Reality and the ability to relate to it became more and more elusive for my dad in his final few weeks. Indeed, it had been a slippery slope for some months.
However, there was one last lesson he had for me, one that’s taken me more than two years to recognize and might take the rest of my life to understand.
“I don’t know.”
Born the sixth and final child to a sharecropper, Daddy grew up working cattle and crops along the Texas side of the Red River. In the ninth grade, he dropped out of school because he knew he would farm the rest of his life; of course, that soon changed.
He had smarts beyond “book learning,” though, and was great with people. From a firefighter to a grocery store owner, he worked hard until a fall from a roof injured his back in his 50s. Even then, he kept busy despite being in constant pain. He simply ignored the discomfort most of the time, but that became more difficult in those last weeks.
At least, I think it was mainly his back that bothered him. In addition, he had long exhausted any desire to continue living. My mother was gone more than six years at that time and he was tired of waiting to rejoin her.
Whether sitting up or lying in his bed, he could not get comfortable. In those final days, he kept saying, “Help me.”
Regardless how I phrased a question to determine how I could help him, what would make him more comfortable, just how he was in pain … his reply was almost always, “I don’t know.”
Looking back, he had recently been saying he didn’t know about more and more things. It was preceded by times he “knew” something that we knew to be wrong.
But in those last days and hours, he constantly admitted he did not know and I pretty much quit asking, all of which led to my final minutes with Daddy.
He had not been able to rest, constantly changing positions and often pleading for unnamed help. Eventually, with me sitting next to his bed, my arm across the railing, he curled up with his hands and head on my arm as if it was a pillow. Finally, he went to sleep.
I have no idea how long we were like that. After a while, he relaxed his hold and shifted position but stayed asleep.
Soon after was the last time I saw him alive.
When I had asked him how I could help, he said, “I don’t know.” When I just sat there, he found the answer he could not formulate. There was nothing I could do but be present and that was what he most needed for a brief respite from pain.
There’s a lesson within the experience, maybe more than one. I often ponder it whenever I’m asked a question I cannot answer. Maybe we don’t need everything answered. Maybe we need people physically present more than we need them to solve any problems. Maybe the end brings with it a realization of how little we fully understand.
Will I ever fully grasp it?
I don’t know.