Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

Hey, Baby Doll

A son serves as witness to his parents’ enduring love

On the day before my father’s death of congestive heart failure, we sat together in his hospital room. My mother, his wife of nearly fifty-six years, had used my visit to make one of her rare runs home “to freshen up just a bit.” Operating on next to no sleep, she needed much more than the respite provided by these brief junkets to retrieve necessities and shed some tears—she would not allow herself to cry in his presence—but they were all she ever thought to allow herself. Where else would she be?

My father was a Disciples of Christ minister. Despite its cultish-sounding name, the denomination is actually a distinctly American branch of mainstream Protestantism. With the native bent of a word-child, I had drifted to Episcopalianism, perhaps in search of storytelling and metaphor. Dad’s beliefs were broad-minded, plainspoken, and bracingly free of superfluous ideology.

My mother, a legendary example of both inner and outer beauty, understood that my father’s death was at hand. For my part, I understood that their love for one another and their straightforward, practical faith—which manifested itself most compellingly in their unreserved and persistent love for others—would see them through this profoundest of transitions. I would try to take my cues from them. But there was still the actual going through it yet to go through.

My father was notorious for his gregariousness, an endearing need to be of use to people, seemingly bottomless compassion, and a dedication to corny jokes. His spirit had always seemed to me to be on the move, alert, looking about for sad and empty corners in need of warming. Today he looked smaller, still, trapped. We had already said most of the things we knew we needed to say to one another. We sat quietly amid the noise, the comings-and-goings, all the indignities that even the best hospital care makes us heir to. He leafed rather jerkily through a newspaper; I read, or tried to read, a novel.

At one point he dropped a section of the paper, and I picked it up and handed it to him. Moments later, he knocked a half-drunk can of Ensure—all he was managing at this point—onto the floor. I cleaned it up. We laughed. He thanked me.

“This is for the birds,” he said. He spoke in an uncharacteristic voice, devoid of his usual warmth and humor but with not a trace of bitterness or self-pity, much as one might remark upon the weather. He looked very, very tired. Impatient. His face had suddenly become ancient.

Then my mother returned, opening the door quickly and quietly and standing there for a moment as she negotiated an overnight bag through the opening. I was sitting beside and slightly behind my father, and his face as he looked up to see her enter was only a couple of feet from me, in my immediate field of vision but at a slight angle. I saw him look up to see his wife of fifty-six years, to see her beautiful face, despite a bone-tired weariness, break into a brilliant smile. She had, once again, left her tears behind in an empty house, put a little make-up on, taken a few minutes with her gorgeous white hair. Ready for her date.

The very instant he saw her face, my father said, in the suddenly timeless, caressing voice of a very young man, “Hey, baby doll.”

“Hi, honey.” She smiled. Radiant.

I could see all the discomfort, the anxiety, the fear, and the loss of dignity leave his face, utterly.

It was the clearest example I have ever been privileged to glimpse of what we humans can perceive of eternal life. For in that moment, my mother and father were not only culminating an extraordinary marriage of more than five decades; they were also participating in the life to come. Their faces were transformed; they stood outside corporeal time with all its exigencies. What I saw was not only their great affection, respect, and need for each other; their shared experience; their love—what I saw was also their very souls. I will never forget the enormous privilege of witnessing that moment, that redemptive dimension of this marvelous, frayed human life. I left soon thereafter, kissing them both and knowing they were as ready as they would ever be.

We may not all be fortunate enough to have our faith shored up by a grand marriage, but sometimes all it takes is a quickening October wind, a dawn mist slumbering in a range of mountains, a wholly unexpected gesture of kindness or empathy from another human being when absolutely nothing less could do.

My father died less than twenty-four hours after I left that gray, chill hospital room that afternoon. I am convinced a resurrection had already taken place.