On a cold, overcast Tuesday morning eighteen years ago, the old man that I had only known for three weeks, was laid to rest. Not a long time, but just enough to know his story and the miracle that came at the end of it. He was was old, but not old enough to die of natural causes. Mother Nature had no use for a man like him at this time, but the funny thing about death, he seems to grab who he can by any means necessary. This man died of cancer, there was not a secret behind the cause of his demise, but he suffered greatly towards the end of his life, and it wasn’t the cancer that caused the pain. It was something much worse. Regret. The kind that makes a proud man break down and do and say things he would never do if his health was good. But it wasn’t good, his health or his pain. And that is where I come into the story.
Great men are made, they aren’t born that way, and this man, his name I will hide from you due to the sensitivity of his identity, was self made. He was born of nothing, and he took that nothing, and made it into something. Motivation. A life better than the one he knew as a child. A hand better than the one he was dealt. He made something out of himself as if he was on a mission to prove something, not to himself, but to those around him. I don’t know the full telling of his story, the way he came from the place where here was born and was now laying in this bed, dying. All I know is what I was told by his daughter, and she told a wonderful story. Except for the parts that weren’t so wonderful, she told them to me anyway. Not that I wanted to hear them, but because she needed to say them to somebody that didn’t know the old dad, to someone that wouldn’t judge him and his past, only love him for who he was now. They both had sins they had committed towards each other, and now in the face of death, they both were looking for amends, and words would not be enough to ease this pain between the two. They both needed something more visceral, more intimate, a type of reconciliation that only the Heavens can provide. They both were looking for a miracle, and not the one to save the old man’s life, that conclusion was already written. They were looking for closure, but each one had a different path in mind.
The old man was big in his day, both in stature and in status. I could tell he was a man of importance the first time I met him, but cancer has a way of taking things away from people. He was no longer the looming figure that stood tall over the loving daughter, he was no longer the booming voice that barked commands in the board room. He was now a deflated balloon, gone was the muscle, gone was the ego, but what remained was simply a man who still knew the power he possessed, even if that power was fading like his body. To say our first meeting went smoothly was an understatement. He was ready to leave, but not quite ready to go. The daughter was not ready to say good-bye to her daddy. The wife was simply trying to keep them both alive, one physically, the other emotionally. And I, I was just trying to figure out how miracles work.
I, unlike the old man, am not a big man, in size or status, but I know how to manipulate those who are, or at least used to be. Where the old man knew about leverage in the business world, I knew about leverage in the mechanical one. This is how you get dead men to move. This is how you get the dead to live again.
He had not moved much from the bed since Hospice was called days earlier. But move we did, first the legs, then the hips, and trunk then arms. It was not easy for the old man to let me move him. His body was merely an extension of his mind, and his mind was not used to taking orders. He was used to being the boss, and I was letting him lead me down a path that I had made for him. The movement came hard at first, but soon he relaxed once the trust was formed and the reality set in. We rolled, back and forth, like a new baby on a bed. His body was limp due to weakness, but tense due to pain. What little life he had left in him was coming back, he was once again a creature of this place, not quite a memory just yet.
This went on over the course of weeks, me coming in to see him after work, and the few times on the weekend. The old man’s wife would greet me at the door each time. Our talks were short but friendly. She knew my job and I know her pain. We didn’t need to mix words, we each knew the others role in this play, and we allowed one another to play their part. She was gracious and beautiful. She had to be. She must have been a bull in her day to be able to handle such a man. And now at the end, she allowed the process to occur, she knew she had her time with the old man, in the late evening when they would sit together and she would read to him, and she knew when it was my turn to have mine.
Do you know how to stand a dead man? First you have to log roll him to the side of the bed and then place one arm under his hips and the other around his neck, careful to cradle the head. Then you rotate the sidelying creature 90 degrees until they are sitting up. Next comes the waiting game, the part where you just stand next to them, hold them up, waiting to see if the blood pressure drops, waiting to see if the body passes out. Finally comes the fun part, the dance of blocking the knees with your own shins, all while you are sitting in front of them. I am now the puppeteer and he is my Pinocchio. He has no more lies to hold him down at this point, the strings of that pain cut by him and his daughter. He is now free to go to whatever place resides on the other side. He is a believer, but he is still scared. I tell him I have one more ask for him to perform, one more favor. He moves where I direct him, his body shaking as the weakness settles in. The human body is capable of incredible feats, but only if the mind allows them to do so. He is curious why an old dying man needs to practice standing, and I am telling him that real men walk into the afterlife, they don’t crawl. This is the only time I will lie to the old man.
The standing continues, we practice, we wait. The first time was only seconds, the last time was for about 2 minutes. What little strength he is able to muster to stand is completely spent. It will take him hours to recoup the power and the energy of that small amount of life we just gave back to him. Dying can be hard work, and the old man had proven long ago that he isn’t afraid of a little hard work. But the death will soon come to the old man, but it must wait, miracles are important to the living, and he had just enough life left to allow it.
She is there, the daughter, most of the time, watching and encouraging. Sometimes she is asked to leave, even old men don’t want their daughters to see them in a weakened state. But the time is almost up, the window is slowly closing. I pack my things and I leave for what I didn’t know was my last visit. The old man told me grand tales of his life, none of which were about the greatness of it. We talked about small towns, big dreams, and the pure love that only women can give. In the three weeks I knew the old man I lived his lifetime, and he breathed new life into mine. I did not feel sorry for the old man, he lived a full life, full of wonderful memories. But he also recognized the sadness he had caused to others, and like good men do, he was willing to make good on bad things.
I am not a priest, I was not able to absolve him of the sins he feels he caused. I was a young man that listened. Our times together were therapeutic to him, he came away with something, and I never told him I came away with something as well. I never told the old man that the last time I saw my own old man, was in a hospital. That the final act I was able to do for him was stand him up and walk him to the bathroom, and hold him as he relieved himself. I never told the old man that the last words I remember hearing were “I’m sorry” as I put him back to bed and went on my way, not knowing that a week later he would be gone, and that two words can make up for a lifetime of other words. We each did one another a service. The old man didn’t need to hear my story, because I had a lifetime ahead of me to tell it. This was his final act, his last bow. I was only the man in the wings helping with the show. He had one last performance to do before the curtain closed, I was just there to make sure it happened.
I am sitting in the back of the church, St. Monica’s Catholic Church. I am wearing the same black suit and blue shirt I wore two years earlier to my own father’s funeral. I found it fitting that the days were similar, like that same overcast and cold one when my old man was laid to rest. I arrive early and watch the people slowly come in. It is a who’s who of elites, all acknowledging each other, none knowing who I was or why I was there. The service was typical, like most Catholic services are. And perhaps that’s why I like them that way, the old man got the same as the poor man. We are from dust and to dust we shall return. No grain bigger or better than the rest, and at that final moment, we come to understand it, the clarity of life we can only see when death is staring back at us. It took the old man a lifetime to see the clarity he had during the last three months. But it was there, and it was there when it mattered most, when it was time to say goodbye.
The daughter stops me and gives me one last hug. Her husband offering one as well and a tearful thank you. You see, the miracle did happen, but it wasn’t me that performed it. She was there, to see how the therapy went. She made notes, and when I left his room, I would come and practice with her. She got good at my job, the moving of the legs, the rolling of the body. She was able to block my shins and to hold me up. And when I showed her how to slightly squat to engage her legs, to grab the belt that went around the waist of the patient with one hand to pull their hips forward, and the other around the shoulder and next to hold up the torso, it looked like a dance position. The dance position that she called me about weeks earlier. The promise I told her I would try and do. The dance she was able to do with him the last day of his life.
Sometimes all little girls want in life is the chance to dance with their daddies one last time. For their daddy to look at them with unconditional love, like he did the day he gave her away at her wedding, some 20 years prior, before the cancer. Their last dance was the final piece of the plan, the last act of contrition that allowed him to say his last “I’m sorry” and for her to say her’s as well. She had this plan all along, she asked if there was a way to make this miracle happen, to help her dance with her daddy one last time before he left this world, to give them both a chance. Miracles belong to those who believe in magic, and she willed it all to happen. She was able to dance with her daddy one last time on that cold day, the day that he died. She was able to take all the work he and done, and all the work she had done, and perform for herself and him the final miracle they both deserved. Forgiveness was asked for, and forgiveness was granted that day. And the old man died peacefully.