My daddy was a high school football star, the highest scorer in the state and later a halfback for Texas Christian University. He was even offered a spot on the Chicago Bears, but he turned it down, preferring a quiet life with mama and us two kids, and working with his hands every day, fixing electronics in his shop. After retirement he specialized in restoring antique televisions and radios. I used to love watching Daddy at his worktable, repairing some vintage machine, his big, calloused hands moving so carefully among those thin wires. He had the same gentle touch with people. Daddy was able to cheer me up with a wink or an I-love-you smile, or comfort me with a squeeze of his hand.
When Daddy was diagnosed with an advanced stage of cancer, I felt like the rug had been pulled out from under me. He was 91 years old, and I knew it was time to let him go. But as the disease stole away his strength and made him so weak he could barely move or talk, I longed to make him feel as safe and secure in his last days as he's always made me feel.
We put Daddy in hospice care. Mama, my brother, Bob, and I checked him in that first day. Mama set up flowers and plants in the private room, Bob lined family photos on Dad's bedside table where he could see them easily, and I slipped an extra pillow under his head. He stared out the window fixedly, I wasn't even sure if he knew we were in the room.
"I don't know if any of this helps, Daddy, " I whispered to him, touching his outstretched hand. "I just wish you could tell me what you need." He squeezed my fingers with a familiar firmness, and our eyes met for a moment. Then his gaze lost focus and drifted away. Something brushed my leg, and I looked down. Sitting at my feet was a plump gray and white tabby cat. She looked up at me, eyes closing in a friendly cat-smile, then rubbed her soft, furry side against my leg. "That must be the cat the nurse at the front desk was telling us about," Mama said, bending down to scratch her under the chin. "Her name is Hope."
"She lives here?" I asked. Bob picked the cat up and laid her carefully on the bed at Daddy's feet.
"For some time now. Apparently she has a way with sick people," he said.
Hope glanced at Daddy then made her way purposely up the sheets, lay down beside his legs and began purring. A smile crept over the tired lines of Daddy's face. "Looks like she's made a new friend," Mama said.
By the end of the day, we’d all fallen into silence, watching the light grow dimmer through the window. The only only sounds in the room were Daddy’s slow breathing and Hope’s purr, steady and gentle beneath it.
That first night, I stayed with Daddy. Bob had to work in the morning, and Mama was worn out from the long day. I lay awake in the bed next to Daddy’s listening to him breathe. Staring into the darkness, I saw our whole life together: Daddy holding me as a baby, teaching me how to swim, how to dance, how to make a garden grow.Daddy used to pick wildflowers by the hundreds and dry them for their seeds. These he carried in his pockets everywhere he went, and scattered them by the handful wherever he found a bare patch of earth. I remembered my first day of school, how upset I had been at the thought of leaving him and Mama. But on the bus ride there, I'd seen bright yellow patches of Daddy's wildflowers all along the roadside, and I felt like he was still with me.
Now, as I lay beside Daddy in the darkness, it was those little things that I remembered in such great detail. Did he know how much they’d meant to me, how close to him they’d made me feel? I fell asleep that night wishing I could tell him and know that he’d understand.
The next day, Daddy’s condition was worse. His face was pale, and he looked at us with a blank, uncomprehending gaze. On the morning of the third day, he had a fit of trembling in his arms and legs so intense it shook the bed. I crawled in beside him and wrapped his body in my arms to stop the shaking. Dear Lord, help me comfort him. Hope jumped onto the bed and nestled a space for herself, with a gentle insistence, between us. She propped her front paws on Daddy’s stomach and brushed her tail against me.