Being thankful for what matters

The man knew he was dying.

Knew because of the tubes and the blinking monitors and the white-coated people who clicked in and out of his room with clipboards. Knew because of the plastic bracelet on his wrist and the pills and the bad food and the full-body hurt. Knew because his wife was sitting next to his bed holding his hand, and her hand was warm.

He, a captain of industry, the man they called The Producer down at the firm because of his dogged determination and long work hours; the man to whom nothing was casual or frivolous (he always fastened every button on every shirt), this man who wasted nothing, was wasting away.

In the late afternoon, his two grown children walked quietly into his room, bent in turn to kiss his forehead, and sat in chairs. His wife helped him sit up and he put on a pale air of health and vigor.

“How are your stock investments doing, son?” the dying man asked, clearing his throat first.

“It doesn’t matter, Dad,” his boy said. Then he leaned forward. “Do you remember when I was five and you taught me to skip stones down at the lake?”

“No, I don’t. Hey, did that refinance go through on your home?”

The boy shook his head. “I haven’t really thought about that, Dad. It doesn’t really matter. But remember the day when you taught me to ride a bike? I think my knees are still skinned.” The boy laughed, but the old man only scowled and the boy sat back in his chair.

The man turned his attention to his daughter. “And you,” he said. “You’re almost done with your master’s degree, aren’t you?”

“Oh, Dad,” the girl said, reaching into her purse. “That doesn’t matter right now, but I brought pictures of when I was a swan in my school play and you came to watch.” She held out her hand, but her father looked away.

And so the tension rose. The serious man at the end of his serious life asking serious questions to silly children, his children, who seemed drowning in sentiment.

Later, alone with his wife, the doubts crept in, the questions.

“I don’t understand,” the man said. “I’ve worked so hard for them. Given them everything. Paid for their degrees, pushed them, made them into successful adults, yet now I’m lying here (he grabbed the rails of his bed) and all they want to talk about are the insignificant moments, the pointless times. They dwell on the trivial. Why? They have no idea what matters.” And his wife cried softly and held his hand while he drifted off into a morphined sleep.

A sniffle woke the man. A tug at the bedcovers. A small voice.

“Daddy, I can’t sleep,” the little girl said. And so he crawled quietly out of bed and took his daughter’s tiny hand and led her downstairs. Passing a mirror on the landing, he caught in the reflection of himself the startled glimpse of a young man. The hospital, the tubes and monitors, the nostalgic grown children, even the dying — all just a dream. As he poured the chocolate milk and arranged the cookies, the man thought. Thought hard. Not a dream, he realized, but a nightmare.

Then came a soft thumping down the stairs and the glowing play of a Buzz Lightyear flashlight on the walls.

“Hey, cool, what’s going on?” the little boy asked.

Hours later, the man’s wife came downstairs to put on the breakfast coffee, and found chaos in the living room. The furniture had been rearranged and there were sheets draped over everything. Cushions pulled off the couch. Crumbs on the floor. Spilled milk. An open Dr. Seuss book. And from under it all, the dying glow of a child’s toy flashlight.

She knelt and pulled up the corner of a dangling Beauty and the Beast sheet. “Honey?” she called to the biggest lump under the mish-mashed blankets. “You’re going to be late for work.”

The man stirred. Wiggled his toes. Opened one eye.

“It doesn’t matter,” he whispered.

And then, wrapped in the arms and legs of his small children, with his head on a stuffed giraffe, the man fell back to sleep.

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