Tuesday, September 8, 2020



Circling high in the sky, the big black bird caught my attention each time it could be seen in the gaps of my leafy umbrella, the canopy above my hammock, my refuge in the courtyard behind the house. Urabu. This local version of vulture was everywhere, there were always a few hanging around on the roof of a building down the street, and I remembered how hard my Dad and I laughed the first time we walked by it on the way to school and discovered it was a doctors office. I soon refocused on the task at hand- lying there, swinging slightly in the breeze, trying to decide which one of the mangoes above was the most perfectly ripe before climbing up to have a my delicious and very messy snack, when I was again distracted, this time by the amazing aroma that filled the neighborhood whenever the little corner grocery roasted coffee, which, because the folks in this small Brazilian town liked it fresh, was a frequent treat for the senses. Back to the mangos, but now what was that annoying beeping?


The door opened and the Nurse went over to my Father's bed and turned off whatever alarm was sounding, made a few adjustments to the valves and tubing, wrote something down on the clipboard and then turned and saw me in the chair.


"Did you get some sleep? I just made a fresh pot of coffee if you're interested."


I rubbed my eyes. "You might not believe this, but I just had a dream about drinking coffee when I was a kid in Brazil."


"Kids drink coffee in Brazil?"


I smiled, remembering my first Cafe con Leche.  "The coffee there is so good even the babies drink it."


She laughed. "Well I'm sure our coffee isn't THAT good, but you're welcome to help yourself in the family room across the hall.


Dad seemed to have slept through our conversation, but I got a little styrofoam cup for him as well, started to put it on the tray next to the bed, but stood there looking at him for a moment, thinking of how much had changed in just the past few weeks, let alone in those days years ago when his students called him the "Gigante con Bigote," or Bearded Giant, and they would all hang out at the Cafezino bar after class drinking those tiny glasses of half raw sugar half strong espresso and talking fast and loud whether the topic was the latest popular music or applied thermodynamics.  He had survived the colon cancer for 7 years, and done pretty well with the liver carcinoid, but the surgical infection he developed after that last trip to the Mayo Clinic had reduced him physically to a tiny shell of a body, though his mind was still as sharp as ever, at least when the pain allowed.


There was another soft  knock at the door, I turned as it opened a crack, and recognized a retired Pastor from his church, who recognized me as well, though he hadn't seen me there in 30 years.


"Hello John, is your Father receiving visitors?"


As I started to whisper that he was asleep, a faint voice came from behind me.




I helped my Dad raise the head of the bed up so that he could see who was there, and he seemed delighted to see his old friend. I let them have the two cups of coffee I had just brought to the room and took my time getting myself another.


When I returned to the room I could tell that my Father was getting a bit tired, but looked happy to have had the company. His old friend sensed it was time to go, and motioned for me to come over to the bed and join hands in prayer. It was a fine prayer, it returned me to prayers I had heard in church as a child, and I have to admit that as it went on my mind drifted back to one of the many conversations my Father and I had on that last long road trip to Minnesota. As both a highly respected professor of Physics and Astronomy and a Southern Baptist Sunday School teacher, he had taught me early in life that there was no conflict between the two, that the gifts of Grace and Knowledge come from the same God. But of course there were skeptics, of one, or the other.



"So why," I had asked, "Have you stayed with a fundamentalist church all these years?"


He took a while to answer. "When I was in College I thought that what I really wanted to do was be a missionary, but always came back to the fact that God was calling me to be a teacher. By staying with my church, I'm doing both."


I realized that the prayer had ended, that his friend had let go of my hand, but that my Farher still held both of ours. He was smiling, gave us each a long look, and said "Now I want to pray."


It was a prayer of thanksgiving, of genuine gratitude for the life he had led, for the love of family and friends that he had enjoyed, for the journey of learning, and the satisfaction of teaching. I don't remember exactly what he said, it is in memory more of a bright light of emotion than a scene to be replayed. But I do remember how he ended it. 


"Father, I will soon be with you, and I am full of nothing but joy that I will soon be home. It is for those I leave behind that I pray, that in the coming  days they will find in you that joy, that comfort, and that strength that you have given me my whole life long."


I walked his friend a ways down the hall, and he remarked that my Father was right about us all needing divine assistance in filling the hole he was leaving, and though unexpected, how like him it was to think of those of us who would soon be grieving. When I got back to the room he was still awake, and I stumbled through an attempt to express my own gratitude for the life he had given me, knowing I could never find words of thanks that would come close to the magnitude of the gift.


He smiled, and I knew he appreciated my effort.  "If you really want to help me now, help me go home- from home."


He had been in the hospital, this time, for several weeks, and though there had been some improvement of his condition initially, the infection had been persistent, and as even the most optimistic prognosis recognized that recovery was unlikely, and though thankful for all the years that medical care had given him and forgiving that the last surgery had produced what was going to get him in the end, he didn't want to spend his final days in the tangle of tubes, pumps, and monitors. He wanted to go home.


I looked at him, and I'm sure he could see the conflict in my eyes. "You know how Mom feels."


"I know that she fears she won't be able to live in a house that I died in. When we talk tonight, I need to know that you will be there for both of us through the hospice, and make sure that after I'm gone you help her remember that it is where we lived, not just where I died. I don't want you to try to talk her into anything"


I didn't bring it up when she came to the room that evening, it was her turn to spend the night with him, and I don't know what was said between them. When I came back to the room in the morning they were both asleep, and through the crack in the door they looked as peaceful as I could remember ever having seen them. I walked across the hall, and as I reached for the handle the door opened from inside, and I was hit once more by the smell of fresh coffee, and greeted by the angel of mercy that had just made it.


'They're both asleep," I said.


"I imagine they are exhausted, they were up most of the night. You know, we try to give everyone as much privacy as we can, but all of us on the night shift knew what was going on in that room. There were tears, but laughter too. You are very lucky to have them as parents, and if you'll stop by the nurse's station I have some information that your Mom asked me to put together about home hospice."


I mumbled my thanks, got my coffee, went back out to the parking lot, and sat in my truck and cried.


It took a couple of days for everyone to sign off on the plan and get things ready at the house, and I can still hear my Father cry out in a joyful whisper  as they brought him out of the hospital "I'm free!"  We had moved the big round dining room table and replaced it with a hospital bed, and in the room where so many meals were shared, so many birthdays celebrated, he was able to share his final days surrounded by family and friends, visiting with them when he could, or listening to the voices of those he loved, and who loved him. I had rigged up a television so that he could watch the live feed from the Shuttle on the NASA channel, hours and hours just looking down on us all from orbit, and it was this view, and the sounds of love and laughter, that he took with him into the light, going home.

John Northrip

hoto by Mike Kenneally on Unsplash

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