I held his weathered hand in mine through the metal rails of his hospital bed. The room was dark, except for the sliver of light that came through the cracked door. Nurses hurried by with patient’s charts in their hands, their stethoscopes hanging around their necks. Faces stern, they looked important with a purpose in their step. Sometimes I’d hear the squish, squish, squish of their shoes as they’d step quietly into his room. They’d feel his wrist for a pulse, straighten his pillow, smile sadly at me and walk away. I had known most of them my entire life but I was glad they didn’t talk to me anymore. I knew his heart would eventually stop beating. No one had to tell me.
I looked down at his hand, tanned from years of working in the hot sun and fishing in the river. Dark blue veins crisscrossed the top. Callouses caused by hammering nails and sawing boards were slowly dissolving away in his palms. In the dim of the light, I could see a thin, gold wedding band. A reminder of fifty-three years of marriage to Mama. I could spin it round and round and it felt smooth in my fingers from years of wear. I had never seen him without it.
My brother, sister and I took turns spending the night with him in his hospital room. I cherished my nights with him. I read every edition of Guideposts, cover to cover, sometimes reading stories aloud to him that I thought he’d enjoy. Sometimes just holding his hand for hours. Sometimes I’d slip under the blanket and lie close enough to lay my head on his pillow with my hand on his chest.
My Daddy, my Santa. His eyes twinkled every day, not just at Christmas. Like stars in a clear, dark sky, they seemed to dance when he smiled. His round belly shook with laughter a lot. He was always pulling a prank, always telling a funny story. And his heart was bigger than most men. It was full of love and concern for his family, his neighbors and his church friends. Daddy was Santa every day of the year to me.
I’d like to think he knew I was there with him in the dark room. The doctor told us that stroke patients could still hear, even if they couldn’t communicate. So I talked to him about everything. I talked about his love of fishing on the nearby “Coochie Rive,r” the local nickname for the Withlacoochee that ran south into Florida. I told him I had learned the river’s name was the Creek Indian term for the river “WeThalkoChee,” meaning Little-Big River. I knew he would like knowing that.
I talked to him about his turquoise ’66 Chevy truck. He’d let me and my cousins lie down in the bed of the old truck and watch the stars as he drove us and Mama to the Dairy Queen at night for ice cream.
I talked about my old boyfriends. Some he liked, some he didn’t. I felt like it was the right time to fess up about the one that would pick me up in a Volkswagen, then we’d go to his house and swap cars and go on our date in his Plymouth Duster race car. I thought I saw Daddy’s eyebrows raise up a little when I told him that.
I told him of the first one that kissed me. I reminded him of the one that was scared to camp out at the Coochie river unless he stayed there with him, the one that would stop at the red light in Hahira, jump out and start singing “Stop in the Name of Love,” the one that loved to help Mama wash dishes because she had let him stay and eat supper.
I talked to him about Mama. I assured him that we would take care of her when he went away. I knew he would want to hear that too.
I knew it probably was, but I didn’t want to believe this would be my last night alone with Daddy. The last night with my Santa. Just the two of us in a dark hospital room. Did he know how much I loved him? I told him over and over throughout my life but this night, I told him over and over again. I thanked him for his guidance, for all the years of laughter he had given our family, for taking good care of us when we were growing up. I hoped he could hear me. I thanked him for never giving up on me and for praying for me.
Christmas morning broke with a gray light filtering through the window. It was cold outside but warm inside his room. I knew it would never be just me and Daddy alone again so it was hard to open the door and walk down the hallway. Food was everywhere in the lobby. Church ladies were busy setting up tables, making sure napkins were arranged just right and silverware was ready to pick up when needed. Boxes of doughnuts were delivered. Friends set up crock pots of chili and soup, some brought desserts and sweet tea. As the day slowly drifted by with our memories, the hospital lobby became a reunion of sorts. Hahira was good to us that way. Church members, friends, people Daddy had built houses for, men he had fished with. Friendships that were intricately laced throughout our family’s life were showing up at the hospital.
That’s what Hahira was all about, coming together to say goodbye to one of their own. Goodbye to the man that was true to his word and his handshake was a contract. Goodbye to the man who loved to hang out the window of his truck and dog-whistle at pretty women on the sidewalk. Goodbye to the man who would jump out of the car, get down on his knees and kiss the ground when we’d been out of town and came back home to Hahira. Goodbye to the man who served as a deacon to his church for forty years. Goodbye to Daddy. Goodbye to my Santa.
Festive Christmas decorations overflowed in the lobby and spilled down the hallways of the hospital. Wreaths hung on doors, nurses wore Christmas pins and some had on Santa hats. The decorations made my heart feel heavy. Twinkling lights on the tree looked like pools of primary colors. Kaleidoscopes through my tears.
The nurse on the 11 to 7 shift walked into the lobby and announced that his time was close. One by one, we walked into his room and stood around his bed. Holding hands with Mama, while she held his hand in hers, we saw him take his last breath.
It was 6:15 in the evening. It was Christmas day, 1992. I had spent my last night with Santa. My Santa was gone.