Jan. 30, 2015
I got the call. I saw “Mom” on my phone, so I knew who it was. I answered the phone to a long pause. That pause said it all. My mother’s quivering voice confirmed the pause, “Jason, your daddy died this morning.”
This call was inevitable — we all knew it was coming. It’s like a scene from your favorite movie to which you know every word before it is said, but somehow when the scene happens it’s brand new — only in this real life circumstance it all sucks; it’s not a scene in a movie. The night before, the nurse had told Mom it would be two to three days, but Dad decided otherwise, or at least his body did. Diabetes did what it does and nibbled him to death one joint and limb at a time. The powerful thing about death is that my father’s diabetes died with him. It’s the end of all parasites. They may eventually kill their hosts, but they die with them, too.
We had just weathered the Blizzard of 2015 that night and the plows were cleaning up the snowy mess, when my mother called. All flights out of New York City were canceled so driving to Birmingham was my best option. I left at 1:50 p.m. and the road ban was still in effect. The beauty of that road ban was the fact that I was the only car on the road. I hit this providential moment when the roads were plowed and clear and no traffic had started to venture out. I was the only car on the West Side Highway in the middle of the afternoon — this is a momentary miracle of God. When I crossed the George Washington Bridge, I was the only car on the upper deck and I had a crystal clear view of the Hudson River and midtown Manhattan. I was an hour into a 15-hour journey home for my father’s funeral.
A 15-hour journey through the night gives one a long time to think about life and death and fatherhood and just about most things. I thought about my father’s journey. The life he lived. Growing up in south Louisiana as one of 11 children born to my grandfather and grandmother. Becoming a ward of the state before he was a teenager. Living in boys’ homes, reform schools and foster families. Finally landing in the Mississippi Delta to live with an uncle, who soon moved to Wisconsin, which left my father to live with a good family who took him in. Drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War and becoming a Screaming Eagle paratrooper. Receiving a medical discharge due to diabetes — which may have saved him from Vietnam only to wage a different kind of war with his body. Meeting my mother, becoming a husband, becoming a father of two ….
My father’s journey was never a straight one and neither was his final journey. This final journey preoccupied most of my 15-hour journey. What sort of journey was my father on in the afterlife? What was he experiencing, what was he seeing, what was he hearing, what was he smelling, what was he tasting? Of course, these questions belong only to those who believe in an afterlife, and I’m one of those.
What did his journey home look like? Was he experiencing the miracle of being the only car on the upper deck of the George Washington Bridge? Was he looking over a sunset on the Hudson River with incredible views of midtown Manhattan? Or was his journey more spectacular than that? Was his road plowed and cleared or was it icy and treacherous? Was he lonely as he was all by himself on a long road — or was that just me and my journey?
The longer I drove the more our journeys overlapped and intertwined. Every mile longer I realized how much of the man I am was credited to him — both good and bad. When I yell at my kids — yes, I yell at my kids; not proud of it, but it’s a fact — I sound just like him. When I quietly sneak up behind my wife and wrap my arms around her, spin her around, and give her a kiss; I remember how my dad inadvertently showed me how to love intimately.
I may be realizing our overlapping journeys just now, but our journeys have been overlapping all my life. I have been walking in his footsteps all my life until now. I’m looking for his footsteps, but there are none left. He is on a different journey now, and so am I. There are no footsteps in front of me, but I see two small little footsteps behind me. These two little sets of footprints are nestled in my footprints. Whether they like it or not, my sons are following me, watching me, learning how to be a person — a man, even.
At the end of my 15-hour journey home, there was a wake and funeral. I stood beside my father and said a final goodbye. I stood with my widowed mother and my sister, I stood beside my wife and children, I stood beside my aunts and uncles and cousins and extended family and friends and said goodbye — a final goodbye. And we sent my father away on his journey home. We sent him on his way with our greatest and best prayers, our holiest songs, our deepest words of gratitude and encouragement and our unconditional love. He was on his journey home.
Whereas my 15-hour journey home is round-trip — I have another 15-hour drive ahead of me — my father’s journey home is a one-way experience. While we are separated now by the distance of the rest of my life, I believe that one day I’ll see his footprints again.