“There are only two kinds of people that understand Marines: the Marines and the enemy…”
Gen. William Thornson, U.S. Army
People lose things every day. They lose their wallet. They lose their cat. Some losses are minute and some are devastating. Watching the news reminds us of the crushing losses that people face every day — from earthquake and tornado victims, innocent victims of terrorism and cruelty, to fallen soldiers and police officers who protect us and fight for peace worldwide.
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On Thursday at 9:15pm May 28th, I lost my dad.
As a cardiac transplant nurse practitioner, death was not a stranger to me. It was simply a part of life. Organ systems fail — either to provide oxygen and nutrients or — to remove that which becomes toxic. But in all the science that encompasses death, I had never traversed the entire journey with anyone so close to me.
So when he died, a million thoughts raced through my head. Surprisingly, my thoughts were not about organ system failure or funerals. Instead, I began to think about the little things, the mundane things — the very things I took for granted. Pushing the DAD tab on my cell phone, hearing his voice when he answered, his emails that offered unasked for, but relevant, advice or critiques. Unexpected and random treasures and highlighted newspaper clippings left at my front door. Picking out a Father’s Day card.
People always say cherish the moments with your loved ones and while that is said and done, the impact and value of each of these moments are impossible to measure until you lose the opportunity to have them.
My dad was a Marine. That being said, I don’t think I have to explain the philosophy he lived by and raised us with. Semper Fidelis (Fi), he said, always be faithful. Commitment, he reminded me, whether a Marine, a nurse or a teacher — is a way of life. When you take on something, be absolute and steadfast. There is NO room for anything less.
Growing up, there was no missing work or school unless we were sick. And sickness simply didn’t exist. My dad believed that illness was a mindset and that you could overcome it by not letting it become powerful. We believed him and, for the most part, he was right. He proved this to everyone when at age 89, he overcame lymphoma and the ravaging effects of chemotherapy and returned to his work outs at the local gym.
I did my best to follow in that philosophy. After nearly 32 years of work, I never called in sick — although I did get thrown out of the transplant unit for coming in with active chickenpox. Maybe I took it a bit too far.
My dad had a grit fueled by an inexplicable stubbornness. The most invaluable lesson I learned from him is that if you could take one step, you could take two more, and four more, and so on. Push on, never give up and never give in. You don’t realize your inner strength until you call upon it.
He said goals and aspirations were things to be achieved, not rested upon. He said do not fear pain or discomfort — for they are merely the things we must face to overcome the obstacles in our life’s path. When, not IF, you fall down, get back up and refocus. Nothing is impossible as long as you work at it.
My dad was not a perfect father, nor I a perfect daughter. But our imperfections and eccentricities became the very essence of what made our bond special and, now I realize, everlasting.
As a young child, I came upon a penny purposely set into concrete in front of a home — I suppose a lucky penny to ward off evil spirits? While my mom went inside to visit her friend that lived there, I began to dig out the penny with my finger. After about three years of digging whenever my mom would go to visit I finally got that penny out.
So after a brief but brutal battle at age 91, there will be no more of those mundane and now sacred things. I think about this all the time now — especially when I am driving alone and in the still of the night.
I am no longer the child. I have become his legacy. And in this metamorphosis, I bear the responsibility of instilling his mantras of hard work and perseverance in my own children and into the students that I teach in school. Children of the 21st century who do not often understand the reason behind this way of life.
I also have learned to cherish a new mundane — pieces of paper upon which he inked his last thoughts and appointments, an unfinished book and his reading glasses, his calendar, his last voice recording.
Although death is a part of every life cycle — be it a cell or an organ — we are never fully prepared for it. I don’t really think that even he was prepared for it.
On May 28, my dad’s body was just too tired to keep up with its demanding sergeant. And so, not wanting to be held captive of his failing body, he let go.
He loved William Ernest Henley’s 1900 poem Invictus. As he lived passionately by his own rules, these became his favorite lines:
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
It matters not how strait the gate
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate
I am the captain of my soul
I will surely miss all those simple but sacred things we shared, but I will pick myself up and carry on as he would want me to. And as the tears roll down my cheeks, I say to him, at ease, soldier. At ease.
Laurie Futterman ARNP is a former Heart Transplant Coordinator at Jackson Memorial Medical Center. She now chairs the science department and teaches gifted middle school science at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center. She has three children and lives in North Miami.