From Chicken Soup for the Grieving Soul


My father was a tall, ruggedly handsome man with raven hair and gentle brown eyes. His name was Bernard, and he was an avid sport fisherman. He used to take my brothers and me fishing from a rowboat on a lake, or from the shore of a gently flowing stream. He ran a tackle shop in the middle of Manhattan. The store was never terribly successful, so to help make ends meet, my father sold the exquisite paintings he created without the benefit of a single day of formal training.

How vividly I still recall the endless happy hours I spent as a little girl in my father’s tiny studio watching him put brush to canvas. It’s like magic, I thought of the way he could turn dollops of color into striking portraits, still lifes or seascapes.

One of my very favorites was a ballet scene a family friend commissioned my father to paint for his wife’s anniversary gift. For years the painting hung prominently in the living room of their elegant New York home. Every time we went for a visit I’d stand mesmerized by its beauty, half-convinced that any moment the graceful dancers would spring to life before my very eyes. Eventually, the couple moved away, and our families lost touch. But over the years that painting has always kept a very special place in my heart.

My father never had much money, but he did without so he could buy me the prettiest dresses or take me out for ice-cream sodas on sultry summer afternoons. He held me sobbing in his arms the day my puppy died and brought me special treats when I was sick in bed with the flu.

I felt so beautiful my wedding day when I walked down the aisle on my father’s arm. He became a doting grandpa to my three children, Tracy, Binnie and David. Once, when three-year-old Tracy drew him a picture, Dad put it in his wallet and said he’d carry it with him always. “That boy is going to become a real artist; you just wait and see,” he predicted.

I was only thirty when my father died. I felt so alone and adrift. “I’m not ready to let him go,” I sobbed to my mom the night of his funeral.

I missed my father terribly. There was so much I longed to share with him. How proud he would have been when I returned to school and became an English teacher after my kids were grown. He would have swelled with pride when David became a dentist, when Binnie published her first children’s book, and most especially when Tracy fulfilled his grandpa’s prediction and became a successful artist.

“Your father is still very much with you,” my friends and family kept telling me. “He’s watching over you from heaven.” More than anything, I wished I could have believed them. But over the years I’d never once felt my father’s presence.

“He’s gone,” I’d whisper sadly, poring through the family photo albums. “All I have left of Dad are a lot of happy memories.”

Then tragedy struck. Pelvic pain sent me to the doctor, and the tests came back positive for ovarian cancer. The diagnosis felt like a death sentence.

Surgeons removed most of my cancer, but they couldn’t get it all. “You’ll need several months of chemotherapy, and even then I can’t make any promises,” the oncologist explained honestly.

My family embraced me with their love and support. “We’ll get through this together,” my husband, Barney, assured me. The chemo was so strong. A substitute teacher had to finish out my school year and begin the fall term while I lay flat on my back for weeks at a stretch. I was so frail, I couldn’t stumble to the bathroom without struggling not to pass out.

Maybe I’d be better off throwing myself in front of a moving car, I thought more than once as I left the hospital after yet another infusion of toxic chemicals. How I yearned for those days long gone when I could curl up in my father’s strong arms and feel safe and protected from any danger. Somehow, I survived the chemo. But I couldn’t sleep at night, worrying if I’d also survived the cancer. A few weeks before Thanksgiving I went for a CAT scan. Then I returned home and anxiously awaited the results. The day before I was to learn whether I would live or die, I received a phone call from my brother Robert. “You’ll never believe what happened to me today,” he began, and by the time he’d completed his miraculous tale, tears of joy were spilling down my cheeks.

Every Sunday Robert visits an open-air antique market in Greenwich Village, hoping to add to his collection of cruise-ship memorabilia. “You were so much in my thoughts today,” he told me over the phone. “I was praying for you, but I kept wishing there was something more I could do.” Then, from several dozen yards away, Robert spotted a painting that was instantly familiar, despite the more than fifty years that had elapsed since he’d last seen it hanging from our friend’s living-room wall. “I didn’t even have to read the signature to know it was Dad’s ballerina painting,” my brother told me. “I’ve always remembered how much you loved it. I bought it on the spot, and I couldn’t wait to get home and call you with the news.” As Robert spun his tale, a radiant warmth filled my soul.

And then for the very first time since he died, I felt my father’s presence. “Oh, Dad!” I thrilled. “You really have been watching over me from heaven, and now you’ve come back to be my guardian angel!” After I hung up the phone I gave Barney a jubilant hug.

“It’s no coincidence Robert found that painting today,” I wept happy tears. “My father knew how much I needed him, and he found a very special way to let me know everything’s going to be just fine. My cancer is really gone.”

The next morning I telephoned for the test results, but I already knew the answer. “You don’t sound at all surprised,” the doctor said after informing me I was completely cancer-free.

“My guardian angel already told me,” I explained happily. These days, whenever I gaze upon my father’s beautiful painting, I think about how much I loved my dad and remember all the times over the years when I longed for him to be there to share in my joy or my sorrow. But my father never really left me. I know that now. He’s been with me through all my days, and he watches over me still, loving me and protecting me from harm just like long ago when I was a little girl.

Ferne Kirshenbaum
As told to Bill Holton

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