97: One Last Reminder

97: One Last Reminder

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks Dad

One Last Reminder

Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like
wrapping a present and not giving it.

~William Arthur Ward

“See ya later, alligator.”

“After ’while, crocodile.”

With twinkly, crinkly eyes, my father would always chuckle at his own wit as he invented each new spin on the old familiar farewell. Knowing his forgetful older daughter so well, he sometimes sent me on my way with a fond “see ya later, procrastinator.” I had no comeback for that one.

Daddy was a great “reminder.” He was always and forever reminding my sister and me of things we needed to do — boring, practical things like getting the oil changed in the car. Most of the time, his reminders were viewed as unnecessary and intrusive. Until he would have to meet me halfway with my forgotten purse or some other necessity left behind in my eagerness to get away from my parents’ house and into my own life.

This life evolved into becoming a teacher with a professor husband and two children. We eventually moved far away from our roots, but we always made the trip back home during our Christmas vacation. During the 1997 visit, I noticed (again) that Daddy was not as young as he used to be. However, he still enjoyed his daily trip to get the mail. It was his opportunity to see people and hear all of the local news. When he had a package to mail, he would arrive at the window with a parcel enclosed in whatever had been handy, such as a shoebox sealed with masking tape. I was happy to see that this daily sojourn was still intact even though his gait had become unsteady and the tremor in his hand had become more severe.

One day I was sitting in the living room across from the stairs when my father came through and began climbing up the steps. His shoulders were slumped, he was moving slowly, and he looked at me with weary eyes. He surprised me by saying in a flat tone, “It’s just time for me to go on.”

Uncomfortable at hearing those words, I responded lamely with, “Daddy, don’t talk like that.” He continued with his upstairs errand.

As that year’s visit drew to a close, we were packing to go home, trying to carve out enough seating space for the four of us amidst all of our luggage and gifts. My mother had cleaned out some closets and had gathered some remnants of lace and trim for me to take back for use in my future craft projects, and this bundle was to be stuffed in along with all the rest.

We said our fond farewells, crammed ourselves into the van and readied ourselves to head back to our own home, our own routine, our own activities, as we had done scores of times before.

“Love you.”

“Love you, too.”

“Do you have everything? Your glasses? Did you check one last time?”

“I checked. I think we have everything.”

“Call when you get there.” (Daddy knew I would forget. He would give us time to drive the 450 miles, and then he would call to make sure we had arrived safely.)

“See ya later, alligator.”

“After ’while, crocodile.”

Upon returning home, of course we became engrossed in our own schedule, and we were excited because our favorite football team was playing in the National Championship. I was in fun mode when Daddy called. He phoned because in typical fashion I had forgotten the lace that Mother had saved for me. Distracted, as usual, by my own doings, I said off-handedly, “Oh, that’s okay. I won’t use it right away. I’ll just get it the next time.”

“I can mail it to you,” he offered.

“No, don’t go to that trouble.”

He had the last word with, “I don’t mind. It’s no trouble.”

We finished our conversation. I hung up and returned to whatever I had been doing before the call, not giving it another thought.

Less than a week passed before I got a 10:00 PM call from my sister on January sixth. Daddy was gone. His heart had failed and he had, as he had said he was ready to do, gone on. In shock, I heard my husband making a reservation for an airplane ticket. Numbness protected me as I took a very turbulent flight back to my home state much sooner than I had anticipated.

My husband and children drove up for the funeral, so we all returned home together. Still in shock, I spent the nine hours in the car trying to sort things out. It was so sudden. He had some health problems, yes, but why now? What had happened? He had experienced some bronchial congestion that day and had seen the doctor. What else had he done? How had he spent the rest of this sixth day of January?

As we pulled into our driveway after the long trip, drained and exhausted, my eye caught sight of something leaning against the front door, the one we never used. I climbed wearily out of the car and trudged up the sidewalk to see what had been deposited there in our absence. It was probably a neighbor’s package, left by mistake.

My heart ached when I saw the flimsy brown shirt box, crushed and bent, with masking tape crisscrossed in every direction, turning up at the edges and coming loose at the corners. On the front was my name and address penned in the wobbly cursive handwriting of my father. I checked the postmark: January 6, 1998.

One of Daddy’s last acts on this earth had been the mailing of that old lace to his absent-minded daughter. I tried with all my mental might to recall every precious word of that last phone conversation, the one I could not have known would be our final one. Did I say thank you? Did I appreciate his wanting to send the box? Or was I a bit annoyed at his insistence on taking time and effort to do something so trivial? Did I say I love you? Or was I too eager to get back to my own life, my own schedule? Did I say it? I could not remember. I could only hope that I had.

I saved that tattered box with the shaky handwriting and the ragged tape. I kept it under the bed until we moved from that house ten years later. Even then, I cut out the front where my father had written my name one last time, and I carefully packed it among my treasures.

The old bent box top refreshes my memory about my priorities. It is one last reminder from my father to me: “You are likely to forget many things in your life — your purse, your keys, your glasses, even your dental appointment; but don’t forget the most important things. Don’t forget to express gratitude to those who love you. Don’t forget to pay attention to conversations with your nearest and dearest, for you may need to remember them later. Above all, don’t ever forget to say ‘I love you’ whenever you have the chance. It may be the last.”

“Thanks, Daddy. I love you. Oh, just one more thing — I almost forgot — see ya later, alligator.”

~Jan Hamlett

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