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My Family Became Fatherless On Father's Day

06/13/2017 11:12 EDT | Updated 06/13/2017 11:13 EDT

Losing a loving parent is considered one of life's greatest heartbreaks. It is even more challenging when that death is connected to a holiday that celebrates the gift of a good father. I was only 19 when my father died 48 years ago.

Easter weekend of 1969 was the beginning of the end. I had this startling, dark premonition looking at my mother's traditional Easter lily plant in the living room. It was mystifying.

retro father daughter

(Photo: Yunlutas via Getty Images)

Within weeks my father, the man who was never sick, would soon be hospitalized -- ailment unknown. I recall this vibrant man, 53 years old, looking vulnerable in the hospital bed, his curly brown hair matted to his head. His hair was his crowning glory -- without any grey, he'd often say -- and no secret shoe polish application, he'd add with a twinkle in his eye. When I walked into his room there was the familiar crooked smile and the unfamiliar look of bewilderment. This hospital was alien territory. Behind the confusion I recall something in his eyes that said he knew there was not going back to life as it was.

What followed was a medical roller coaster. First they said he's fine and just needed bed rest. Then he was being whisked down the highway to a larger hospital in a nearby city. Our family life was starting to spiral out of control.

We lived in a small town and had no reason to ever go to a city hospital. This hospital was large and intimidating, where wards had names -- a detail I found curious. Enter a bright, young internist determined to get to the bottom of the health problems.

We huddled as tests and more tests ensued. Then the young doctor appeared in Dad's room. His grim expression spoke volumes. My father, the successful self- made business man, beloved in the community, was told to get his affairs in order. At the very best he had six weeks to live. The clock was ticking.

We tried to convince ourselves there was still time left.

I remember thinking that just two weeks ago we were celebrating the Easter weekend holiday. Now we were being told our family life as we knew had a finite time.

Dad took it stoically as the realization of the future he would miss enveloped us all. Ever the business man, he began to assemble the bank manager, accountant and lawyer.

Then began the hardest part -- the waiting. The challenge was how to say everything that needed to be said in a few weeks. Conversations with my father that would now have to last a lifetime. It was a slow march toward that day or night looming in the very near future.

Father's Day weekend was approaching, and with it that six-week marker we'd been given. In the lead up he was at home but then late in the week before Father's Day he required hospitalization. We tried to convince ourselves there was still time left.

retro hospital

(Photo: Shutterstock)

It was late Saturday night when the phone rang and my mother began to sob. Close to midnight but not quite, he died. As that clock ticked over into Father's Day 1969 I was trying to absorb the enormity of what had happened. I was fatherless on Father's Day -- the first one. In 1969, in my small town, nobody's parents died. We had no frame of reference for what to do next.

The minister arrived in the middle of the night to comfort us. But it didn't change what had happened. Our father had died. Father's Day 1969 was spent planning his funeral.

Banks of lilies and other flowers filled the funeral home. His funeral procession stretched the length of Main Street. The traffic lights had white-gloved policeman directing traffic. All of it was a blur of incoherence for me. Nothing changed the fact we were on the way to the cemetery to bury my father.

In the ensuing years I have learned many lessons from his death. If you are kind and generous with your parenting it never leaves your children. He is as alive in my heart today as he was all those years ago during my childhood.

My oldest son and grandson have his name, and that grandson has his same crooked smile.

My parenting was influenced by my father's kindness and unconditional love for me. My sons never knew their grandfather but in many ways they know him. They know him because I made a point of his life and goodness being alive in their lives.

My oldest son and grandson have his name, and that grandson has his same crooked smile. My younger son, also a self-made business man like his grandfather, often applies his grandfather's best practices. My father employed empathy and understanding as a boss long before those were considered necessary traits.

At a young age I learned there are no guarantees in life. I have also learned a loving parent's influence is an intangible thread that winds round us forever.

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