Almost Life

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He was dying when he told me, “I had an almost life.”

The nurses sent for me when he woke up. His face was gray in the moonlight, gray against his sheets, gray against the hospital walls. I sat on the edge of the bed, listening to the heart rate monitor blip softly in the background. Outside his room, the world was moving on. Shoes squeaked on the tiled floors, intercoms echoed in the halls, and someone was shouting.

I barely heard them.

I had an almost life. Whatever he’d meant by the words, they were caught in my brain for good now. An almost life. I held his hand, watching him breathe, wanting to pause the moment and live in it forever. An almost life.

“What does that mean, Papa?” I squeezed his hand gently, rubbing my thumb against his paper-thin skin. “An almost life?”

He wasn’t listening. His eyes were on the door, as if he were waiting for someone. The window was open, for the angels, he’d said, but he was waiting for someone else. His dead wife, maybe. He’d always said she would be the one to welcome him into heaven. “No one else,” he’d confided in me once with a wink, “would have the guts to tell me my time was up. It’ll be Jesus, or it’ll be your Meemaw.”

I used to laugh when he told me that. I believed him, though. He’d been a contractor while I was growing up, so tall that he had to duck to come inside, with a booming voice that shook the house. My father had his temper, but not his love, not his compassionate heart. I’d been afraid of my father before I’d come to live with Meemaw and Papa. I still was, although I wouldn’t admit it, but I’d never once been afraid of Papa.

Death would be, though. I was sure of that. Jesus would come, or Meemaw. He wouldn’t go with anyone else.

But I wasn’t ready for him to leave yet. Not with his words in my head. I bent over, kissed his cheek, and whispered, “Papa?” He looked at me, his eyes faded and far away, and I almost asked him what kind of angels he was seeing now. But his words would haunt me if he didn’t explain them, and I didn’t want to live the rest of my life wondering what he’d meant by almost. “What do you mean, ‘an almost life’?”

He took a long time to answer, and his eyes kept straying toward the door. He was waiting for Meemaw, and I held his hand and prayed she’d wait outside until he’d told me what he meant. I needed this, especially now.

“I almost made it through school,” he said, very, very softly. I winced. “Almost went to college. I was pretty sure I was destined to be famous.”

He laughed a bit, his eyes wandering around the room. A breeze flitted through the open window, carrying angels.

“I almost sold my business. We were going to sell the house too, travel a bit. Whole lot of almosts . . .” his voice petered out, and I tried to breathe. He hadn’t retired, not until they made him. He needed the work to raise his granddaughter when his son abandoned her. I still remember waiting by the door for him to come home at night. He’d never told me I was the reason for that ‘almost’.

Papa pulled his hand away, turned my face toward his and wiped my tears with his thumb. “I almost didn’t make it the day you were born. Did your Meemaw ever tell you that?”

I choked on a laugh and nodded. I’d heard that story more than once.

“I almost missed you.” He closed his eyes, taking a deep breath. “Thank God for almosts.”

I buried my face in his chest, crying into his shirt like I had after my first breakup. And after Meemaw had died. We’d both been crying then, but he’d still had strength enough to hold me. “You didn’t miss me, Papa.”

He nodded and looked past me at the empty room. A smile touched his face, the kind he used to have when Meemaw came in wearing a new dress, or when she bought new earrings and wanted him to notice. “I’m glad you weren’t an almost, Kaity,” he murmured. “I had all the right almosts. I was always glad of that.”

“Me too, Papa,” I whispered, watching his soul pull away. “Me too.”

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