Football season is nearly over and that means Super Bowl Sunday is around the corner. The day usually conjures up images of parties filled with my favorite faces, a fully stocked bar, and the smell of brisket on the barbecue that offers a taste of a distant summer on what is usually a cold, rainy afternoon in the Northwest.
But this year will be different. It will mark the one-year anniversary of my father’s sudden passing.
Dad was an avid football fan, stoking the wood stove in his workshop hours before NFL Sunday and settling into his office chair to watch his beloved San Francisco 49ers. Friends from miles around would join him at game time, cracking open cans of Hamm’s or Busch. They toasted every great play that turned the game in their favor. Tom Brady was dad’s only exception to his 49er fandom.
Dad died reading Tom’s stats the day after the legendary quarterback led the Patriots to the football championship and clinched his sixth Super Bowl ring in the process.
My mother was in the kitchen when she heard him groan from his chair nearby. At first, she thought it was because it was a terrible game statistically, even though Tom brought home the win. She looked up to see the sports section clinched in his right fist, his lifeless body slumped over from a major heart attack.
My mother’s number appeared on my screen while I was working. I wondered why my parents would be calling so early on a Monday morning. I fully expected it was my father gloating about Tom’s “miraculous performance” on the field. I had spoken to them the day before, asking about Dad’s plans for the big game.
That day I opted to watch rom-coms with my 14-year-old daughter. She begged me to skip Brady and Gronkowski in favor of Ryan and Hanks in one of the many classic movies we enjoyed watching together on screen. My usually bubbly teenager was getting over a cold, so I obliged her request and told dad we would catch up after the football game.
I ignored the first call, sending it directly to voicemail as I listened in on a conference call. When the phone rang again seconds later, I placed the work call on mute and answered to hear my mother’s panicked voice on the other end of the line. She told me dad had a heart attack and to meet her at the hospital.
I jumped off my call and gathered my things, wondering how quickly I could manage the 50-mile drive to the hospital in the middle of rush hour.
Traffic was in full-swing when I merged onto the highway. I recall the bewildered feeling as I watched the other drivers around me. I wondered where they were driving to, or if any of them, like me, were heading toward bad news on an ordinary Monday morning. As I maneuvered my car into the appropriate lane, I heard my father’s voice clearly in my ear.
“It’s okay, kid,” he whispered. “I love you and I’m always with you. Take care of your mother.”
Ordinarily, I would have been frozen in fear from such a spiritual experience, or more likely, hit the roof of the car and caused an accident in the process. But I felt a tremendous calm in that moment. It was a feeling I can only describe as unconditional love that was so overwhelming, the tears couldn’t help but fill my tired eyes. I remember looking at the clock as it happened. 9:09 a.m.
I pulled into the hospital parking lot 35 minutes later. I knew my father was gone now, but I wasn’t quite ready to face my mother, sister and small gathering of family and friends that were waiting at the emergency room entrance. I took a deep breath as I walked through the double doors, instinctively listening for my mother’s shrill voice along the corridor.
My father’s lifeless body lay rigidly on the gurney. My mother was speaking with the doctor on duty, surprisingly calm and collected after the morning’s unexpected event. She reached for me as a sob escaped her throat.
“He’s gone,” she said. “I can’t do this right now. You have to do it.”
I led my mother toward a waiting room nearby and then joined the medical staff in the cold, clinical room. As I looked over the paperwork, I marveled at the time of death. 9:09 a.m. It was everything in my power not to fall to pieces in that moment. It was the confirmation I needed to get us all through the clinical part of the process.
As I completed the paperwork and set the clipboard on the chair beside me, I stood over him, taking in his features.
His slender frame worn from years of hard work on the farm and standing over clients as a barber. His wrinkles were barely noticeable for a man just entering his eighth decade. I kissed him on the forehead and held his lifeless hand for the last time.
I walked through my father’s wishes with the hospital chaplain, pouring over every detail necessary to move onto the next step. And that is exactly what it was, one single step on a staircase leading me to the unknown. When we talk about it before it happens, we think of death as an all-encompassing event or that it is over in an instant. But death is like a series of micro-steps on a slow, agonizing journey toward a new normal without the person we love walking in the world beside us.
I haven’t watched a single football game this season, something that Dad and I used to enjoy doing together.
I know that one day I’ll be able to see August on the calendar, feel the hint of fall in the air and sit down in my own easy chair to watch the game. I know my father will be with me in spirit, following the audibles and signals of his favorite team. But whether it’s football season, or the offseason, I know my Dad is with me play after play in this life, cheering me on to my own Super Bowl victory.
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Jamie Holmes started her media career as a broadcaster in the U.S. Army stationed in Southern Europe. She works in television, as a director of marketing, programming and creative. In her second act, she’s embracing her love of writing, yoga, travel and pottery. She lives in Oregon with her teenage daughter and very sassy senior cat, Kitty Purry.
Wow. Beautifully written.
“death is like a series of micro-steps on a slow, agonizing journey toward a new normal without the person we love walking in the world beside us.”
This really hit home with me and is so true.