Twenty-one years ago today my birth father, Will Simmons, passed away. It’s hard to know how to honor someone in a ritual sense when you live three hours away from their gravesite, and can’t participate in the tradition of leaving flowers or sharing memories with family. Honestly, the thought that his ashes and beloved hiking boots are buried in my childhood church cemetery doesn’t hold all that much power for me, considering my belief in my father’s eternal life spent with his Savior. I believe he is best honored through the recollection of memories and the sharing of stories.
I wrote the following piece for a personal narrative/memoir assignment in college five years ago. Every now and then, my brain wanders back to these memories, it seems to be a piece of something bigger yet to be written – an expanded essay maybe, or maybe something that belongs as part of a future book. My professor at the time basically let me know my ending was a complete cop-out, that I needed to share exactly how I had changed, or what I had learned, etc. It’s hard to pinpoint that, though. My entire filter of how I see and understand the world has been affected by the loss of my father, and grieving his absence will be a continual process, until we are reunited in the next life.
At four years old, I had no idea what “cancer” meant.
My mother had noticed a lump on the right side of my father’s neck in July of 1989. Neither of my parents were really concerned about it – they thought it was a harmless cyst.
My father had surgery that September to remove the “cyst.” What should have been a quick and easy surgery ended up lasting three hours. My mother knew that was a bad sign.
He was not diagnosed with cancer until October. The doctors did not figure out what kind until that January, when another tumor showed up, this time on the left side of his neck. The cancer was finally diagnosed as “Esthesioneuroblastoma.” In simple terms, the cancer was aggressive, originating between the bridge of his nose and his brain. He was a walking dead man.
That Christmas season was mostly spent in Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. I remember the decorations that were put up all around the hospital. No one wants to spend their Christmas season in the hospital, but somehow, with carefully hung decorations, it managed to become a more joyful place.
In the hospital, there was a huge marble statue of Jesus with his arms outstretched. A sign underneath him quoted scripture: “Come unto me all ye that are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” The statue is known as “Christus Consolator” – “The Divine Healer.” At four, I didn’t understand the concept of Christ as the great physician, but I did believe that Jesus loved me. And my Daddy.
I would walk around the hospital in my ruby red slippers. They were so beautiful – high heels made of red plastic with sparkles embedded into them. I felt like a princess when I wore those slippers. One of my favorite pastimes in the hospital was to venture to the cafeteria to retrieve chocolate milk. Between the enjoyment of my other-worldly ruby red slippers and the delicious chocolate milk, it was easy to forget why I was there in the first place.
On a car ride home from Johns Hopkins one day, I began telling my mom about all the things my dad and I would do when he got well and came home from the hospital. My mother informed me that my father wasn’t going to get well. “What do you think that means?” my mom asked. I replied with an innocent but honest answer. “Die.”
On June eighth, I was brought to the hospital to say goodbye. I sat on his bed as my family stood in silence, lining the walls of the room that had become my father’s home. I sang the words of John 3:16 to him. “For God so loved the world, he gave his only son, that whosoever would believe in him would not perish but would have everlasting life.” A few years ago, someone told me that in that moment, I reminded them of a little angel. In the midst of heartbreak the presence of a child, naïve and innocent, became a reassurance of hope. Life does go on.
My father died three days later.
At the time, I did not grasp the gravity of our last moment together. I had no idea how much my world would change when I said goodbye to him.