I'll never forget that last conversation I had with my Dad. It was on a Thursday at Disney World. . .Magic Kingdom. Supposedly the Happiest Place on Earth.
Mom had called and said Dad wasn't doing very well. It was only a matter of time, really. Even the most optimistic mind (which I had clung to) and the denial (which was also a familiar friend) couldn't battle the fact that we were losing him - and sooner than expected. We were in line for the Winnie the Pooh ride and after I disconnected from the call, I fought tears. Tom told me I needed to call right back and talk to him. Mom had said he was awake for the moment which was getting rarer and rarer.
"Not now." I said through the tears. "It's too loud here."
"Now. You need to do it now. You may not have another chance."
I didn't want my last conversation with my dad to take place at all. I didn't want to admit that it was going to be the last time to me or him. I was the one who was holding onto hope. But for the last conversation to take place at Disney World didn't seem right to me. He would hear all the happiness in the background and for that I felt guilty. We should be there with him, not off enjoying ourselves.
I don't remember if I actually went on that ride or not, but I do know that soon after I was sitting alone on a bench just opposite the Dumbo ride where it seemed to be quietest, making that phone call with shaking hands.
"Mom, is he still awake?"
"Can I talk to him?"
She handed the phone over and the conversation was typical for us. He talked about such normal things it was hard to believe that he was in his final hours/days/weeks. He was watching something on TV. Something to do with snowboarders and remarking how it was amazing to see such ability in people when he was stuck in a hospital bed. I had to laugh at him because I reminded him that in a bed or not, I don't think he would have been joining them on the mountain. An extreme athlete he was not.
He asked me about Disney. Was it busy? What rides had we done? What were our plans for the rest of the day? His voice was hoarse and weak, but even with the music, merriment and screams of laughter around me I could make out every word. Then he said in a broken voice, "I wish I was there with you."
Images of being a 5 year old girl in a Mickey Mouse shirt and painted face on my dad's shoulders flashed before me. "I do too." I whispered. Then I broke down in a burst of sobs. He was quiet on his end. "Love you Dad." I said and the phone was handed back to my mom. She said he was tired and needed rest.
And yes, that was the last time I talked to him. The next two days he was barely awake at all. Tom and I spent hours on the computer analyzing flights, wondering if we could get there in time, planning different senarios. But on Sunday the doctor said his feet were cold and that he might not survive the day.
It was during the Daytona 500. We were back in Cocoa Beach at Tom's parents house. They were hosting a Daytona party. We were surrounded by family and friends, but the mood was somber. Everyone knew the situation back in Kansas and was sensitive to my feelings. I was restless, pacing, distant. . .
Then when I sat down on the couch, someone handed me a piece of Red Velvet cake. I had never tasted this type of cake before and tried to force myself to take a bite. Halfway to my mouth my phone buzzed in my pocket and I shoved the cake at Tom. He had looked at me quizzically and all I could say was, "my phone."
I hopped up and stepped outside on the screened porch that overloooked the beautiful Banana River, the only place in the house that got good cell reception and was quiet.
I knew right away before I even answered what my mom was going to say. I don't remember her exact words, but the message was clear. He was gone.
Tom was there, taking me in his arms with all the guests looking on from the inside of the house. He asked if I wanted to get out of there and I nodded. We walked to the beach, but once we got there I didn't feel like walking. We just stood, watching the waves crash onto the shore and letting the windy day rip through our hair.
Back at the house I was surrouned by all the love from our friends and family. They were so incredibly supportive and caring. I broke the news to the girls and comforted them in their tears and sadness. Tom and I retreated to our room to begin to make those flight arrangements, make calls and get things in order.
Somehow we got to Kansas and over the next week I did the hardest thing ever. I said goodbye to my dad. I listened as one by one, guests at the visitation told me how he had touched their lives. Then again the day of the funeral speeches were made by people I had never met - people who said my father was their greatest inspiration. He was such a good, kind and giving person - the question of the day from everyone was, "Why him?" I'm not sure we came up with a good answer other than God needed him to do his good works in Heaven. And He needed someone else to step up and take my father's place. He was so important in the lives of so many from the prisoners he was a mentor to, to the church goers who were lost and needed to find answers, from the dozens of people who benefitted from his good works through Kiwanis (and enjoyed his very famous pancakes) to the people who found their faith through his work with the Gideons. All the people in Mississippi who benefitted from his help with rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina. And all his close friends and family who would miss his insight and knowledge of just about every subject under the sun. . .politics, astronomy, religion, insurance, finances, science, gardening, math. . .the list is endless.
A year has gone by. . .it has been a year of reflection and sadness, of getting used to a new kind of normal and adjusting to not being able to call him up to answer my most difficult and profound questions. It has been a year of trying to find the answer to "why?" and trying to understand how I could carry on his legacy. My answers aren't clear or resolute. But I am going to start by just being what he wanted me to be - a good person with a good heart and a good conscience. Someone who knows right from wrong and will step up when called upon to help others in need. Someone who will raise their children with good social and moral conscience and will be educated and curious about the world around them. It's a big, daunting task and I'm taking it one day at a time.
Tomorrow we head back to Florida for our annual trip. This time mom is joining us in the Sunshine State. It will be a time of renewal and rejuvination for all of us. And while we won't be at the Magic Kingdom this time around, we are making plans to go to Epcot - a place of education and curiousity - a place Mom has always wanted to visit. And our tickets to Epcot? They were free because we gave a day of community service to earn them - in Dad's honor.
Miss you Dad and Love you. . .