My dad died 35 years ago today. He and my mom were on their way back from a trip to Myrtle Beach.
Dad wasn’t feeling well so Mom was driving. In Hendersonville, N.C., they stopped for a Coke. Dad stayed in the car while Mom went inside. She brought him a Coke, he looked at her, asked if she still felt like driving, and died, just like that, from a massive heart attack.
Our lives, of course, have never been the same.
Two weeks earlier I had left with my parents for the Myrtle Beach trip. I stayed a week and flew back to Knoxville; they stayed for another week, probably relieved to have some time to themselves.
My Dad drove a Cadillac, a monster of a car with a roomy back seat. I remember Mom asked if I wanted a pillow so I could take a nap on the way.
“Mom,” I said. “I’m 24 years old. I don’t take naps on trips anymore.” Within an hour I was fast asleep and didn’t wake up until we hit Myrtle Beach.
As soon as we got to the hotel, I put on my swimsuit and headed for the beach. There I met the hotel owner’s son, who took me out on his Hobie Cat. It was fun, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do.
This was a time to spend with my mom and dad, who wouldn’t be around forever, I told myself.
So, we took walks on the beach, went out to eat, met up with friends they had met on previous trips. I worked on my tan, read “The Deep” by Peter Benchley and cajoled them into taking a boat tour of the old South Carolina rice plantations. We went to see “Islands in the Stream” with George C. Scott. It reminded my dad of his youth in Savannah, where he knew the waterways from Georgia through South Carolina like the back of his hand.
One night, alone in my room, I turned on the TV. Public television was airing “Our Town” with Hal Holbrook as the Stage Manager. I’d never seen or read the play. It blew me away. I realized how I took my family for granted, how I took each day for granted, and how the simplest, most mundane moments were miraculous.
Until then I thought about losing my parents some day, but “Our Town” made me realize it could be any day.
Toward the end of my stay, Dad and I took a morning walk on the beach. I found a piece of coral in the shape of a heart. I packed it in my suitcase.
My parents put me on a plane in Charleston, and we said goodbye. I hugged them, gave them a kiss and I was on my way. It was the last time I would ever see my father.
The night before he died I was taking a shower when the phone rang. I was a little irritated and thought about not answering it, but I remembered “Our Town” and the miraculous mundane.
It was my Dad. “Just called to see how you’re doing,” he said. I had just been promoted to a demanding job, and I was working long, hard days. He was proud, but concerned.
“I’m a little tired,” I said. We chatted for a minute, and then he told me that he loved me. “I love you, too, Daddy,” I said, and we hung up.
It was the last time I heard my father’s voice, the last time I heard him say, “I love you.” What if I hadn’t answered the phone?
Jan Hearne is the Press Tempo editor. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.