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October 2017

How Would You Say It?

I once had to tell a father his son had died.  Whispering up through my memory, triggered by recent conversations about the experiences of presidential calls and letters and military commanding officer visits to deliver news that made its way from war to door, I remember that I, no one of significance, had to call a father and say to him that his son is dead.
            There was no way to be prepared. I had worked with J, a handsome young man with beautiful, perfect, dark-brown skin and eyes, and a smile that got bright-wide whenever he thought I was being silly, which was often. He died from a disease that took away his ability to walk, talk, and finally breathe. Because of difficult family circumstances, J’s parents had to place a young J in a nursing home to receive the best care possible at the time as their lives were in a state of flux. When J turned 18, our organization was able to help him explore various options on where he could live outside of the facility. We matched J with a home and support family so his last years were not spent in a hospital room but, instead, outside laughing in the sun or going to basketball games or getting pizza, for as long as he could.
             I offered to find J’s parents and tell them. Maybe it was because I was his “family support facilitator” or his friend—I hoped, but no more so than my colleagues who worked with endless focus and effort on his behalf for life outside of a facility. When I found out he died, I went to the hospital. No one was there when I arrived; I saw J through his slightly-opened door and went in. It felt like I wasn’t supposed to be there, but I looked at him and called his name; the smile he always had for me was gone. I said I loved him.
            I still sometimes think of how I was told my father died; he was 59 years old, lying in a military hospital bed in Colorado Springs, in 1995. After being with him most of the day and evening, his nurses talked me into going home to rest (I was seven months pregnant with my third daughter who would be named Andreanna, after him). I drove home in the late-night rain, and just as I got in the door, the phone rang. The nurse simply told me he was gone. I remember immediately being upset because I was just there, that I shouldn’t have left.  She was kind and said things to me like he may have needed me to leave, he may not have wanted me to see him die, that happens often.  It took me a while to think about that, but it sounded like my dad. I will always remember those words or maybe her kindness on my quiet drive back to the base.
            When I sat down to make the call at my desk that day, with my door closed and a few notes in front of me, I was not prepared for the enormity of the moment. My heart was racing, my hands were shaking. I worked to sound calm when his father answered. Quiet. I remember the quiet. After I confirmed I was speaking to J’s father and explained who I was and how I knew his son, the line was just quiet. He asked no questions. I suppose I didn’t think that they had been told at some point many years ago that this very moment would eventually come. Then I had to say it, that his son had become ill and had not recovered and had died. Quiet. I shared stories about his smile and his love of pizza; I believe he laughed at that. I left my contact information and let him know that I’d be calling him back very soon. Of course, after I hung up, I cried and cried.