Some little while ago, when our daughter was only five years old and her brothers were only two, we experienced the loss of a loved one.
Within just a few months of being diagnosed with cancer, my Father-in-Law had gone from an able bodied man -- capable of driving himself and his wife back from a Florida cruise vacation -- to hospice patient. We watched in a state of disbelief as he slipped quickly away, the look in his eyes growing more and more distant with each passing day. The final night, when hospice warned his family he likely would not make it through to morning, we gathered to support my Mother-in-Law and say our goodbyes.
The twins played, or watched Blues Clues, or did one of the many things that distract two-year-old boys. Our daughter was similarly distracted by family.
As the evening waned and we could no longer postpone the inevitable, we took it in turns to enter the master bedroom to say our private farewells. There was never a moment when I thought of bringing the boys in to say goodbye. They were too young to understand, and potentially too reckless to be around such a frail patient, but our daughter was a different case. She knew her grandfather well. She seemed to understand why we were spending so much time at her grandparents' house and why she hadn't seen much of Poppy in recent weeks. It would have been cruel not to give her the same opportunity for closure the rest of us were being afforded.
As I stood at his bedside holding my little girl in the crook of my arm, he watched us. Whether or not he knew we were there is uncertain. It seemed to me he noticed when I positioned her over him so she could kiss him on the forehead, though that might be wishful thinking. It also might have been wishful thinking to believe our daughter fully understood what she was doing with that kiss. She never cried, never got upset, never questioned his feeble appearance.
For my part, I thanked him for giving me his daughter and for being a loving father-in-law. The words were difficult to get out, but they came. What didn't come were the last few words I wanted to tell him before leaving the room. I tried, only to choke them back for fear of breaking down.
I fixed my eyes on anything in the room that might help reign in my emotions for just another few seconds so I could tell him I loved him. It wasn't helping. Eventually, after two more false starts and with swollen red eyes and tear-streaked cheeks, I looked at my daughter's cherubic happy face.
She didn't ask me what was wrong. My sadness didn't unsettle her or make her cry. She simply smiled and said: "It's okay Daddy. Poppy knows you love him."
That's when I knew she understood why we were there.
© 2011 Mark Feggeler