The final entry in my father’s final journal, written in my mother’s handwriting, shared how glad he was to come home that day. He said it was “a whole lot quieter here” and he could “catch up on seven winks of sleep.” Too weak to hold the pen himself, Dad also had Mom write, “It was nice to feel the warm sun when they took me out of the ambulance.” That would have been very important to him, as the seven weeks prior to that entry he’d been shuttled between hospitals filled with good doctors and nurses and staff who really did try to figure out what was making a 72-year-old man’s previously healthy body fail. In the end, they sent him home.
Dad’s last entry also included a long list of the family members who came to visit him that day, and a content note that his sons administered the sacrament to him and Mom. He was surrounded by those he loved and at peace with his God. The next day, he slipped into a coma, and the following day, left this world. His death certificate, dated April 2, 2003, indicated the cause of his death was “failure to assimilate food.” Whatever that means.
Reading those last words brought back a pang of deep longing I thought had been tamed. Seventeen years later, I miss him as much as ever. But Dad took some of the sting out of his leaving. He left a part of himself for his family by writing volumes of journals, starting 26 years before his early death, and never missing a day. Truthfully. These books of his words are, in fact, the greatest inheritance he could bequeath to his children.
Last Sunday, I finished a project that took a whole lot longer than I could have imagined but, now that it’s done, can say was worth it. I scanned Dad’s journals — all 1,779 pages of them. I did this for two reasons: to share them with my six siblings and to preserve them.
An unexpected benefit from this effort is I now understand Dad more through his words than I did while he lived. The scanning project took almost two years because it was nearly impossible to just lay a book on the scanner and hit the scanning button without catching a glimpse of my name or a sibling’s name, or an expression of emotion (which was kind of surprising), or some other statement that captured my attention and left me reading. If I did manage to make it through the actual scanning, I was still vulnerable during the cropping and cataloging of each page — a second exposure to enticing entries that often demanded another minute or two of attention.
Through his words, I learned about the things that made Dad glad, and the things that made him sad or mad. I learned I underestimated his religious testimony; I didn’t listen carefully enough to his earnest attempts to share what he knew about God. I learned how much he loved my mom, more than I ever realized. I learned the surprising truth that his heart actually did break over his children’s choices. Aware of his occasional displeasure, I underestimated how deeply our foolish decisions hurt him. And I learned he was sometimes afraid.
He took absolute joy in serving others, especially with his unmatched skill of fixing broken things. But I had no idea how many acts of service he gave, nor how wide the spectrum of his service ranged. In one day’s record, he trimmed a neighbor’s hedge, fixed someone’s car radio, dropped off garden produce to a friend, took bread he baked to his sister, gave someone a ride, stopped by the blood bank to donate a pint and ended the day feeding an orphaned baby owl. He wrote the list with no fanfare. Just another perfect day in his paradise.
It’s difficult to express my gratitude for his commitment to record his life. Even in those final weeks as his life spiraled downward, he still wrote — or had someone write for him. That alone is reason enough to read his words. There’s something terribly humbling about reading one day’s brief, desperate entry, “I love my family,” scrawled in handwriting made shaky by morphine administered to stave off the pain of a difficult exploratory surgery.
I am changed because of my father’s words. He took the time to record his knowledge, and now I take the time to learn it. This exchange is possible only because he wrote.
Our personal experiences, insights and impressions are the comforting, timeless gift we alone can transfer to our children and grandchildren.
Let the writing begin.