At 4am on Christmas morning, I was awakened by a ringing phone. I lay awake as my husband answered, not needing to hear the other end of the conversation to know that the call was to let us know that my father-in-law had passed away. He had been in poor health for some time, and had taken a turn for the worse less than a week prior. We had moved him into the same hospice where my mother-in-law had passed away nearly a year ago – the same exact room, in fact – only a few days before. The call was by no means unexpected, and yet it was still a shock. As my husband hung up the phone, he quietly murmured, “Dad’s gone,” and we simply held hands in the dark for a few moments, comforting each other without words.
My husband, who had spent the past week rushing back and forth between our home, Pappy’s assisted living facility, and the hospice, making arrangements for private care and transport, packing and unpacking necessary items, dealing with bills and insurance and red tape, having the awkward conversation with Pappy about funeral arrangements, not to mention simply waiting and wondering and worrying, was able to eventually fall back asleep from sheer physical and emotional exhaustion. I lay in bed quietly for a while, and when sleep didn’t come, I slipped out of the bedroom and downstairs to the living room. I turned on the lights on the Christmas tree, the swag over the mantelpiece, and the snow village. I thought about turning on some Christmas music, but instead, I brewed myself a cup of coffee and curled up in an easy chair, warming my hands on the mug, inhaling the fragrant steam, and enjoying the calm serenity of silence in the soft glow of the Christmas lights.
As I sat, I thought about Pappy’s life. He had certainly led an interesting one. Born to Canadian immigrants and raised in a blue-collar suburb of Boston, he obtained a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in music from Boston University. He played trombone in an Army and later a USO band. He met and married a beautiful young lady and raised three children with her. He taught music at the high school and college level, serving as Dean of Boston Conservatory for a decade. He served as president of the Massachusetts Music Educators Association. He played in the pit orchestras of the Shubert and Colonial Theatres, and entertained at Blinstraub’s nightclub, the Totem Pole Ballroom, and the Cape Cod Melody Tent. He directed the Boston Brass Ensemble. He taught at a youth band camp in New Brunswick for many summers, often packing up the family (and the family dog) and bringing them along. He was a Master Mason; a member and president of his college fraternity, Sigma Phi Epsilon; a Eucharistic lay reader at his church; and the proud grandfather to seven youngsters. He had visited Canada, France, Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, and throughout the United States. He had met fascinating people – some famous, some not. And over the course of the past 81 years, he had become quite a fascinating person himself.
When I first met my husband, we talked to each other quite a bit about our families. My dad had passed away a number of years earlier, so I had to rely on telling stories about him. As we both talked about our fathers, we often found ourselves saying, “Oh yeah, my dad did that too,” or “My dad used to say something very similar.” We joked that we had been raised in the same household, so similar were our dads. They were both fond of napping on the couch at family gatherings, my father-in-law being well known for commenting, “There are two kinds of naps: good and better.” They both joked about their receding hairlines. My father joked about the potbelly he developed over the years, teasingly sucking it in or sticking it out. My father-in-law remarked, “I used to have a magnificent chest; then the drawers fell out.” My husband and I were both required by our dads to learn to change a tire before we could get our driver’s licenses. They were both strict yet loving and supportive fathers.
It had been difficult to watch his failing health. When I married my husband, nearly seven years ago, his parents had both been hale and hearty, happy to babysit our son at their Boston apartment while we went out on the town for a few hours. But as the years passed, Pappy had begun to slow down. The diabetes and congestive heart failure he’d had for years began to take a toll on his health. He found it difficult to walk for long stretches. He tired easily. He struggled to keep track of the literally dozens of medications he had to take every day.
Eventually, we realized he needed more assistance than either my mother-in-law or the family could provide, and he moved into an assisted living facility. But he was still sociable, making new friends, enjoying visits from his chldren and grandchildren, participating in activities like concerts and games, and occasionally going out to eat with the family. Slowly, though, even those abilities slipped away from him. Although he could walk a bit with assistance, he couldn’t lift his foot high enough to get over a simple curbstone. If he fell, he needed several strong people to get him back on his feet. He struggled to get the short distance from his chair to his bed, even with assistance. He began to forget names, to fail to recognize loved ones for a moment, and to have periods of confusion – and of panic. He bore it all with dignity, if also with anger and frustration. And perhaps even with a tinge of fear – not fear of death, but fear of losing the knowledge of his past, fear of losing the knowledge of his family, fear of losing control over his own mind.
And so his death came as a relief – not only to us, but to him. He had spoken to several dear friends and family members on the phone recently, and he had visited with his children and his grandchildren. He had said his goodbyes. He had made his peace. It was his time, and he was ready. And so he entered into the life beyond much the same way as he had lived in this one: with joy, with anticipation, with appreciation for family and friends, and with a sense that there was something more yet to come – something wonderful.
Thank you, Pappy, for letting me be a part of your life for the last seven years. Thank you for letting me be a part of your family for the last seven years. And thank you for simply being who you were.
I love you and I miss you.
Herbert J. Philpott, 1933-2014