A fitting goodbye

A tribute to Jack Edward Helser.

My Dad, Jack Edward Helser, went home to his Joy Sunday morning April 22 at 9:55am. He was 85 and passed peacefully in his sleep. From the unusual movements of his head and mouth, it seemed to me like he was being greeted with kisses from loved ones on the other side of the veil as he abruptly turned his head from side to side to see who was next to welcome him home. Of course, that could well be my imagination – but it was a behavior I’ve never before seen from him while sleeping. And in the last year I’ve watched him sleep a lot.
EPSON MFP imageThere were a few minor miracles when I said goodbye to Dad. My cell phone is set to do not disturb before 9am. Previously I had prayed if there were any emergent need with Dad that my phone would either ring through or I’d wake up to get the message in time. The nurse called at 7:30am. My phone did not ring but I perceived an urgent need to check it and heard the nurse’s message a minute after she left it. When I returned her call, the nurse said Dad’s breathing had become ragged and “it won’t be long”. I dressed quickly and went to be with him.

In the quiet of his room I held Dad’s hand, kissed him goodbye and told him how much I loved him and how thankful I was to have had him for my Dad. My wife Karen arrived about 30 minutes after I did and likewise encouraged Dad and expressed her love and gratitude.

My Dad and Mom had a thunderous relationship at times in no small part because Dad loved to push Mom’s buttons. Though she was born in Maple Valley, Mom was adopted and often displayed the fiery temperament of her Italian parents. Sometimes when Mom asked for Dad’s permission, he replied “You have my blessing” which always put Mom over the moon. She launched in an instant and blasted Dad with “I DON’T NEED YOUR DAMN BLESSING!”

It’s funny the memories and promptings of the heart when spending final moments with a loved one. While waiting with Dad, I was moved to whisper to him “Dad, you have my blessing to go” and more loudly for my mother whom I’m certain was waiting with me “Mom, you have my blessing to take Dad home.” There was no visible reaction from Dad other than his breathing eased just a little.

The Wednesday before Dad’s passing, was the last time I saw him awake and talked with him. As always, I pulled the wheelchair up to the side of his bed and turned to face him, resting my feet on the rails beneath the bed. That afternoon it was as if our conversation was scripted – everything happened so naturally and with such great love. It was an indelible moment in time for me.

An hour into our last conversation, I spotted a tube of ointment on his bed tray and squeezed some out to massage into my hands. It smelled of oranges. Dad grinned at me and said “you know that’s my butt cream, don’t you?” Oh how we laughed! For the next 30 minutes, I held my hands well out in front of me, refusing to smell them again, nor even bring them near my face. Finally I said while standing up from the wheel chair “well Dad, it’s time to wash your butt off my hands.” He shot back “it’s time to wash your hands off my butt.” As I stood at the sink and glanced in the mirror where I could see Dad in the bed behind me, I realized what I said was a double-entendre and felt a flood of emotion wash over me. In that moment I knew God was giving me the special, one of a kind goodbye with my father, that He gave me with my mother during the spring of 2003.

Before Mom passed, I spoke with her on the phone one last time. Her stroke 3-1/2 years before had paralyzed Mom on one side and she spoke only in nonsensical syllables. Time had taught me not to focus on her words, but to listen for her emotions and especially her love expressed by the joyful lilt in her voice which at times was melodic. When we were done talking, twice I said to her emphatically “I love you, Mommy!” Then, for the first time since her stroke, Mom said to me “I love you too, Jackie”. When we finished talking Dad took the phone to say goodbye and exclaimed “My God! Did you hear what she said?” That evening until I fell asleep I wondered “Why on earth did I call her Mommy?” I hadn’t called her “Mommy” in 45 years. Dad was blessed to spend one last day with her after we talked and then called me early the next to say Mom had passed suddenly in the night. “I love you, Mommy” was my goodbye.

What happened between Mom and me before she passed isn’t the first time I’ve experienced a beautiful goodbye. On a cold afternoon in February 2001 before friends and acquaintances began to arrive at the funeral home to honor my father-in-law Ralph and console his family, we formed a circle, joined hands and prayed together. My mother-in-law expressed sorrow that her beloved didn’t awaken from his coma to say goodbye one last time. In the moment of silence that followed our inability to comfort her, I remembered seeing Ralph’s body at the VA Hospital before he was taken away and noticed a tear that left its mark on Ralph’s face. Still glistening, I pointed it out to my wife who is Ralph’s first born and together we comforted our family that Ralph had indeed said goodbye to the family he loved, through his tear.

Often I’ve wondered why that made such an impression on me; why I was the one to notice it. It wasn’t until my own father passed that I understood Ralph taught me to listen by seeing so that I might hear my Dad’s final goodbye.

What wonderful gifts the Father gives. A tear for a goodbye. A final “I love you”. One last joke, on me. A moment of God’s grace eclipses anything this world has to offer and I have been blessed to experience such moments with each of my loved ones before they departed.

At the end with Dad, his breathing grew ever more shallow. The Creator prompted me to read Psalm 23 aloud to send Dad off with comfort and reassurance of what awaited him on the other side.

A moment or two after reading the final promise of that wonderful old Psalm, Dad breathed his last.

“And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

The race is won. Shalom Dad. I’ll see you soon, in your time.

Your loving and grateful son, Jack Jr.