The doctor’s words left no doubt: “Mr. Kennedy, your father’s kidneys have started to fail, and there is nothing more we can do. In his weakened condition, it is impossible to operate. He has somewhere between two days and a week to live. I’m sorry, but there is nothing else that we can do for him.”
My Dad was eighty years old, and a few months earlier he had gone into the hospital for preventative surgery. The surgery appeared to be successful, but later that day his abdominal aorta tore, and he almost bled to death. The doctors managed to save him, and he struggled through several months of recovery and relapse, advance and setback.
Many family members had spent many hours at the hospital over the last few months, and now the end was near. There was a certain comfort in the doctor’s words, because at least Dad’s struggle would be over. The man who had always been there from my earliest years was about to depart. There was no more rehab, no more struggle, no more advances, no more setbacks.
Later that night, I was talking with Fr. Pat Egan, who happened to be at our house for dinner, and I recounted one of the stories here – an important lesson in life that Dad had taught me. I sighed: “I just wish I had been able to go through some of the things he taught me, and thank him one more time.”
“You can still do that,” Fr. Pat replied.
“But he can’t talk anymore,” I said. “I’m not even sure he could understand what I would tell him. He’s going to heaven soon – why would he care about what I have to say?”
“Let me assure you,” Fr. Pat said as he laid his hand on my arm, “your father very much wants to hear what you have to say, and even if he can’t talk, he can still hear and understand. It isn’t too late to share these things with him. Go ahead and do it. It will be important for him and for you.”
My last conversation with Dad
As I was going to bed, I decided that I would go over to the hospital first thing in the morning, and share what I could remember of all the many things Dad had taught me. I started going over some of them in my mind, wondering how I could remember them all, and then drifted off to sleep.
The next morning, I suddenly found myself wide awake more than an hour before my normal rising time. I jumped out of bed, went over to my desk, and started up my computer. I typed furiously for over an hour. I listed the lessons Dad had taught me, phrases of his that had become famous in our family, scenes from my childhood in which he had imparted some piece of wisdom or advice.
For some of the points, I put down two words, and for some I typed out a paragraph. Several times, I interrupted one of the longer points because other episodes came crowding in to my memory and I didn’t want to forget them. As fast as the memories came, I typed.
I jumped in the car and drove over to the hospital. When I got to Dad’s room, I was relieved that no one else was around – the hospital was pretty empty at that hour. I closed the door and told him I had some things to share with him. He couldn’t talk, but I grasped his hand, and he squeezed back – a surprisingly strong grip. I told him that the doctors didn’t give him very long to live, and that this might be the last time I would see him. I said I wanted to thank him for all he had done for me, and especially for the things he had taught me. I told him I would write a little book of all these things, and call it “From Father to Son.” As I talked, he regularly squeezed my hand. Fr. Pat was right – he understood what I was saying, and it meant something to him. So I went through the list, recounted all the stories, and thanked him one last time for all he had done for me.
It was one of the best times we ever had together. It took about an hour – me talking and crying and laughing, and Dad occasionally squeezing my hand with the strength he had left.
When I finished, we just looked at each other for a few moments. He couldn’t talk, but he repeatedly squeezed my hand. I knew he had heard and understood.
I said goodbye for what we both knew was the last time. His last gesture to me as I left his room that day was a miniature salute with his hand – a gesture he had often used in the past. It would have been accompanied by the words “see ya later, big fella,” if he could have spoken. But I understood – the gesture said it all. He knew that “later” meant in heaven. That little salute was his final salute to one of his junior officers, to whom he was now entrusting the care of the ship. That was the last time I saw him conscious, the last time I spoke to him, and the final salute I received from him.
Why I wrote From Father to Son
This book, From Father to Son, is an attempt to capture some of those things that Dad taught me, for which I thanked him on that last morning together, and to pass them on.
I hope that in reading this, you can recall similar stories and events in your own life, and perhaps even write them down and share them with your Dad. I hope to encourage younger folks to thank and honor your parents while you can. The day will come when they are gone, and you will find that the greatest memories you have are of times when you expressed your thanks for the things they did for you, and honored them for their role in your life.
This book is my last gesture of honor towards my Dad.
As I said at his funeral:
“Dad, the world is a poorer place without you,
But a better place because of you.
Well done, good and faithful servant,
Enter into the joy of your Master.”
May we all have that said about us when we reach the end of our days.
What follows are a few little stories about things I learned from my Dad over quite a number of years. They are roughly chronological, but not strictly so.
Most people who have read earlier versions of these stories say that they like sitting down in the evening and reading two or three at a time. Then they take some time to reflect on their own fathers (or their kids), and either enjoy the memories, or think about ways they could implement some insight they gleaned from the stories.
However it works for you, I pray that in these simple stories you may find refreshment, guidance, hope, healing, and greater appreciation for your own Dad, or for those who have functioned as surrogate Dads for you. Or if you are a father, I pray that you may find inspiration and wisdom for all that you can do, and be, for your children.
This article is excerpted from an unpublished book, From Dad to Son: Things My Dad Taught Me About Life, © 2002 Ted Kennedy. Used with permission.
Top image credit: close-up photo of loving support between ageing father and his son, from Bigstock.com, © by fizkes, stock photo ID: 429877028. Used with permission.
- Intro – Things My Dad Taught Me About Life
- Story 1 – Trust Your Strengths and Know Your Limits
- Story 2 – One Dad and One Father
- Story 3 – The Debtor Who Wouldn’t Go Away
- Story 4 – Waiting to Honor
- Story 5 – Being Generous toward God
- Story 6 – I Would give it All Up in a Second
- Story 7 –Telling the Next Generation
- Story 8 – With Love Toward All People