It was, objectively speaking, a terrible time. In eight years, I’d grieved the deaths of both of my in-laws, of my mother, and of my sister Kris. One friend and a counseling client died by suicide. Another friend, not yet forty, was felled by a stroke at a Christmas party. In the middle of it all, the horrors of the Aurora theater shootings ripped through the university counseling center where I worked. Crisis after crisis, sorrow after sorrow—even now I refuse to list them all. But my body took every blow.
Just as had my mother and her mother before her, I grew a lump in my throat that wouldn’t go away. My Icelandic grandmother had died from complications after a thyroidectomy; my mother’s thyroid cancer had been successfully treated when she was in her fifties. As my own nodule grew, swallowing became more and more difficult, and my voice weakened like a drought-choked river. All the while, my widowed father lived joyfully into his 90’s. Just weeks before he developed his final pneumonia, I scheduled the thyroidectomy that I had long dreaded.
A few days before my surgery, the husband and I flew to Florida to say goodbye to Dad. He slept on his back in a bright room, under clean white sheets, as if resting for a journey. When I leaned over to kiss the warm dome of his forehead, his eyes opened, baby blue as a late spring sky. Oh, Yenny! (He always called me by the Icelandic version of my name.) Yenny, what a treat to wake up and see YOU here! As he drifted back to sleep, I knew that had been our moment, that after my own death, I’d open my celestial eyes and say, Oh, Daddy, what a treat to wake up and see YOU here!
My endocrinologist described my common papillary thyroid cancer as indolent, a word Dad would have appreciated. By the time he took his last breath, I was recovering from surgery. My tumor had been successfully removed–no radiation, no chemo, just a Viking-boat shaped scar on my neck and replacement thyroid hormone every morning. I was resting–sore throated and groggy–when the husband stepped up to our bed, phone in hand. Concern edged the corners of his mouth, and his eyebrows furrowed with sadness. Is Dad gone? I asked, and he nodded. I cried the bitter tears of an orphan, shocked at how raw such expected—even gracious–news could feel.
The next day, I woke at 4:30 to the echoing call of a back-yard robin. I wanted to go outside, to see the open sky where my father had gone. In the darkness, I quietly opened the heavy wooden door of our old house and made my way the half mile to City Park Golf Course. Full of energy and purpose, I felt like I could walk forever. Eastern clouds shone pink and mauve as a faint glow appeared on the horizon. I threaded my way past the empty driving range and crested a hill where raked sand traps and geometric greens cast long shadows. Soon, sunlight touched the snow-white tufts of pollen heaped at the feet of hundred-year-old cottonwoods.
I felt the balm of my father’s presence and the morning joy he savored. A childhood hymn echoed in my mind, Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms. Leaning, leaning, leaning on the Everlasting Arms! When I was small, Daddy would hold the hymnal for me, running his fingers along the words that he sang by heart. My father, who wept as we sang in church. The same father who told jokes too vulgar to repeat, and whose capacious mind was our Google long before the World Wide Web.
Tears stung my eyes. Suddenly, I felt bone tired. My legs trembled. Thirst scratched painfully at the place where my thyroid had been just three days earlier. I found a bench and watched electric golf carts line up at the club house. I waited until a low current of strength returned, then stood up and slowly began the walk home. I had lost my father, yet begun to breath more easily. A long and gentle set of years began that morning, a miraculous stretch of time with no hospital visits, and no funerals.