On the afternoon of Nov. 12, 2002, I had one of the most important conversations of my life. The late afternoon provided a melancholic backdrop with the sun dropping behind the Rocky Mountains, the cold blue sky etched with pink clouds burnished with silver edges.
My father Ray sat in a hospital bed wincing with pain and gasping for breath. Beyond that discomfort he cast a faraway look. I couldn't see heaven, but I was certain he did.
"Daddy, it's OK to go. The girls and I will be fine. I don't want you to suffer anymore," I pleaded.
An unspoken acknowledgement hung in the air. I kissed him and told him I loved him dearly and walked out the door.
The doctors and hospice personnel opined that Ray had about 3 weeks to live. I knew they were wrong by a long shot.
At 3 a.m. the next morning, he was gone.
Dad died of interstitial lung disease, a kind of umbrella prognosis for lung disorders that are hard to diagnosis, hard to treat and hard to explain. My Dad's type of interstitial lung disease was termed pulmonary fibrosis. Five years to live was an optimistic prognosis.
But Dad proved them wrong again. He lived 12 years longer.
He lost weight. Continued to golf. Worked out at the Rec Center and enjoyed life with my stepmom. He delighted in grandchildren, cheering them on at any and every sporting event. He rooted for the Denver Broncos and the CU Buffs and he kept me steady when my life toppled over in a painful divorce.
But little by little he lost the breath of life. Trips to the mountain were verboten. He couldn't breathe in that thin air. Then golf, even with a cart, had to be left behind. The oxygen deliveries increased and in his latter days were constant. My dad was suffocating to death. It was gutwrenching to watch.
The last time we had some moments together we watched a Bronco game. Just the two of us. My eyes brimmed with tears throughout the whole contest. I couldn't bear watching my dad, my hero, gasping for breath.
We always thought it was an anomaly this interstitial lung thing. Maybe he picked up a fungus in a barn in childhood that eventually started to grow and took over his lungs. Who could know?
In rare cases interstitial lung disease is genetic. Last week two chest X-rays (I just now realized they are "rays") came back abnormal. I was preparing for knee replacement surgery and the last thing I expected was a problem with my lungs. My doctor said the scarring that was obvious after two separate shots on two separate machines could be something old or something new and serious.
I will know more in the weeks ahead. Until then, every breath I take, every move I make, I'll be thinking of you, Dad.