Baltimore writer Caryn Coyle says goodbye to her war hero father, but finds he’s at her side in striking ways.
When my father died, I was holding his hand. I could feel the Marine Corps ring that he always wore on the third finger of his right hand. The ring has a large ruby, set in gold with globes of the world etched on both sides. Two eagles — wings spread — are perched on each globe. Because the ring is worn, stars that circle the eagles and globes have almost disappeared.
I wear the ring on the middle finger of my right hand, now.
My father’s last breath came a little after three o’clock on a late summer afternoon. I remember howling after he was gone. Inconsolable. I laid my head on his chest and cried and cried.
Thunder sounded. It poured. I stepped outside, standing on the brick patio of the hospice where my father had been for five days. In front of me was a slate plaque imbedded in the brick. Etched on it was a quote from Helen Keller, “All that we love deeply becomes a part of us.”
A blue butterfly landed on the thigh of my white jeans–the blue of cornflower, blue as my father’s eyes. It rested just a moment and was gone.
My dad was a dive bomber pilot in the Pacific during World War II. He took us to find the Enola Gay at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum. To see the laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico. He took us to the New York World’s Fair, the Grand Canyon and the Painted Desert. My dad encouraged me to get my bachelor’s degree, something he had not done. Whenever I held his hand, I squeezed. He always squeezed back.
The day he was moved to a hospice, he was grouchy. I picked out a pair of khaki trousers and a blue and yellow madras shirt. When I opened the bureau, I found a penny, face up. Good luck! I placed it in the back pocket of his khakis before I handed them to the nurse who helped him dress. And then I stepped out of the room. He never wanted me to witness any of his indignities.
I stood by the door of the hospice as he was rolled in on a wheelchair. He had a slight grin on his face. He was looking up at me.
The hospice was beautifully landscaped and well designed. Four rooms opened into a circular hallway. My dad’s was the first one on the right. It had French doors through which I could see a covered porch and beyond it, lush green: plants, bushes, trees. Several comfortable chairs were placed around the bed which was against the longest wall; the French doors opened just to its right. The room also had a small bathroom, though my dad was no longer able to get out of bed and use it.
He looked around the room, his face animated, “This is a nice place.” There was surprise in his voice.
When I kissed him goodnight, I told him that I would be back in the morning. I left him sitting up in bed, smiling.
But the following day, my dad was curved on his side. Smaller.
My cell phone rang. It was my brother, Chris, who lives in the Bahamas.
My dad looked up. Clearly, he said, “Chris?” I handed the cell phone to him and he talked in gibberish.
I blinked tears when my dad handed the cell phone back, and put it to my ear.
“Chris, I’d buy a plane ticket if I were you.”
“I’m on my way,” he replied. Chris is my “Irish twin.” We are 16 months apart in age.
When he arrived two days later, Chris sat by my father’s side, stroking his head. My father could no longer speak.
My brother held my hand at our father’s wake, sitting beside me on a small sofa near his coffin. I dropped him off at the airport the day after Dad’s funeral. Before I pulled away from the curb, Chris turned and waved, watching me drive away.
Eight months after our father died, I flew to the Bahamas to visit my brother. It was comforting to sit with him on the beach. The water was light green, with some brown patches. It got greener, bluer – almost turquoise – farther out. The waves lapped against the stone wall that protected the beach, the sh-h-h-h-h sound was soothing. Constant. Lazy.
We snorkeled. My brother could dive down into the coral reefs to play with a Caribbean lobster’s tentacles. I didn’t chance it. I couldn’t master the technique of holding my breath and spitting out the water in the air tube. Kicking my fins on the water’s surface, I could hear my breathing in the tube and that was enough for me. I spotted a rainbow fish. An eel squirmed underneath me. A school of tiny, striped fish surrounded me before they flipped direction and swam away.
Chris and I shopped at the straw market, ate conch, sampled the local beer. At Atlantis on Paradise Island, we strolled through the aquarium and enjoyed the comedy club’s show. Each day, we swam in the beautiful, clear water. I could hear the waves through the screen windows of his condominium as I dropped off to sleep.
On my last night in the Bahamas, we watched the sun set over the Atlantic on the porch of a restaurant called Compass Point.
We talked about Dad.
“He had a good run,” Chris said.
I couldn’t answer. I didn’t care how long he had lived or that it was “his time.” I wanted him back, holding my hand and swinging me out in a jitterbug to Glen Miller’s “In the Mood.” I was silent as I looked at my brother, rubbing my father’s gold ring and twisting it on the middle finger of my right hand.
The moon appeared, bright as a headlight. Large. Luminous. There were light gray shadows in its craters.
All the way home, we could spot it through the car’s windshield. The moon was surrounded by a halo of silver clouds.
Caryn Coyle’s fiction and essays have been published in several literary journals. Her work can also be read on the websites, CBS Baltimore, The Baltimore Post-Examiner, and Welcome to Baltimore, Hon. She has won awards for her fiction from the Maryland Writer’s Association, Missouri Writer’s Guild, and the New Millennium Writings.