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Monday, January 19, 2004

A Christmas Story...belated

For the last few years I have written my family a story for Christmas. The intent is to keep record of the Willis family's life from year to year. While I normally just keep the stories within the family, this is one I'd like to share with all of you. It's important and has a good ending.

Second Chance Christmas

The dog had been locked up in a cage for several days. We called her temporary home a doggy country club, but all of us—especially Scoop—knew better. It was a loud, uncomfortable place where a little dog just couldn’t get any rest. What’s worse, the dainty little mutt couldn’t muster the courage to do her duty in front of all the other dogs. So, by the end of a three-day stay, she was ready to go. Literally.

Scoop’s excitement about getting home and outside into a backyard more conducive to her intestinal necessities was getting the best of her. As she rode in the SUV--full of camping equipment and her tired, stinky companions--sitting still was not a priority. She bounced, she licked, she whined. She only wanted to be home.

So did we. We’d been in the mountains for three days. We had not showered. We reeked of sweat and campfire smoke. It was October 19th, 2003. The Sunday football games had kicked off about an hour before. If we hurried, we were going to make it home in time for the second half of the early games.

My cell phone rang just as Scoop knocked it in between the seats. As the phone beeped and rang, Scoop reached the peak of her excitement. We were on Church Street, just past the Taco Bell, seven minutes from home. Reaching the phone under Scoop’s bouncing, 13-pound frame was going to be a challenge.

For half a second, we almost didn’t answer the phone. But we did.

It was then, in a stinking car, with a whining dog, the radio blaring, and the Sunday sun shining like Heaven on Earth, that I learned that my dad was about to die.

None of it made much sense. I had heard the word aneurysm before, but I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t know that its mere existence meant there was a chance someone could die. I didn’t know that if it ruptured, chances for a normal life were close to nil.

For 12 hours, I didn’t know anything. I screamed. I cried. I cursed everything in my path. For 12 hours I was a child left alone in a store by his mother. I was lost.

Then, the smell of a hospital hit my face and seeped into my hair. Tubes ran in and out of my dad’s body. Reality set in. Nothing short of fate or miracles or something I didn’t understand was going to save my dad’s life. And then I screamed, and cried, and cursed everything in my path again. Not because I was lost, but because I knew exactly where I was.

Days bled into weeks. Doctor’s announcements and changes in Dad’s condition changed as often as the menu in the first floor hospital cafeteria. Surviving the monotony and the occasional blows to the stomach required me to walk, sometimes without aim, around the hospital and into the Ozarks’ sun.

On one of those walks, I happened upon Mom. Something had been going in and out of my head for a few days and it was time to say it out loud.

“I spent more than 25 years being afraid Dad was going to die,” I told her. “It’s only been in the last couple of years that I stopped worrying about it. And now this happens.”

I was in the middle of a large bout of anger and self-pity. I was mad and red-faced. I wanted to blame somebody or something. Since there was nobody to blame, it didn’t take long to start thinking about what I could’ve done differently.

Hours and days passed. My mind replayed every moment in my life. Everything Dad had ever told me wrote itself on the inside of my eyelids. I could hear his voice. I could feel his hand on the back of my neck. I reconsidered every road I’d ever gone down, every crossroads at which I’d made a decision.

After screaming, crying, and cursing, my heart settled on two things I should’ve done a long time ago but for reasons I still don’t understand, had not.

On one of those many walks, I looked into the sun and clouds and thought, “Just give me one more chance.”

We knew it was bad because the chaplain was there. He had a somber look on his face. What a horrible job, I thought. His mere presence was a flashing red sign that read, “Your loved one is about to die.”

The doctors were about to take dad in for a surgery that would either save his life or kill him.

In the days leading up to that moment I had not been taking every opportunity to visit Dad. He was always asleep and full of tubes. A visit from me was going to do neither of us any good. But that had to change, because I’d asked for one more chance and this was my opportunity.

Barely able to speak, I asked the rest of my family to wait a minute while I walked into Dad’s room. He was asleep and I nearly turned and walked out. Instead, I stood by his bed and grabbed his hand.

I said, “I’ve lived my entire life based on the things you taught me. Every time I make a decision, I base it on how you taught me to look at life. Even if I don’t always do the right thing, I always know what the right decision is because of you. I never told you that. Whatever happens today, I’ll spend the rest of my life living by your example.”

Looking back, it seems awfully melodramatic. But there are things you should tell people. It’s better if you tell them when they are awake, but I didn’t have much choice. Perhaps I would’ve felt better about it if I hadn’t run out of the room, out of the hospital, and back into the Ozarks’ sun.

Still, I’d been given one more chance. In the sun, I vowed not to take it for granted.

The stories of Dad’s healing and recovery spread like legend across the Springfield medical community. When given his name, nurses were heard to respond, “Oh, you’re THAT John Willis.” Seasoned doctors shook their head in amazement. Regular folks spoke of miracles.

Weeks passed, Dad spoke again, walked again, and laughed again. Life had not returned to normal, but some of the normal things in life were happening again. Like any fantastically painful event that has passed, the reality of the pain started to fade.

Anyone who had been unfortunate enough to find themselves in my path during the fits of screaming, crying, and cursing might have thought I had forgotten about my pledge. They might have thought I was again taking for granted the light of the sun and the opportunity to take advantage of second chances.

My dad always smiled a lot. His laugh was infectious. His joy was contagious. I saw it more time than I could count. I always noted that joy manifested itself when he played with whatever kids found themselves in the same room with him.

I had been in New York City a few months before. On the cab ride to the airport, I got into a long conversation with the taxi driver. As we made out way through the tolls, he felt he had talked to me long enough to make a fair cabbie’s assessment.

His accent was thick, but I understood him to say, “You should have children now. Stop waiting.”

During my walks in the sun and talks with my mother, brother, and wife, I knew I had waited too long. I hadn’t listened to the cabbbie. I hadn’t taken heed of my father’s joy. I had lived a fast-moving, non-stop life for too many years.

There are many reasons I want to have a child. I want to see what happens when the love Michelle and I share becomes too strong for two people. I want to see her wipe my child’s nose. I want my mom to spoil my kid like she spoiled me. I want my brother and sister in-law to be aunt and uncle to more than my dog. I want to raise my child the same way my parents raised me. I want my child to be as happy as I am.

There are many reasons I want to have a child, not the least of which is putting it in my dad’s arms and watching him smile again.

I’ve lived a very fortunate life and fortune smiled on me once again and granted me a second chance. It allowed me to tell my dad what he’s meant to my life. And it’s given me a chance to watch him care for his grandchild.

So, this year’s Christmas story is not a tale of Willis past. It’s a tale of Willis future.

It ends like this:

Merry Christmas.

We’re due in August.


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