By Peter Fischetti
The old man thought he had heard the surf, but it probably was just the wind. Rarely were the waves from the Gulf strong enough to make a sound you could hear on Back Beach Road. That’s where the old man lived, in a nursing home. His spartan room had a window with a fine view of the parking lot. It was the only light he allowed in the room, although every few minutes at night, a car’s headlights would shine in the room, and his eyes would squint.
But only when the morphine IV provided by hospice took a break was he at all lucid, and it was then that the pain attacked his body. Pain was the only sense that made him feel alive and at the same time made him want to die. And indeed he was dying. Stage 4 lung cancer from years of smoking, which was just one of his bad habits.
He looked around his bed at the bewildering pattern of tubes connected to his body, and said aloud, “This is not the way I thought I’d die.” No one sat at his side. No one would hold his hand at his last breath.
He closed his eyes and settled in for a recurring dream. There he was again with St. Peter, who was shaking his head while standing inside the Gate of Heaven.
”I’m looking over your bio,” he was saying. “Pretty dull. The Lord handed you all kinds of talents that you failed to use to make the world better. You had such ambition as a young man, but…”
The old man nodded. Early in his life, he would fall asleep every night dreaming of doing something special, of making a difference. He would score the winning touchdown, marry the prettiest cheerleader, raise the most handsome son and, what the heck, discover a cure for cancer. Yes, a cure for cancer. He’d certainly be feeling a lot better at this moment had he done that.
But, of course, he hadn’t done that. The fact is, he really hadn’t done very much. Read the obits in the News Herald tomorrow (would it really be tomorrow?) and you would find a man who was 75, lived in Panama City Beach for 35 years and sold insurance. Both of his marriages had ended in divorce, which he blamed on his drinking, and all he had to show for it was a daughter, Carolyn, who never forgave him for leaving her mother.
On his nightstand was Carolyn’s photo. She was a teenager then, and even in the poor lighting he could see her dressed in a bright red blouse and wearing an even brighter smile. Where was she?
When he died, there would be a funeral, but the local mortuary could accommodate mourners in its smallest room. He did have friends, but apparently none who felt compelled to visit.
St. Peter was still talking when the old man heard a knock on the door. How odd. His nurse never knocked; she would storm into the room, take his pulse, check his IV and leave without a word. That’s how he wanted it.
After a second knock, the door opened and he sat up. Scentless smoke filled the room, and he heard the voice of someone who sounded very much like his daughter.
“Carolyn, let me see you.”
“No, Dad, you told me you never wanted to see me again.”
Yes, he had said that years ago on the night she packed up and moved out of the house with her mother after he came home drunk.
“At least tell me why you are here,” the old man said. “Are you here to watch your father die?”
“No, I am here to remind you of something. Do you remember telling me a long time ago that the worst emotion a person could feel was regret? And that the worst moment a person could feel it was when he was dying and could do nothing about it? By then it was too late to right the wrongs. That person is you, Dad, and that moment is now.”
And then, she was gone.
The smoke disappeared, but the door remained open. He could see down the hallway, and at the end stood a Christmas tree, bare of any lights or ornaments but with a dozen or more brightly wrapped gift boxes under it. It was the last thing he remembered.
“Honey?” His wife was nudging him. “Wake up. People will be here in a few hours. You’d better get out of that chair and decorate the tree.”
He did not know whether to laugh or cry, so he did both. Then he hugged his wife and decorated the tree.
Peter Fischetti is a retired journalist living in Panama City Beach. He wishes all of you a happy and healthy holiday season, one filled with love and absent of regret. Leave a door open, or you will never know what you may be missing.