By Francine Mathews
Forty years ago this week, my father felt a pain in his left arm and stopped in at his doctor’s office for an EKG during his evening commute home. He’d had a heart attack fifteen years before, the year before I was born, and knew the signs. He never mentioned his errand to us over dinner, was charming to me and my mother and her sister and brother-in-law who were visiting from New York. Eventually all of us went to bed. It was a weeknight, and I had school in the morning.
At two a.m., unable to sleep, my father threw back the bedclothes and went downstairs. He’d heard from one of his golf buddies that single-malt Scotch could zap the blood clot that caused a heart attack, so he pulled a bottle out of his liquor cabinet and drank a strong dose. Then he dialed 911. He walked down the driveway to the ambulance twenty minutes later. I never heard the sirens, never woke up. That haunts me still.
He didn’t die that night. He was taken to Bethesda Naval Hospital, because he was a retired Air Force brigadier general. What I remember most about Bethesda Naval is that a light shines perpetually over the sixteenth floor of the tower, to commemorate the fact that the first Secretary of Defense, James Forrestal, jumped from a window there to his death. Forrestal was being treated for depression at the time. It was my father who told me about his jump. He was lacerated by the lost possibility of Forrestal’s life. Like me, he curated strange stories of fateful ends.
I woke up to the news that he was in the hospital and that I had somehow slept through his crisis. I was sent to school “to keep my mind off of things.” I went through my classes in a daze, wondering every moment if my father had died while I was ignoring science or math or Man the Mythmaker, our freshman-year English text. As soon as I got home, I visited him in Intensive Care. He was maudlin from morphine, apologizing to all of us for having given us genetically bad hearts.
That was December 13th. All five of my older sisters trekked home immediately at the news of the family emergency, and their trips coincided with the Christmas holiday; so suddenly, our house in Potomac was filled to bursting and the big issue was how to manage meals for a vast multitude. Some of my sisters were married. Some had children. Some were trekking back from jobs or college. My mother was shell-shocked. This was decades before stents, angioplasty, or any of the treatments that make coronary disease less fatal; my sisters were terrified we were about to lose our father. He had always been the domestic god of our particular universe.
On December 23rd, his medical team required him to take a stress test. When several of us arrived to see him afterward at Bethesda Naval, he would not make eye contact or speak to any of us. His face was like stone. I can only guess the news he was told–the prognosis was bad? He required a pacemaker? A heart transplant? He should get his affairs in order? Regardless, he checked himself out of the hospital on Christmas Eve, against doctors’ orders, and came home.
I should explain that Christmas was my father’s favorite holiday. My deepest memories of the season are due to him–holding strands of white lights while he strung them fastidiously on a birch tree in front of our Chappaqua house in 1972. Holding colored lights while he strung them on our indoor Christmas tree, years before that. Snuggling close to his rib cage and listening to the whorls and whistles of his mysterious interior after an epic Christmas dinner, filled with candlelight and laughter and varied toasts from the characters who populated my extended family.
Christmas, of course, had a dark side for all of us. My only brother, Stephen, died before I was born, on one dreadful December 19th. He was buried at Arlington that year, two days before Christmas, and the holiday was forever tinged with mourning. Even I–the last of the family, who hadn’t witnessed this brutal history–inherited its melancholy.
Stevie had been the apple of my father’s eye. He had bled out in his arms.
That Christmas of 1977, Dad got up in the morning, dressed impeccably in a suit and tie, went to morning Mass and passed out the gifts to all of us around the tree. (Where did the gifts come from? How did they happen in the midst of crisis?) He carved whatever roast my mother had managed to hustle out of the kitchen, complete with her signature gravy, between hospital visits and primordial terror, for a collective gathering of at least a dozen people, a testament to the way both my parents rose to occasions whenever required. I remember feeling ecstatic: convinced that my father was back, that normalcy had resumed, that nothing bad would ever happen again.
That I was safe.
As the dishes were being washed that Christmas night, I sat alone in the family room listening to carols. A wave of foreboding washed over me. My father walked in and fussed with tapes on his cherished stereo. I looked at him and said, “Daddy. Do you ever have the feeling that nothing is going to be right in the world, ever again?”
He told me that he did. But that everything would be all right for me.
I went to bed.
The next morning was December 26th, the Feast of St. Stephen in the Catholic calendar. St. Stephen’s Day in England, or Boxing Day, as it is commonly called. My father slept late. He had breakfast downstairs, but went back to bed afterward. He seemed content to stay there, resting.
My sisters and I gathered about his bed. I remember lounging idly across his pillow, one arm draped over his shoulders, as a fourteen-year-old girl will. He was in a reflective mood. I told him I was sorry I had ever been born, because I had grown up with the awareness that as the last of eight pregnancies, far advanced in my parents’ marriage, I must have been a mistake. But for the fact of me, I told my father, he’d have been free at this point in his life. Free of a fourteen-year-old he had to get through high school, and then, God forbid, college.
He looked at me directly and said, “Francie, you’ve been the light of my life, the child of my old age.” (He was 62, ridiculously young from my current standpoint.) “Always believe that.”
He told each of my sisters one important thing he wanted each of them to remember. I only remember mine. But he also told us one immense thing none of us quite knew how to absorb.
My father was not on any medications that day that I was aware of. He was completely lucid. But on the morning of the Feast of St. Stephen, he said with absolute certainty that he saw our brother Stevie standing at the foot of his bed. That he had been standing there, in fact, for the past twenty-four hours, ever since my father had returned home. Just waiting and watching. Stevie gave my father comfort, he told us, with his presence.
We did not realize Daddy was telling us goodbye.
We left him to take one of my sisters to the train station.
He walked downstairs to see us off, and stood in the front doorway, hand raised in farewell, until our car was out of sight.
We returned to an empty house, the windows of his room flung open, the lamps overturned on the night tables, the sheets torn off the bed.
As a departure, it must have been monstrous.
He had suffered a final heart attack in our absence, and been carried away by an ambulance corps. Dead on arrival, we later learned.
A priest gave us the information over the phone.
But every Christmas, on the Feast of St. Stephen, when I remember my father’s life, and his love, and all that he taught me–
I remember also the visit of a possible Magi.
An angel, of sorts.
In the form of the brother I never knew.
Who stood at the foot of my father’s bed, in the last few hours of his life, and eased his suffering with eternal love.
My Christmas wish for all of you this holiday is Peace. And the love of those who matter to you, who guide you, whom you hold in your hearts forever. I wish you a faint brush of the wings from a passing Spirit–that may remind each of us of what is Eternal in the Season.