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June 23, 2019 22 Comments
I sat with my daughter on my lap and a tear on my cheek as my dying father took his last breaths in the room next door. In the waiting room with me, many of my siblings laughed and cried at the dry or sometimes morbid coping humor that passed between us in those last few days of my father's life. All the moms, siblings, nephews, nieces, and dearest friends surrounded us that week. It was a wonderful, sad, and enriching week. The picture above shows one of the last kisses dad ever gave just after the grand girls sang at his bedside.
A few days earlier I remember sitting at his bedside, with my hand in his, hoping he could tell me one last thing that would set my life at ease or give me a sense of direction. I probably wouldn't have heeded his advice had he given any. I seldom did... Not because I didn't care, or didn't love him, I loved him as much or more than anyone I know. Simply because he always encouraged and embraced our independent thinking and I'm curiously stubborn, quite possibly, just like him. None the less, I relished every word that escaped his mouth, even from the beginning of my life. I knew he couldn't talk and I wasn't even sure if he knew it was me standing there, but I embraced the moments I had without feeling strange or guilty about the river that cascaded from my eyes and nose, or my broken words that feebly illustrated my deep love and appreciation for him.
My moment alone with him, however, did not last. The door opened and distant relatives walked through. I'd been raised to be polite and I've adhered to that notion most of my life, but as the minutes drew on and those relatives lingered, I felt a certain sense of resentment or jealousy. I knew they meant well, and needed to say goodbye in there own way, but that was my dad. Why did they have to be there?
I took a deep breath, said my goodbyes and walked to my car. Later that day I called my brother and talked reverently of the special time I spent alone with dad. I have had thousands of those special moments with dad driving to and from Utah or job sites throughout Montana or playing a game of carrom on our "Mom-day Mondays" each week. But I spoke a little less reverently of the time I felt had been stolen from me when people I didn't know well came into the hospital to see dad. The same words came out again, "after all... That's my dad!"
My brother laughed and expressed the same feelings from a similar experience a few days earlier with dad. He even said the same words. "That's my dad!"
I realized then and even more so over the next few days that we all felt the same way to some extent. All the siblings deserved their alone time with dad in those last days, and all of us had that time torn away from us by the sheer statistical fact that many, many people saw our dad as a father figure and time was running out. Gratefully, each person I saw step into that room had the most wonderful memories to tell and a tear or two to shed.
I can only speak of my own memories today. A special kind of memory. Memories not sparked by jealousy, but by the realization that I am extremely proud to be called the son of Marvin Jessop. I wonder how many of his kids feel the same pride I do today.
In the fall of '89, I watched my dad chase a mother moose from our campground with a shovel. We, meaning me and an unknown number of siblings, hid under the truck per his instructions and watched through a broken view of tailpipes and toe hitches how dad protected our camp. When I saw him turn back toward camp with a smile wider than the Mississippi, I said to myself. "Wow! That's my dad!"
In the winter of '98, I looked up into the stands, in a gymnasium over two hundred miles from home. I gazed from the post block under the rim, sweat beading off my forehead. In a moment I'd be called into action in the attempt to rebound the basketball for my team. I caught my dad's eyes and I realized just how far he'd come, not just for me, but for all us kids. Dad didn't have to travel all that way to watch me play, but he did, and I said to myself, "That's my dad!"
In the spring of 2010, with my beautiful wife at my side, I lifted my gaze to the man who would renew our wedding vows on our fifth anniversary. He couldn't be there when we first married in New Zealand and today he stood proudly in front of me. And I thought... Here is a man whose footsteps, religiously speaking, I did not follow and yet he reached to my shoulder with what seemed like an iron hand in velvet gloves, and said, "I love you son." And I thought, "That's my dad!"
In the summer of 2016, with a tear in his own eye, he and I spoke in private near the edge of the river with our fishing poles extended over the water. He spoke of the events that unfolded and were yet to unravel within his life and his religion and his community. He never figured out how to make it all go back to normal. I saw how it wore on him. I watched as the years dragged on how time after time he defended his family and held true to his work and his word in spite of the pressure and fears from both worlds that called for him. I stood in awe of him. And I thought, here is a man that could have yielded to pressures of men, yet he stood strong in his own beliefs and open to all sides, under the weight of a crumbling community. He walked the fine line between those who thought him wrong and those who thought him right. He demanded no compliance, took no credit, and through it, broken heart, broken body and all, told the unspoken story that a man must stand strong and stand up for what he believes is the best path forward. What he left me were these two messages. "Don't fold under pressure son." and "Don't burn bridges." Somehow, he walked that middle line for the last years of his life as turmoil ensured. And once again I thought to myself, "That man there... that is my dad!"
In my last moment alone with him, I stood with my hand on his chest in hopes of calming his breathing. As I said my final goodbye as his heart pulsed under my palm, I said what anyone would say. I said, "I love you, and thank you for everything." But there was something else in my heart that day, a sort of promise. A promise that I will remember the example he gave me of fatherhood, comradery, leadership, friendship, patience, perseverance, diplomacy, forgiveness, curiosity, compassion, and undying faith in the best parts of humanity. I will remember who I am. I will remember where I came from.
My loving siblings and I often joked about who's dad is stronger, knowing full well we were talking about the same man. I know now that my dad is the strongest. And... I know that I am his son. That's something I couldn't feel more proud of. An era is ending this season but I'll never forget who dad is and was, forever.
I love you daddy!