “Hey, buddy, what are we REALLY doing? I told you he told me goodbye; I think he knew more about this than we did.”

Mark looked at me, uncertain how or why we were even in this position and asked, “Are you saying we’re done?”

Not knowing if I was following dad’s unspoken wishes or acting as an executioner, I replied that yes, I thought we were done.

Mark looked at the clock on the wall and said the words I knew I would hear, some day, for seven long years.

“Time of death…. 9:57 a.m..”

And with that, one person lost a seven-year battle with a wretched disease; the other person was left questioning a 45-year battle with his father.

Throughout his life, the only mechanism he had that would allow him to express any level of approval was to provide “things.” Words and emotion eluded him, other than the hair-trigger, hot-temper inherited from his mother. Providing things was the only way he could express that somewhere, deep inside his confused head and hurting heart, he really did care about you. So, he provided things.

And an excellent provider he was. I always had cars, money, clothes and a nice place to live. I never understood that’s what the “things” meant. There were mixed signals between the verbal and physical abuse and the things.

My mother divorced him, my brother wrote him off. So the son who suffered the most at his hand spent the last seven years trying to prove a point. I was going to see this battle through to its guaranteed bitter end, regardless, with the hope that someday he’d get it. Some day, he’d acknowledge I was at least a semi worthwhile human being.

My friend and former pastor, Dr. Dan Vanderpool arrived minutes after dad passed. My dad enjoyed countless visits with Dan over the years and was fond of calling him Van Danderpool. Dan was the only person with whom he would remotely discuss spiritual matters.  I told him that dad was gone and as soon as the words came out of my mouth, Dan said, “Paul, I’m going to do the funeral.”

I smiled, told Dan I really appreciated it, but it would be in Carthage, two-and-a-half hours away. I knew Dan’s schedule; Dan was a really busy man shepherding a congregation of 2,500 people. Dan, in his loving, caring voice replied, “Paul, no one’s more qualified to do it than me. I knew your dad, I know your relationship with him. Let me do the funeral for you…”

It was a relief, because I knew he was right.

Three days later, we landed in Carthage. Dan delivered the funeral message at Knells Mortuary under a sky of white fluffy clouds and a packed house. Ten firemen came from my dad’s tenure as a Carthage fireman. Kids showed up who knew my Dad from when we owned the local skating rink. Kids across many school years who rode his bus, something he did for fun in retirement, also came. I think that was more hurtful than anything. All these kids looked at my dad as a father-of-the-year figure.

Little did they know, there was one version of my dad to others, another version of my dad at home, with his own family. They were vastly different men. Why was he able to pour himself out for them. How was he so caring and concerned about them, but couldn’t show that to his own sons? I always thought it was because he only had to be that guy for 2-3 hours at a time and that was doable. I still don’t have the answer to that one.

Dan began his message and as only he could, connecting the dots of dad’s life and relationships. He talked in great detail of how people who can’t express love or feelings with words often find other ways to get the message across. Some people aren’t wired right. Some people don’t have all the tools, for a host of reasons. It became an interactive discussion as he asked questions from the platform. Reminders of the things he’d done, hobbies he’d supported, vacations we took, the cars he provided…all the “things.”

Things. That recurring word.

I felt I was attending the funeral of a sad, old man, more than the funeral of my father. A funeral that should have been full of anger, grief and pain became one of the most inspiring, healing messages I had ever heard. It was one part funeral, one part therapy session and one part mediation between me, my father and our issues.

Dan has a way of making the mysterious and complex simple. He has a way of healing hurts, putting bandaids where they belong. He has a way of reaching your heart and saying just the right words at just the right time. He’d tell you God gave him those words, he’d tell you it’s all God. I’d tell you that’s just who Dan is.

Several of my lifelong friends sat through that service. People with similar hurts because by 45 years of age, life’s had a chance to beat you up a little. The final prayer was said and those awkward moments settled in. You know the ones, when people are paying their last respects, when you’re trying to find the right thing to say to the grieving parties? One friend, through wet eyes, said to me, “Paul, you know I’m not a church guy; I don’t have much use for religion and I can’t tell you the last time I was even in a church. But if I ever go to go to church, I’d go to THAT guy’s church!”

That’s been the universal defining context of Dan Vanderpool.

I left with a slowly evolving perspective on my father but with a lot of wounds to heal. For me, physical wounds heal fast. I’m a pretty big guy. You don’t have much of a chance at hurting me physically. But that same guy was routinely brought to his knees with a few misplaced or well aimed words. My dad was a master at that, intentional or not.

The year following his death, I thought about his life and our relationship more than I imagined I would. I left thinking that switch had been flipped off, that compartment closed. On the first anniversary of his passing, I packed my motorcycle and made the trip from KC to Carthage’s Oak Hill Cemetery. I had an afternoon-long conversation with him at his grave. Sitting on a blanket with a sandwich some crackers, cheese and my favorite bottle of BV Cabernet wine, I tearfully told him thank you for doing the best job I thought he was equipped to do. I forgave him for what was missing and forgave myself for harboring the feelings I had for so long. Was he what he should have been? No, but believe he did all he knew to do as a woefully ill-prepared, hurt and damaged person.

I doubt he was much more pleased about his lot in life than I was.

From the day I found out my first child was on the way, I made a pledge to my unborn son that he would never see what I did growing up. I made that pledge three more times with the birth of my next three kids. I swore they would never wear those hurts and pain. They would hear they were loved, in word, action and deed, at every possible opportunity. I wanted them to know that as well as they knew their own names.

The job of being a parent isn’t easy and it certainly doesn’t pay enough. You do the best you can with what you are provided and hope for the best. There are times I think I’ve done a great job. There are times I think I was as big a failure my dad. With a divorce thrown in the mix that hit my kids when they were teens and pre-teens, emotional scars were placed on them I would have never wished. For that I am eternally sorry and pay the price daily through enormous levels of self-imposed guilt.

When my final story is told, I hope they know I tried to do my best. My youngest was living with me in the months following the divorce when the bottom fell out of everything. I was, without a doubt, the worst version of me I could have been. I threw a two year private pity party for myself. But he remained a constant support to me in ways a young kid shouldn’t have had to do. He was a bigger man than me and stood taller that I was capable of.

I’ve apologized as much as one person can. My only hope is that my kids aren’t left with as many unanswered questions as I was about my father and why he was who he was. I hope they know, as they are told with every conversation, they are loved with a never-ending love. I hope they know the meaning and intent behind those words always have been real, authentic.

What a sad, wasted life my father led. In 45 years he couldn’t find it in himself to tell his son he was loved or mattered. It took what I can only believe was a premonition that those three minutes would be his last on this side of whatever eternity holds for us, before he could muster the ability to say what may have been in there forever.

But as I sat at his grave, I had one recurring thought that has given me the most peace.

As much as he cheated me, he cheated himself even more. He was just as sad, just a hurt, just as injured. I suddenly wished there was more for him.

Rest in Peace, Robert H. Wilson. My kids knew so little about you.  And in a generation, that tiny flicker of knowledge will pass into the pages of forgotten history. You’ll be little more than a name on a stone indicating service to your country in Korea. One of the kids will inherit the flag given to me by the soldier at your grave-side service. That will be all that’s left of his life.

My dad. The kid’s grandfather. Thinking that over brought back the words of another friend who told me, “If you think you’re going to be missed in this world, stick your hand in a bucket of water, pull it back out and see how big the hole is.

If you’re reading this, I guess I’d like to leave you with one message. Words matter, words mean something — things don’t.  As you tell your kids good night and tuck them in or call them on the phone wherever they may be, tell them you love them every chance you get. Nothing matters more than that. If you have a chance to talk to your mom or dad, grandparents, tell them the same thing.

This world is full of hurting people. You may think it doesn’t matter because, all your friends are fine. Truth is, they likely aren’t so fine. Whether you think they need to hear it or not, telling someone you are there, you care and that they matter, may be a defining moment for them.

A friend said the other day, if you sat in a circle with all your friends and you all threw your problems on the floor in the middle of the room, you’d likely pick your own problems back up and leave with them. If you bother to scratch below the surface you’ll find way too many people have more than they can say grace over. The words you say, the encouragement you give takes 10 seconds out of your day.

Little do you know, that may be life altering for them.

One Response

  1. Amazing piece, thanks for sharing something so personal. I loved the tributes to Dan Vanderpool, I was friends with Jenny when we both worked at SFT. Wonderful couple. So many lessons on so many levels. I will hug my grandkids even tighter the next time I see them, I am even more grateful for the relationship I am developing with them. My daughter has lost her thyroid, my son has MS, my husband is in his 7th cancer battle, but you are right, I wouldn’t trade these challenges for what you have had to endure. Bless you! Margo Twaddle

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