When I Die
When all seems unfamiliar and lost, a daughter finds an everlasting reminder that her father's love endures forever.
by Patricia Ann Britt
Everyone knew what was happening. Quiet came over the hospital as my father’s death approached. The world seemed to hold its breath while Mom stood by his side. Their half-century of shared life was slipping away. She watched his last sigh. He was gone, but Mom could not accept it. He was her whole life. She moved into shock, with no tears, matching the quiet of the hospital. Later, when finally alone, Mom found her voice. “No! No! No!” she screamed.
My brother Jon and his wife, Terry, soon arrived at the hospital. While they comforted Mom and began making arrangements, I was asked to return to Mom and Dad’s house.
As I pulled out of town, and I certainly knew the right direction, profound disorientation came over me. This road, which I had traveled so may times before, was now totally unfamiliar. Feeling childlike, lost and desperate, as nothing looked familiar, instinct told me, “Turn here, it seems to be the right place.” Finally, at the next turn, my parent’s driveway came into view. Still, I had to check the mailbox to make certain I had arrived at the right house.
Once inside, I checked on everything and then prepared to leave for my own home. After locking the door, I drove to the end of the drive and sat for a while thinking, “Nothing can ever be the same with Dad gone.” Mom needed us. I had to be up to the task. It was then that the fear of being lost in a place I don’t know started to lift, giving me glimpses of a world permanently changed.
It was imperative that I spend the first night with Mom. Driving to my house to get clothing, I began to reminisce about my dad. I remember the many occasions when we spoke of his early days. One time, he handed me a nail saying, “When I die, will you put this in the pocket of my burial suit?” I agreed to do so. He then began to speak of the Great Depression and the impact it had on his family. As an able-bodied young man, he knew that by living at home, he was taking food from the mouth of his younger brothers. Jobs were so scarce that joining the Civil Conservation Corp seemed the right thing to do. It was like being in the military where the enemy was hard work. An enemy he knew intimately.
Working in the Corp involved reforestation, the construction of small buildings, bridges, and fish runs. Dad began collecting discarded nails: those that were bent, rusty, or otherwise unusable. These rejects could find new life on the family farm, so he mailed them home, along with his meager wages.
Where was that nail he had given me so long ago? Suddenly, I remembered. Running down the basement steps to the fruit cellar,
I found it in the dark corner where I had hidden it for safekeeping.
The next day, before friends and relatives arrived at the funeral home, I was allowed to view Dad in his casket. The funeral director kindly left me with my Father. In what seemed like an unreal exercise, I hastily placed the nail in Dad’s suit coat pocket. Feeling perhaps that the nail was not properly positioned, I tried to pull it back out. It would not budge. I tugged again. Still, it held fast. And so it stayed.
Later, family members honored my father with expressions of love. Mom put religious articles and his favorite flowers in the casket. Their deceased oldest son’s wife, Marcie, placed Dad’s favorite slippers on his feet. Grandchildren surrounded their grandfather with pictures of their own children.
The nail remained hidden in Dad’s pocket, my secret. To this day,
I know it was a symbol not only of survival, but also of Dad’s enduring love for all of us.