Sixteen years and a day ago, I spoke with my father for the last time. The Steelers were about to play the Cowboys. We usually talked after the game, but this was the first time I was ever going to watch a Super Bowl without him, and I wanted to check in. We talked about how he was feeling: "like hell," he said. It had been about a year since the heart attack, and in those few months, he had grown old and tired. Depression is very common after a heart attack, and it had hit him hard.
Dad had been planning his and Mum's retirement for a long time. He was a newspaper man, a printer, like his father. He spent many years working his way up in a union that taught him the craft that would let him give his kids the opportunities he hadn't had. The joy went out of his work the day they took the linotype out of the composing room and replaced it with the giant computers. He learned to work with them, but he didn't love them the way he had love the hot lead slugs that used to make up the paper. So he put his shoulder to the wheel, learned the new system, and started saving for the time when he wouldn't have to work the night-turn at the Press anymore. He had fought beside his union brothers for decades to save their jobs, to save the union my grampa Johnson helped to build. There were strikes, buy-outs, mergers, frustrations... The bosses did their best to break the unions, and failed. But the battle had taken a lot out of my Dad. He had poured his passion into his family, his church, his Boy Scouts, his neighbors. He took care of everyone but himself. And then, the heart that had pumped so much love into the world betrayed him. Sleep missed. Cigarettes smoked. Too many pounds. Too many worries. They took their toll. We would sit in the living room, and he would talk about moving back to the farm where Mum grew up. He updated me on how much was in the retirement fund. He had the date circled in his mind: the day he could pack up and move to the green hills and hardwood forests of northern Pennsyltucky.
But today, we talked about the Game. The Steelers chances, (they weren't good.) His appointment for more tests in the morning. Other than his dark mood, there wasn't anything especially memorable about the conversation. Except the end. Dad wasn't an "I love you" kind of guy. He was more comfortable living it than he was saying it. We had tried it on a couple of times, but it always fit like a new shoe, handsome, but just a little too stiff and pinchy to be comfortable. I settled for a good bye hug, and a "be careful going home." I knew what he meant. We finished up with "Well, I better get going. Enjoy the game," or something like that, then he said the words I will never forget.
"God bless you," he said.
In the Bible, sons are always asking their dying fathers for their blessing. It's the last gift a Dad can give to his boy. It was the last gift my father gave to me. I treasure that blessing more than my life.
The anniversary always sneaks up on me. His birthday will be in a week or so. I always see that coming. But the night the phone call came, (why do they always come at night?) that one always catches me unawares. I've been feeling really crappy this weekend. Staying in bed. Feeling depressed and tired. Skipping yesterday's long run. I had no idea why. Then this morning, my Mum posted it on Facebook. 16 years. "Do you think that's the reason I've been feeling so bad?" I asked Mrs P. "It happens every year," she answered.
There's so much I wish we could have shared. Two more Super Bowls. All the graduating grandkids. An Eagle scout. A linebacker. A lady Scoutmaster. A daughter who works to keep kids in school. The sons-in-law who held their families together. The daughter-in-law who became a child therapist. The wife who shared his home, his bed, and his heart who became the matriarch of our strange, unruly tribe. And the son who finally figured out that life is worth fighting for.
We are his legacy. He spoke those words to me, but they were for all of us. All of us. When things get rough, we can keep fighting, just as he fought. We can keep loving, as he loved, even when we feel like hell. We can leave things better than we found them. We can build legacies of our own. We have his blessing.
God bless you too, Dad.
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