24 hours after I left my parent’s house my father died

My girlfriend Bri and I went up to visit them over Memorial Day weekend and, while he was 82 and in generally not great health, there wasn’t anything particularly wrong with him.

We said goodbye to him the night before we left because we were leaving early in the morning and he never was (and never will be, I suppose) a morning person. I’d left a print copy of my first novel on their living room table and told my mother that we’d left a surprise for them. She messaged me later in the day saying that they both loved it and my Dad was blown away seeing it.

We made it to Ocean City, Maryland where we were staying for the day before continuing and the first stop on our four-day long scenic and circuitous route from Upstate NY back to Tennessee. After what could only be described as a near perfect day at the top floor of a hotel facing the ocean we woke the next morning and slowly got ready to check out and get back on the road. We decided to make a slight detour to Chincoteague Island, home of wild ponies and somewhere Bri had read about when she was younger. We were joking around and I was teasing her about it and she said “You can’t ruin Tiny Pony Island day!”

Not even a minute later I got a text from a friend of the family telling me to call my mother.

I didn’t believe her at first and was flabbergasted. How could it have happened? He was fine, or at least as well as I’d known he’d been despite type 2 diabetes, being overweight, and taking diuretics to lessen the fluid around his heart.

“It was quick,” she said. “It was how he wanted to go.”

I had made fun of them over the course of the weekend because they had shown off my father’s Do Not Resuscitate order, a practically neon pink sheaf of paper that was stuck to the refrigerator door among take-out menus and pictures of grandchildren that stared at me every time I went for a drink or to get a snack. I kept wanting to take a picture and post it to revel in the grim ridiculousness of it. I’m so glad I didn’t.

It began to coalesce as my mother calmly explained what was going on and what the Plan was and I just handed the phone to Bri and dissolved into tears. She told my mother we’d call her back and she comforted me as best as anyone could. I realized it was about 20 minutes to check out and that no matter what happened we weren’t going to spend another night there. I had to pull it together, finish packing, and get down to the car. Plus have breakfast. There were a few false starts but after I (kind of) slapped myself in the face a couple of times I was able to pull everything together.

Packed, checked out, and headed to get some food I called my mother back to see how she was doing. She was, of course, on the phone with others (my sisters, most likely) letting them know what happened so I left her a voice mail (”Hey, it’s me…if this is a joke now would be a good time to let me know…anyway, call me back”) and we went on to “Happy Jack’s Pancake House.” I told Bri that there was no crying in Happy Jack’s (also, funnily enough, my grandfather’s name as well as my Dad’s although he went by John). We both made liars of me. Our waitress did not bother us much.

Eventually it was decided that we would continue on with our vacation because there wasn’t going to be a memorial service or any traditional funeral and we were going to have a party to celebrate his life around his birthday (September 4th, right on Labor Day this year). My sisters were coming up to be with my mother and the friends and family up there formed an amazing support structure for her. I worried about her and how she was getting on but she was, and still is, remarkably unflappable. Ultimately, this was no surprise. It was something that, as I told many of my friends, something that could happen any day now.

It is incredibly difficult for me to wrap my brain around the idea that we were there, he was fine, and then he just…ended. I feel so fortunate I had that time with him (although the two years between visits will haunt me forever) and when I talked to my sisters a couple of days later they were calm as well (the mimosas helped, I’m sure), reminding me that he had often said he had no regrets and that he had seemed “ready.” I was standing at a scenic overlook on the Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park at about 3,000 feet above sea level and it was so difficult not to think about how maybe if I hadn’t visited and possibly given him some sense of closure he’d still be alive. It’s foolish and arrogant thinking I know but I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to shake it.

He was happy, we laughed, he told stories and both he and my mother later told me how much they liked Bri and vice versa. Given how sure I’ve become that she’s the love of my life I’m so thankful that they got to meet each other and she could see a large, if not the largest, part of what makes me who I am.

I have gained no wisdom or closure from this yet. Handling the grief was easy when we were on the road as there were so many distractions. Yes, we did visit Tiny Pony Island. I told her nothing would stand in the way of the John H. Cleveland III Memorial Tiny Pony Island Day and when you’re in Happy Jack’s Pancake House and you make a promise with your face wet with tears you keep it.

I love you, Dad.

About The Author

Thacher Cleveland

Thacher E. Cleveland is a contributing writer & columnist for PanelsOnPages.com, co-host of the Super-Fly Comics & Games PodCast, novelist & comic creator. Originally from New Jersey and previously from Yellow Springs, Ohio, he currently lives in Chicago. You can find him on Twitter (@demonweasel), tumblr, his personal website and even on Google+

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