I received word on Thursday that Dad, although his health had been improving, was having trouble breathing again. Over the last three months between visiting a sick father and having a new baby I’d used a good bit of my vacation time and couldn’t leave town until the weekend. It was cold that Saturday morning as we loaded up the car. There was nothing exceptional about that particular morning. The previous week of work had been just as nondescript as any other and I trudged through it knowing that, come the weekend, I would be with my family again. My wife, our newborn son and I were about to make the 200 plus mile drive to Meridian, Mississippi so that we could visit my father in the hospital. It was to be the first time that he would see his new grandson, Jonas. This time, there would be two proud fathers in the room.
About half way between Pensacola and Meridian I called my sister, Debbie, to see how Dad was doing. She told me that she wasn’t in the room but everything was okay. She asked how long we’d be and where we were. The conversation was brief and, in retrospect, a bit awkward. We arrived at the hospital at about 11:45am. Two hundred miles north of where our trip had originated and three and a half hours later it was just as cold as when we’d set out that morning.
My wife and I made our way across the parking lot and into the hospital as quickly as we could; both to get out of the cold and so that we could see Dad and he could meet his new grandson. As the sliding doors opened I noticed my sister, brother in law, nieces and nephews and the rest of my family sitting in the lobby of the hospital. The look in Debbie’s eyes told me everything. I froze, inside and out. Terror ripped through my body and I felt my heart and everything else inside me fall to the floor with a thud. The first word out of my mouth was “No”. My sister hugged me and we both began to cry. Then, as if a levee had broken, the rest of my family began to cry. They had tried to remain strong as my wife and I arrived but now that was impossible.
The four of us, my wife, my sister, my son and I boarded the elevator and headed to the fourth floor where my father’s room was. My legs couldn’t carry me fast enough to his room. I felt like thoroughbred running the downs after a flood.
I opened the door to his room and found him lying in the bed. The words to describe how he looked as he lay there come easily but I cannot force my fingers to type them.
Everyone left me alone with him so that I could absorb the situation. As I sat at this bedside I gripped his already cool hand and kissed it. I laid my head on his chest, just as I’d done a hundred times as a child looking for comfort. Tears began to well again in my eyes, just as they are doing right now. I screamed at God and asked him why he’d taken this great man from me. Voice trembling, I begged my father to wake up. “Wake up, wake up, wake up! Please come back. I need you. Jonas needs you.” Somewhere inside me I thought that this would somehow be possible. For just a second I thought that he would grip my hand back and tell me everything was okay.
A few minutes later my mother came back into the room. This was the first time that I’d seen her since before my father had passed. She stepped across the threshold and fell to the floor. I sprinted to her but couldn’t get there in time to keep her from collapsing. It took all the strength that I had not to fall onto the floor right beside her and give up. I was afraid that God would, in one day, take my mother and father. The nurses rushed in and soon my mother was whisked off to the emergency room for testing and observation.
As calmly as I could, I made my way down the hall to an empty room, walked into the bathroom and latched the door behind me. I stood, staring into the mirror, looking at myself and my father in me. Then, I eased backward to the wall and slid to the floor. I had never cried that openly or deeply before. For several minutes I sat until my wife came in and knocked. I gathered myself as best as I could and opened the door. I regret that she saw me that way; sitting in the floor, weak and torn with tears pouring from my eyes. She was worried and I’d only been concerned with my own grief.
We made our way back downstairs to the emergency area to find my mother. She was hysterical and speaking gibberish. In and amongst the nonsense were words that we all could understand. “I die, I die” she repeated over and over. Every time I heard those words I did die. My heart and insides were still on the floor in the lobby. There wasn’t much else to leave there in the room where my mother was.
The next few days were a blur. Mom was in the hospital until the night before Dad’s funeral. Before the service she saw him, in the casket, and collapsed again. I rushed outside to call 911. The paramedic who arrived was a family friend and stayed with her throughout the remainder of the day. We were all grateful for his strength and presence.
On December 13th, 2008 at 9:46am my father, Dan Fugate, died. It was on that same day that his son, Danny, died as well. I can still feel him with me and see him in my son. Sometimes I catch Jonas looking and smiling at a blank space on the wall or just over my shoulder. I know that if I could see through his eyes there wouldn’t be a blank space. There would be a smiling man looking at his son and grandson. He is happy because he can watch Jonas everyday and he can still teach his son everything he needs to know to be a good father. I know this is true because everything that I need to know to be a good father I learned from him while he was being a good father to me.
When, in life and work, someone has grief over the loss of someone special I know that I can speak truthfully when I tell them “I know how you feel.”
For the funeral, I wrote and delivered the eulogy. It was printed on the memorial programs:
A Million Days
In October nineteen forty three
And the wake of the Second World War
A family in Kentucky
Had a sixth boy at their door
Over the next several years
Danny turned into Dan
He’s who would dry my tears
And teach me to be a man
I learned to golf and hunt and fish
All while at your side
If God would grant me just one wish
You’d still be my guide
I know that you’ll still be around
To watch your grandson grow
And I’ll always turn to you
For everything you know
He’ll learn to golf and hunt and fish
All while at my side
But you’ll be the one to comfort him and
Make everything alright
Great men are both born and raised
I know this much is true
And if I live a million days
I’ll know none greater than you