("The Soldier" below was written in 1st person. Though this story is a continuance of that one, I changed the POV, so it is now in third.)
It was 1980 when things started to change. It was imperceptible to the little girl, but that was by design. There were some things that grown-ups had to deal with that weren’t meant for a little girl to know. Even now, she only vaguely remembers the beginning of it all. She doesn’t remember her dad leaving for a couple of days, only the homecoming. He looked very tired and very pale, but he said that he wouldn’t miss his son’s birthday, no matter what the doctors thought.
She remembers her father sitting on the ratty old green couch with her book on human anatomy and showing her and her siblings what was wrong with him and what the doctors would be doing to him on the day after Carl’s birthday. Double-bypass, she heard. Daddy’s heart was born wrong and it wasn’t working right any more. Part of it was dead, he told them. That didn’t make any sense to the little girl, so she shrugged and went out to play. Later she heard whispered conversations between her parents and whispered conversations between her siblings. Everyone was being so quiet. Daddy was going away for a little while, but that was okay because he went away for days due to his job. It was no big deal. Late that night she heard her father whispering to her mother, when they thought she was in bed and asleep, the story of how his father had died when he was 10 and he was damned if he was going to do that to the little girl.
He survived that operation and was the big strong daddy she always remembered. No more tired and no more pale. He was going to live forever; she never doubted that for an instance. She didn’t understand why daddy had to get a new job. She didn’t understand why her daddy’s boss had come to the hospital and fired her daddy while he lay in his hospital bed. She only understood that for a while they had to live cheaply. It wasn’t a big deal; they had done it before.
Good ol’ Chuck wasn’t down long. He took another job – not as profitable, with less responsibility – and he was working again. One day, though, he decided that he’d had enough of living by the say-so of other men. He started his own business so that no man would ever be able to tell him what to do again. She was 13 now and she understood that they would have to live cheaply again. Rather than live too cheaply, she took jobs of her own.
Her father worked long and hard hours, but the money never came home. Everything he made went back into that company. She damned the company and her father for having to work herself. She heard whispered conversation of a job offer in Wisconsin that would bring in $70,000 a year, but that her father wouldn’t accept. He would never again work for someone else.
She never saw the change happening this time. The days when her father was too tired and too pale to go to work but went anyway. She was away at college. She got a call that he needed surgery again. The warranty ran out on his heart and he needed a quadruple this time. She was told that everything would be fine and there was no need to come home. She took it at face value and stayed at school. The surgery was a success and everything was fine, she was told.
Within 6 months, she received another call. Another surgery for her father – the arteries in his neck were blocked. Another success and everything was fine, she was told.
The next call 6 months later came as a shock. Her father was in the hospital and they didn’t know what was wrong with him, but everything was fine. Her father would be fine. They didn’t tell her the horrors of his illness; they didn’t tell her he was at death’s door. She was told to stay at school – there was nothing she could do and her father would be fine. When Christmas break came, she went home to find a man who was a shell of the big and strong father she always knew. A rare and bizarre disease had eaten him to nearly nothing. His kidneys had failed; his lungs were damn near shot. He no longer walked – he shuffled. The girl was 21.
Dialysis was hard on the old man, but he was told it would be. He was given 6 years to live if he didn’t get a transplant and he was told that they wouldn’t give him a transplant because he wasn’t a good candidate. His brother offered; his children offered. He turned them all down. He knew his chances at success weren’t worth their suffering.
He sat in that dialysis chair three times a week, watching his friends there die one by one. He didn’t want to go that way. He had things to live for. He picked one goal after another to live for – his daughter graduating college, his grandson graduating high school, his new granddaughter. Each goal for someone else became his connection with life.
She was in Florida when the next call came. He was going in for tests – cancer they said. Inoperable, they said, because of his poor health. They gave him 6 months in July of 2001.
It was May of 2002 when the old man chose to end his life. No need for any assistance, really, just a refusal to go to dialysis. He made all his plans in secret and then, just a few days before they were put into action, explained them to his wife. Joan understood. She had watched the pain and the deterioration for years. His children understood. On Friday he went through his last dialysis. On Saturday, his son took him fishing one last time. All of his children called him on that day, and he said goodbye to each of them. He spoke of looking forward to fishing with his father again.
When he entered a hospice the next day, he was told that it could be one week or two before the end would come but that he would never feel it. They made him comfortable and gave him morphine so that he would sleep. It took 36 hours. He was finally ready to go. He made his peace with the world and with himself.
Knowing that it was coming didn’t make it any easier when the phone rang late on the night of Monday, May 6th 2002. Joan was with him when he left, but he never saw her.
Before his passing, the little girl – now a grown woman with a family of her own – wrote him one final letter. It arrived on that last Saturday and Joan read it to him before he passed. He’s with her now and always – in her make-up and in her memories. He’s with his granddaughter through her mother. In this way, he will live forever.
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