Sunday, March 31, 2013

Famous Last Word

Today would have been my dad's 96th birthday.

As he lay dying nearly a quarter century ago, immobilized and intubated but still conscious, we were trying to figure out how to help him tell us what we could do for him or what he was thinking.

I recalled how he had taught me Morse code back in my Boy Scout days, but signaling dots and dashes turned out to be clumsy business for somebody not capable of much more than eye blinks.

So I just made up a chart of the alphabet and gave him a pencil to hold in his mouth as a pointer.

His first message, and also his last as it turned out, was a single word.

"Coffee," he said, and then let the pencil drop from his mouth. He didn't have the energy to focus any longer on trying to be sociable.

But he really did love coffee. A long career as a naval officer had given him a deep craving for the stuff, even the third rate swill served up in officers' messes and pilot briefing rooms.

I'm quite sure he'd have liked nothing better as he suffered his way toward his final hours than to have been able to drink a cup. At the same time he knew, and he knew that we knew, that it wasn't going to happen.

So his last word to us was both an expression of longing for what was once a commonplace pleasure, and an ironic comment, a wisecrack, on his misery and helplessness. It has struck me many times how much of himself he managed to express in two syllables.

This afternoon it was warm enough for the first time in several weeks to get in the pool, and Pam served me a margarita while I stood in the water watching Elizabeth play with some of her squeezy squirt toys.

We hadn't so much as mentioned my dad, let alone that today was his birthday, but for some reason she asked me, "Did your father like margaritas?" I had to rack my brains for a memory of him drinking one. Pam assured us that he did.

Then, once more out of the blue, Elizabeth astonished me by asking, "Did your father like coffee?" This time I knew the answer for sure.

Yes, Sweetsie, he did like coffee very much.

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