Between Life and Death

This and dozens of other essays are compiled in the book Between: Living Live in Neither Extreme. Check it out!

My dad died in 2005. But don’t worry…this isn’t a depressing post. Dad had lung cancer (insert judgment-preventing disclaimer here…he was not a smoker). It was a two-year experience. Not battle, experience. Because he had had a somewhat debilitating brain tumor in his twenties and prostate cancer later on, he had become quite experienced with sickness. But Dad was such a calm pacifist that his “fights” were more like chess matches. The most angry thing I ever heard him say was “aw bunk.”

With a name like Heinz and musical and comedic talent up the you-know-what, my dad as a teenager had no choice but to form a popular upper midwest one-man-band comedy act in which he donned lederhosen, played the accordion and trombone simultaneously, and spoke with a thick German accent. He actually won a Chicago ABC radio talent hour when he was eleven. Into his adulthood, he stopped wearing the lederhosen (unless there was a good reason to put them on for the high school students in his German classes), but always came out of the bedroom with the most unusual fashion choices, and with one or two prepared jokes that he would pull out as non-sequiturs in polite dinner conversation. I fondly recall teal green shorts and yellow argyle knee high socks with a side of “A rabbi and a priest walked into the ecumenical bar…”. Or, in the evenings, a blue velour “man skirt” and “Ich liebe dich” t-shirt with a gummy bear on it paired with “There once was a man from Dusseldorf…”.

Dad was at a Hospice house the last few days of his life, and the night before he died Mom stayed with him there. My son Aaron (whose biblical namesake was a great orator, and who has always loved the power of his own voice), one day shy of eighteen months old, stayed with me at their house.

Around four in the morning, I awakened to Aaron uttering “bye bye.”

He never woke up during the night at that age. And certainly not saying anything like “bye bye” in his little singsong voice. My mom called. Time to come to the Hospice house. We gathered around my dad and when he took his last breath just minutes after we arrived. Aaron, who was never a hugger or cuddlebug, looked at each us one by one, then turned to me and wrapped his hands tight around my neck.

I’m so glad I awakened in time to hear him say goodbye. And to hear it in my son’s little voice. No accident that Aaron bears a striking resemblance to my dad.

I saw between life and death then. Or maybe I heard and saw it. Now, when Aaron wears colorful socks, mismatched clothes, or tells jokes that only a third grader would appreciate, I see and hear my dad. I believe that Aaron saw and heard my dad that night, too.

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