It was a rainy Christmas Eve day in 1991 when the doctor pulled me from my father’s bedside to describe the stages of death.
I was angry and in denial. Why wasn’t I seeing a rainbow? Was it raindrops or tears causing the blur, the inability to listen and understand the doctor? My head was spinning. My heart was pounding. This couldn’t be the end for my dad. No, my dad was strong, he was resilient, he was a survivor.
My dad, William A. Faas Jr., grew up in Lawrenceville and raised his own family on Shields Street in Greenfield. He worked in the cold mill at Jones & Laughlin Steel on Second Avenue, where his friends called him “Wild Bill.”
Dad would walk over pools of acid at the mill as he breathed the toxins into his lungs. When he got home, he gave a thumbs-up, saying, “I had a great day!”
He worked triple shifts to put me through college. Upon my graduation he gave me the credit — a thumbs-up saying, “Your hard work paid off!”
Dad could rebuild a motorcycle from pieces carried home from a buddy’s house in a bushel basket. When he got that cycle running, he’d give a thumbs-up and say, “Hop on for a ride!”
When his grandsons were born he moved to Erie to be close to them. With a thumbs-up, he said, “I’ll teach them how to fish and play ball.”
Those memories swirled around my head at the hospital as I listened to a clinical monologue about mortality containing heavy, hollow words that echoed through my soul and brain: Denial (I was there). Anger (You bet). Bargaining (Please — where was the rainbow, the sign? Just let him live for Christmas). Depression (It was upon me). Acceptance (No). Desolate, incomprehensible words befell me.
My dad had survived lung cancer in his 40s after a lung removal at West Penn Hospital. He survived a cancerous optical brain tumor with radiation treatment at St. Francis Hospital. He struggled with seizures receiving treatment at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Erie, where he also had open heart surgery at age 50.
After each operation Dad would give a thumbs-up, saying, “I’m going to live to enjoy my grandsons.”
His determination and resilience motivated the rest of the family. His thumbs-up became a well-known “All is A-OK” signal. But now things were different. He was in his 60s, which seemed still too young to be in the battle of his life — an unsuccessful one against esophageal cancer.
When I reached my dad’s beside after his last surgery he was hallucinating and confused. Everything in the room was scary and distorted. He was fighting a war with demons through hell that privately tore my heart apart. I could not help him win this war.
Acceptance? OK, I was finally there. Now what? I held his hand and said the seven hardest words of my life — “It’s all right for you to go.”
Really? It did not really feel right for me to let him go, but it was time for his suffering to stop. It was not what the doctor told me to say — it was what my heart told me to say.
My mom was in the room, and Dad reached out for a gold cross she was wearing and held it tightly. The cross became his final weapon to fight this last battle. A calmness and peace came to us as we held hands, each expressing love for one another.
For many long hours I cried as I counted the seconds between his breaths. The seconds became longer and longer. The doctor’s words were making sense. I knew the end was near. I was scared for him. I was scared to face living without him.
A final message came from my dad. Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” had come on the radio. My dad let go of my hand, opened his eyes and looked at me. He gave me a thumbs-up, then lowered his cold hand to touch mine and closed his eyes.
The song ended and his breathing stopped. It was time to go. I turned to the window with tears in my eyes, and there it was — a Christmas Eve rainbow. There is a heaven and I know my dad is there, because he told me so.
Thumbs up, Dad, thumbs up.
Karen Faas Marovich, now retired in Mandan, N.D., after teaching in the Millcreek Township School District in Erie County for 36 years, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The PG Portfolio welcomes “Local Dispatch” submissions and other reader essays. Send your writing to email@example.com; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.