Oh, wow. Oh, wow. Oh, wow. Oh, wow.
Those, according to last Sunday's Parade magazine, were the last words spoken by Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who passed away in October. You probably expected something more profound from such an icon, but to me, those eight words spoke volumes.
Like Jobs, my father died after a long bout with pancreatic cancer. His final days were spent at home with my mother, my adult son and me at his bedside. In the hours before he took his last breath, Daddy gave us a play-by-play account of the incredible journey he had begun. Eyes wide open, coherent and eloquent, he described what he saw and felt as he straddled the mysterious divide between this world and the next. He said it was beautiful, glorious, intensely colorful, peaceful and exhilarating all at the same time. He might not have said, "Oh, wow," but that was the sentiment he expressed. It was an amazing monologue from a man who didn't believe in an afterlife, and it changed my perceptions of death - and life.
Daddy died on the morning of Dec. 17, 1999. We held the funeral a few days later, and for the first time in my life, Christmas passed like any other day. I had always been one of those jollier than thou folks, taking delight in every detail of the season. That year, I finally understood why some people dread the holidays and the implied obligation to be of good cheer. For the next few years, I let Christmas pass without celebration; I wasn't really a Scrooge, more like a Sad Sack, missing my dad and feeling sorry for my mom and for myself.
Gradually, though, my inner elf began to emerge. Each December I am still reminded of the sadness I felt as I watched the superhero of my childhood dwindle down to a gaunt, bedridden shadow of his former self. But the season also brings to mind the wonderful gifts he left me.
My father knew how much I feared and loathed death - not just my own, but of anyone I cared for. At the time of his illness, we had recently lost two very dear family members to cancer, and I was not handling it well. In sharing the whole experience, he showed me that death is simply another stage in life, one that can actually be quite beautiful if you're prepared for it. It was a lesson that would serve me well, particularly when my husband fell gravely ill a few years later. Thanks to my father's example, I was able to help Barry make a peaceful transition into the next realm.
Daddy's greatest gift to me was delivered posthumously. Several weeks after his passing, he visited me in my sleep. The more pragmatic, less sentimental of you will dismiss it as simply a dream, but I know better. He appeared to me as the youthful, vibrant man he was before the cancer ravaged his body. When he hugged me, I smelled the familiar blend of tobacco and hair pomade, and I felt the warmth of his strong, comforting arms. And when he looked me in the eye and said, "I had to come back to tell you that everything's all right," I knew he was telling me the truth. I awoke with tears of joy streaming down my cheeks and the aroma of pomade still in the air.
It's not true that time heals all wounds, but it does work pretty well as an anesthetic. Especially when paired with love. Unconditional love, which is the only true kind, don't you think? The kind a father has for his child. Or the kind that translates into charity and good will, as in the phenomenon of the Kmart Secret Santas.
Reading The Maui News article about anonymous strangers paying off families' layaway bills, I was moved to tears and wanted to know more. So I went online and learned that while the trend seems to have started in Michigan, it has gone viral coast to coast. One donor in Maryland cleared $20,000 of layaway items, mostly gifts for children. A Midwest store manager said that his layaway desk has been visited by one or two Secret Santas for the past several years, but this year he's seen more than a dozen of the anonymous angels. After reading a few more of the hundreds of similar stories, all I could say was, "Oh, wow."
Daddy used to tell me not to worry about going to heaven or hell; that heaven is right here, right now. I'm pretty sure he was telling me the truth then, too.
* Kathy Collins is a performance artist, broadcaster and freelance writer whose "Sharing Mana'o column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.