Love Letter to Big Red

Jamie Dad

They say that when someone has a terminal disease, you have a chance to make peace.  They say you have a chance to prepare yourself.  I thought I had.

We knew Dad had a terminal disease.  Last summer, when he was hospitalized with complications from his liver, one of his doctors told us that Dad might live two months or two years.  The nurses were kind enough to whisper to me what symptoms to look for, what I could expect when the end was near.  We were advised to call Hospice, but Dad ran them off.  He told them he’d call when he was ready for them.

What they didn’t tell me was that my dad would come home and start digging trenches across our front yard for new sprinklers.  A dying man wouldn’t start working on a sprinkler system, would he?  I watched my father sweat and struggle with those sprinklers during the hottest time of the year.  I didn’t think he should be working so hard in that heat, but he was determined.  I made up my mind then to say nothing and just let him do whatever it was he felt such a pressing need to do.

I watched him butcher the limbs on our trees because he figured it was easier to cut the limbs now, rather than pay to fix the fence if they ever fell.  I said nothing as I watched our lush tree line grow sparse.  The limbs would grow back.  If my dad wanted to cut the trees, so be it, but it sure was hard to keep in mind that this man was terminally ill.

I guess, because my father rallied so well after his hospital stay that summer, I didn’t take the time that some people would to talk about things.  My dad certainly didn’t make it any easier.  He was frustrated because he knew he was going to die and there was nothing he could do to change that.

Sometimes we got snippy with each other.  I lost some patience because I became the parent.  Suddenly, I was trying to figure out his finances and telling him what he should do.  He didn’t really like that, and it made for tense times around our house.

But we had our good moments.  They usually fell on Sundays, when we were both home. Dad would circle all his picks in the sports page and then sit and watch football games all day.  Between naps and chores, I would sit with him and read the paper.  He always got to it before me, so he would tell me whether Dave Barry’s column was funny that week.

Shortly before my dad died, I told him of an early morning walk I’d taken.  It was foggy, and I’d heard a noise in a tree.  I stopped and saw a redheaded woodpecker tapping in an old tree across the street.  I inched closer to him, but he just watched me out of one eye and continued tapping.  I was enthralled, and I rushed home to tell Dad.   We often sat on our porch and watched the woodpeckers and bluejays, and he knew how much I enjoyed watching them.

Not long after he died, I went to the cemetery for the first time.  I sat down and started talking.  I had to let Dad know the Bucs didn’t make it to the Superbowl and FSU wouldn’t be No. 1 this year.  But, most of all, I tried to say all the things I wish I could have said to him when he was still here.  I told him I wished we’d spent less time fussing and more time talking.  I told him I should have asked him to show me how to light the pilot light on the furnace.

I told him I just wanted to know that he’s okay.  I told him if he could just send me a sign to let me know everything is all right, I would feel so much better.  But I also told him it couldn’t be anything that might scare me, because he knows how scared I can get.

Suddenly, a redheaded woodpecker flew out of the woods across the street and landed in a tree to my left.  I wondered if that was my sign, but I couldn’t really be sure.  So I told my dad if that was my sign to let me know he’s okay, I would take it.  I just wanted to be sure.

At that moment, three more redheaded woodpeckers flew out of the woods across the street and lighted in the trees just in front of me.  After a few flybys, they settled in and began tapping away.

I took that as my sign.

*2001

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