Final gift will always be remembered

Photo taken by Ryan Sowers, July 4, 2014.

When the time came, I thought about my father’s hand on a church pew.

I’d wrap my whole fist around his pinky and index finger and squeeze out a rhythm.

He’d copy my squeezes back. That’s how a four-year-old passes the time with his dad before Mass, through the 53 Hail Marys and six “Our Fathers” that make up a Holy Rosary.

My dad carried a simple faith that brought him to church each Sunday with a bit of common sense and a joke mixed in with the prayers.

For many years, we sat in the same spot in church right behind a woman who prayed the Lord’s Prayer like her words would tear down a brick wall.

“THY Kingdom come. THY will be done.”

Dad and I would start praying like she did in a game of church chicken to see who would smirk first and draw the rebuke from Mom. She’d usually sit between us the next week.

Last Tuesday night I prayed the Lord’s Prayer with my father for the final time.

He’d been in the hospital again following a massive heart attack. That morning I visited him before work. We talked about politics, like usual, and how the paper was going.

He told me I didn’t have to be in the hospital, because we had a paper to get out.

I said I’d be back that evening. For once in my father’s life, he didn’t argue.

Up in Newton, most know me from the paper as Adam. Others call me Chris for the features and profession I share with a relative and former Newton newspaper man.

But at home, I’ve always been and always will be Johnny’s son.

I’m proud of that.

I have not the skill to relay who he was in a column or do him any sort of justice. Those who knew him knew what kind of man he was. To me, he was simply my dad.

During this last week, I’ve had a number of people expressing sympathy, bearing hams, chicken, and breakfast casserole, tell me they saw a lot of “Johnny” in my columns.

No one, except my mother, knows how true that statement really is. I wrote so many of my columns for him. And while all of your sentiments mean a lot to me, I’d most look forward to his Thursday e-mail saying something I wrote was either “far fetched” or hit the nail on the head.

I learned to argue, to love news, to love politics and to question everyone and everything from my dad—with newspapers spread across the kitchen table.

I loved to come home Sunday and give him and Mom the off-the-record story. Then we’d play cards.

My father was the greatest pitch player I ever knew. He was great not because he was lucky but because he could somehow make his bid even on awful hands.

Two Sundays ago, I managed to play him to a tie in pitch. He promised me another game, but he was too tired to play the next week.

My father overcame a lot of things in his life: bad crops, bad markets, mean bulls, storms and alcoholism. But lung cancer at 82 is a hard hand to do much with.

He ran out of points to catch.

I had just finished up at the paper Tuesday when the call from my sister sent me barreling down Broadway in my car, only to be stopped by the train. I pounded the steering wheel and screamed and cursed it as if the words would push it faster. I hit every red light after I got off the highway in Wichita. And I told myself he’d wait. If anyone could wait, it was him.

I pushed a person aside when my elevator hit the fourth floor of the hospital.

I got into the room and found my siblings.

I grabbed his hand. I told him I made it. The minutes that followed were difficult but the most profound of my life.

He, who spent his life sacrificing to provide for us, pushed through 40 minutes of pulmonary edema to give us one last gift.

He waited for us all to be there before dying.

Together, we began the Lord’s Prayer and prayed those same words I said with him so many times as a kid.

Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done,

I got to hold his hand as I felt his last hard squeeze.

Then he let go.

When I was young, I remember laying across his back and broad shoulders as we watched M*A*S*H* after he came in from working ground. I remember my father’s arms, roped with muscle. Where I had to grab a wrench he had his fingers. He wasn’t afraid of anything or anyone. He was stubborn will made flesh.

The man before me had withered into bones. His arms shrunk smaller than my own. He labored for a single breath as his heart began to quit. But his will remained until the end.

The man died as he lived: loving, strong and generous. And for that I will love him, and miss him, the most.

We stayed a while after, and I wrapped my fingers around his pinky, thinking it wasn’t real, hoping just maybe he’d squeeze back. But I knew that was wrong. He was ready.

In the end, I am glad he could leave. That was his gift.

I lost a hell of a reader this week. But my family will always carry with them one hell of a dad.

Adam Strunk is the managing editor of Newton Now

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