The Last Dance

The Last Dance

From A 3rd Serving of Chicken Soup for the Soul

The Last Dance

One of my first tasks as a boy was to help gather firewood. I loved it. I went with my father out into the woods to cut and split the firewood. We were men working together as mighty lumberjacks, doing our share to keep our house and women warm. Yes, he taught me to be a provider. It was a wonderful feeling. Oftentimes he bet me that I could not split a big old knotty cut of wood, say, in 500 strokes. Oh, how I tried! Most of the time I won, but I think he always gave me plenty of strokes because he saw how proud and happy I was on that last powerful stroke (499th) when the piece of wood finally split. With runny noses from the cold, we then pulled the sled of wood home, heading in for some grub and a warm relaxing fire.

When I was in first grade, my father and I watched television together on Tuesday nights: Wyatt Earp, Cheyenne, Maverick and Sugar Loaf. He totally convinced me that he rode with them in his past. He was always able to tell me what was going to happen before it happened. That is why I believed him. He said he knew them so well he could predict their actions. Boy, was I proud; my father was a real cowboy who rode with the best. I went to school and told this to my friends. They laughed at me and told me my father was lying to me. To defend his honor, I constantly got into fights. One day I was beat up pretty badly. Seeing my torn pants and split lip, my teacher pulled me to the side to find out what had happened. One thing led to another, and my father had to tell me the truth. Needless to say, I was crushed, but I still loved him dearly.

My father started to play golf when I was about 13 years old. I was his caddie. He would let me hit a few shots when we got away from the clubhouse. I fell in love with the game and became good at it. Once in a while Dad brought two of his friends along. When Dad and I took them on in a skins game and won, I beamed with joy. We were a team.

Both my father and mother’s second love (us kids being the first) was dancing. Together they were fabulous. The ballroom crowd nicknamed my parents, Marvin and Maxine, the great M & M’s of the dance floor. It was their romantic fantasy come true. I never saw Mom and Dad with anything but smiles on their faces when they were dancing. My two sisters, Nancy and Julie, and I always went along to the wedding dances. What a blast!

After church on Sunday mornings, my Dad and I were in charge of preparing breakfast. While we waited for the oatmeal and raisins to cook, we practiced our tap-dance routine on Mom’s clean, newly waxed floor. She never complained.

As I got older, our relationship seemed to grow apart. When I entered junior high school, extracurricular activities started to consume my time. My peer group were jocks and musicians—we played sports, played in a band and chased girls. I remember how hurt and lonely I was when Dad began working at night and no longer came to any of my activities. I submerged myself in hockey and golf. My angry attitude was, “I’ll show you. I will be the best even without you there.” I was captain of both the hockey and golf teams, but he did not come to one of my games. I felt as if his lack of attention was conditioning me to be a bitter survivor in life. I needed him. Didn’t he know?

Drinking alcohol became a part of the social scene for me. Dad no longer seemed like a hero, but more like a person who did not understand my feelings or that I was going through a very difficult time. Once in a while when we were both drinking and getting high, things seemed to get closer between us, but the special feelings of the past were just not there. From the time I was 15 until I was 26, we never said we loved each other. Eleven years!

Then it happened. One morning Dad and I were getting ready for work. He was shaving and I noticed a lump on his throat. I asked, “Dad, what is that on your neck?”

“I don’t know. I’m going to the doctor today to find out,” he said.

That morning was the first time I saw Dad look so scared.

The doctor diagnosed the lump on Dad’s throat as cancer, and for the next four months I saw my father die a little each day. He seemed so confused by what was happening. He was always so healthy; it was unbearable to see him go from 165 pounds of muscles and flesh to 115 pounds of skin and bones. I tried to get close to him, but I guess he had so much on his mind that he could not focus on me or our feelings toward each other.

This seemed to be the case until the night of Christmas Eve.

I arrived at the hospital that evening and discovered my mom and sister had both been there all day. I stood watch so they could go home and get some rest. Dad was asleep when I walked into his room. I sat in a chair beside his bed. From time to time he would wake up, but he was so weak that I could hardly hear what he had to say.

At about 11:30 P.M., I got sleepy, so I lay down and slept on a cot that an orderly had brought to the room. All of a sudden, my father awakened me. He was shouting out my name. “Rick! Rick!” As I sat up, I saw Dad sitting up in bed with a most determined look. “I want to dance. I want to dance, right now,” he said.

At first I didn’t know what to say or do, so I just sat there. Again he persisted. “I want to dance. Please, son, let’s have this last dance.” I went over to the bed, bowed slightly and asked, “Will you dance with me, Father?” It was amazing. I hardly had to help him up from the bed. His energy must have come from God’s grace. Hand in hand, arms around each other, we danced around the room.

No writer has ever written words that could describe the energy and love that we shared that night. We became one, united in the true meaning of love, understanding and caring for each other. Our whole life together all seemed to be happening at that exact moment. The tap-dancing, hunting, fishing, golf—we experienced everything all at once. Time did not exist. We did not need a record player or radio, for every song that was ever written, or ever will be, was playing in the air. The small room was bigger than any ballroom in which I had ever danced. Dad’s eyes lit up with a glitter and sorrowful joy I had never experienced before. Tears came to both of our eyes as we kept on dancing. We were saying goodbye, and with just a short time left we both realized once again how great it was to have this uncompromising love for each other.

When we stopped, I helped my father back into the bed, as he was now near exhaustion. With a firm grasp, he took my hand, looked straight into my eyes and said, “Thank you, my son. I am so glad that you are here with me tonight. It means so much to me.” He died the following day on Christmas.

The last dance was God’s gift to me on that Christmas Eve—a gift of happiness and wisdom as I found out just how strong and purposeful a love between a father and son can be.

Well, Pop, I do love you, and I look forward to our next dance in God’s ballroom.

Rick Nelles

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