Saying Good-bye to the Center of the Universe
“A time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance” (Eccl. 3:4).
Peter’s dad was a Control Freak and the self-proclaimed Center of the Universe.
Peter had warned me. Still, I wasn’t prepared for the actual experience.
In February of 1999, Peter’s parents came from England to visit him in Chicago. Peter and I had known each other since September, and we had been talking—hypothetically—about marriage. So I wanted to make a good impression. Hypothetically—these people could be my in-laws.
Peter and I met his Mum and Dad at the O’Hare International Terminal, and after the initial introductions, I drove them to Avis where they picked up their rental car. Then we all stood, shivering in the parking lot, while Peter and his dad used the Avis map to try to plot a course to the Motel Six in Rosemount. Toes going numb, I decided to intervene, and forgetting the Control Freak Warning, I reached for the map.
As soon as I had it in my hand, I realized my mistake. Peter’s dad’s jaw dropped, his brown eyes grew wide, and he shook his head in (mock?) disbelief.
“I think I know where the hotel is,” I stuttered. “Why don’t you follow me?”
He did follow me—just that once—but I never heard the end of it.
One of Peter’s dad’s main initiatives as the Center of the Universe was planning holidays. He lived for long holidays, openly admitting that they were his reason for becoming a teacher. However, he traveled as if chased by demons. For him, holidays were about spending as little money and making as many memories as possible. And if you traveled with the Center of the Universe, you traveled his way.
Before Peter and I were even engaged, his dad planned our first “family” trip to France. So during the summer when Peter and I were dating, his dad took us to Normandy. Showed me dozens of sights up and down the coast—all in one week. He planned the frantic itinerary. He held onto the important documents—tickets, reservation confirmations, passports, etc. And we began to share some memories.
The first summer that Peter and I were married, we had our first real Worrall Family Vacation—in America. Dad W rented a Dodge Neon, and we took off from Chicago. Peter and I and his parents—whom I was trying hard to call “Dad” and “Mum,” three weeks’ worth of luggage, boxes of Trivial Pursuit cards, and dozens of cans of Slimfast—which, by the end of the trip, Peter and I decided didn’t actually work.
Dad W’s extreme frugality meant that we stopped at McDonalds for every meal. His paranoia meant that there was little on the menu that he would eat. According to Dad W, Mad Cow disease was even worse in America than England, so he ordered fries and ice cream, maybe chicken if he was feeling daring. Peter and I just asked for ice to use with our Slimfast shakes.
In addition to calling himself a Control Freak, Dad W called himself “Shallow.” He couldn’t handle long or personal conversations. And he couldn’t handle conversations about faith. Peter’s mum is a woman of great faith. And she passed that faith on to Peter. But if the conversation in the Neon got too personal or ventured into the realm of the spiritual, Dad W would cut across it with a “Triv” question. When he wasn’t driving, he pulled out a Triv card and started quizzing. If he was driving or if the boxed Trivial Pursuit had gotten buried in the trunk, he made up his own.
One of his original Triv games was called Security Check. To make sure that you really were his wife, son, or daughter-in-law—and not an imposter, he joked—he would ask you a question about a shared memory. My Security Check question was often the same.
“Security Check!” Dad W would call. “Mrs. Worrall Junior, what did you do the first time I met you?”
I would feign shame and mutter, “I took the map out of your hands.”
“Correct!” Dad W would raise a finger in the air. “You are my daughter-in-law.”
Another of Dad W’s made-up Triv games revolved around old movies. He loved old movies almost as much as he loved Triv. “Name the movie,” he would say. “‘We’ll always have Paris.’” (He loved Paris, too. Perhaps Paris most of all.)
“That’s Casablanca, of course,” one of us would say.
“Yes!” Dad W would shout.
Our first stop on that summer road trip was Minneapolis to hold a belated wedding reception with my family and friends. Then we headed west—hitting Mt. Rushmore, the Badlands, the Rockies, Yellowstone, and not stopping for breath until we reached LA.
On our one night in Las Vegas, Peter and I stayed up. We wanted to see everything, including the brand-new “Paris” hotel and casino. Dad and Mum W went to bed since—according to Dad W—we had to be up early and hit the road. When we returned to our room at six o’clock in the morning, Peter and I raved about the wonders of “Paris.” Ever competitive, Dad W was tormented by the fact that we had seen something that he hadn’t, and we enjoyed beating him at his own game.
“We’ll always have ‘Paris,’” Peter and I cooed from the Neon’s cozy backseat.
Peter and his dad had an understanding on our trips. Each couple paid their own way, and Dad W kept careful track. I tried to stay out of it, until one evening in a cheap hotel room in Nevada, I tried to make a calling-card call, and Dad W grew anxious. Unfamiliar with the American system, he was afraid that a call might be charged to him. He hovered over me, and I suddenly felt twelve. I wondered if he thought his son had married a dimwit or a crook or both.
Hurt, but afraid to say so, I went quiet. When I continued the silent treatment in the Neon the next morning, the tension became unbearable. Peter forced the issue.
“This is a small car,” he sighed. “You guys have to talk.”
Once he popped the cork, my anger spewed.
“I’m not used to people doubting me like that! I’m not a child. I’m thirty years old. I know how to make a phone call. Why couldn’t you trust me? Even if the charge did go on your credit card, we would have paid you back—”
Mum and Peter jumped to Dad W’s defense.
“That’s just the way he is,” Mum explained.
“He’s a control freak,” Peter said. “I told you.”
I didn’t want to let him off that easily. I wanted to stay mad. But we had a long ride ahead of us. So I finally admitted, “I’m over-reacting. I’m sorry.”
“No, no, I’m sorry too. I am a control freak, aren’t I, Viv?” His remorse was evident—for an instant. Then he turned it into a joke. He pulled the car abruptly into a parking lot. “McDonalds! We’ll stop for breakfast. And to show how sorry I am, I’ll even pay.”
“Kelli and I just need ice,” Peter reminded him.
“I know,” Dad W said, the wicked sparkle back in his eye.
And we laughed, in spite of ourselves.
Over the next three years, we took a variety of trips on both sides of the Atlantic, but with one common theme and purpose. It didn’t take me long to realize that our trips were a sort of family initiation for me. Dad W was drawing me into the Worrall family scrapbook.
It also didn’t take me long to learn to travel by the Dad W rules. One: Take extreme precautions if Dad W deemed it necessary. This included SPF 45 even on cloudy days to prevent skin cancer, long sleeve shirts to ward off mosquitoes carrying West Nile, and tight medical stockings on every flight to prevent deep vein thrombosis. Two: Don’t spend too long enjoying the sights, having tea, or shopping—even if Dad W said it was ok. It really wasn’t. And Three: Let Dad W carry all of the tickets and passports and papers if it made him feel better. And it always did.
For Christmas 2002 our entire family came together at our condo in Evanston, Illinois: Peter’s mum and dad, my mom and dad, my brother, sister-in-law and nephews. But Dad W wasn’t himself. He hadn’t been truly healthy since I had known him. An earlier illness had left him susceptible to dehydration and exhaustion. And thus, the paranoia.
But this was different.
Six months of increasing pain followed. Six months of decreasing sleep and appetite. Six months of doctors not knowing how to help.
In June, we got a call. It was the pancreas.
Two days later, another call. It was cancer.
Peter, Mum, and I started praying with even greater fervor that God would take ahold of Dad W before he died. And we planned to spend much of the summer in England—five weeks in July and August. And during our stay, Dad W planned two trips.
The first was to Wales, to connect with his roots and to stay in an enchanting 15th century B&B. However, seeing Dad W doubled over in the front seat, pounding the dashboard, clinging to the door handle in the pain, we wondered if all of this traveling was really a good idea.
He was determined though. So we spent one week at home in Plymouth for some treatment, then we were off again. Back to France. Dad W had looked into Paris. He wanted to see it one last time, and he wanted to be the one to show it to me. Truthfully, “we’ll always have Paris” was more than a movie line or a Triv question to Peter and his dad. It was a pledge and a promise. They had taken many Paris trips together, and they wanted one more. But Paris was too expensive and too crowded that July. So we settled for Brittany’s sea-side villages, camping, and strawberry tarts.
Peter and I had been trying for a baby since April. The time was right. Peter was established in his teaching job. We were thirty-three. And Dad W’s illness gave me a sense of urgency. I thought the imminent arrival of his first grandchild could give him something to live for.
Then, while we were in England, my cycle was late. I was pregnant, I was sure. But I kept it to myself. And for three days I thanked God for the perfect timing of this gift. Eventually, I told Peter. And we decided to wait two more days until my birthday, July 15, to take a test to confirm. Then we would tell Mum and Dad W.
Instead, I awoke on my birthday. With cramps. And a little seed of something—Fear? Anger? Despair?—settled on the already sad soil of my soul.
In August, Peter and I had to return to Chicago for another school year. On our last night in England, Dad W and Mum stayed up late, but Peter and I stayed up later. We finished packing. And around 3 a.m. we finally shut off the telly to catch a wink of sleep. At 5:30 a.m. Dad W knocked on our door. “Time to get up, Kiddiwinks.” We would catch a 6:30 bus from Plymouth to Heathrow, where we would catch an early-afternoon flight to Chicago.
The four of us stumbled around the house on auto-pilot. As Peter and I stuffed our final belongings into our carry-on, I tried to imagine our final good-bye. What would we do? What should we say? Would it be like one of Dad W’s favorite old movies? Soft music swelling, time standing still, poignant words hanging in the air?
“Who wants a cup of tea?” Mum called.
“We need to leave, Viv!” Dad W called in return.
Peter and I lugged our heavy suitcase out to the car. In the pre-dawn darkness, the four of us drove to the station. We talked about our next trip. That was how we got through the good-bye. “We’ll see you at Christmas,” we promised, not knowing if we would.
At the station, we hugged. “Maybe we can come to Chicago this fall,” Dad W said. Something to hope for.
Peter and I deposited our luggage in the belly of the bus and climbed on board. Mum and Dad W stood in the parking lot, waving until we were out of sight. We sat, waving back, holding hands, all the time wondering, Is this it?
The Final Good-bye. Take One.
Cancer had its way with Dad W through the early fall, and in late October we got another call. Dad W did not have long. Would we come again? And would we go to Paris? Dad W was planning a trip. And he was paying, no matter what the cost.
Peter and I each begged a week off work and grabbed a flight to England. Almost as soon as we got into town, the four of us took a train from Plymouth to London then from London to Paris—First Class. We stayed in L’ Hotel de Mericourt near the Oberkampf Metro station. And we spent the week, strolling the golden streets of Paris—just like in the movies.
Dad W had a couple of “good” hours each morning, so every day we met in the hotel lobby for thick coffee and bread. Then we headed out to the Louvre or Notre Dam or the Eiffel Tower. We ate crepes with lemon juice and sugar from street vendors because it was the only thing Dad W wanted to eat.
Then after our crepe each afternoon, Dad W and Mum went back to the hotel to rest. Several times Dad W gave Peter a wad of francs and told us to have dinner on him. We struggled to enjoy ourselves since we knew he was back in the hotel, at war with pain. But we also knew that he desperately wanted us to have a good time. So we did our best. It was autumn in Paris, after all.
On the last night of the trip, Peter and I returned to the hotel to find Mum bubbling with excitement. She came into our room to share the news. “Dad gave his life to Jesus!” she said.
“What?” we asked. It seemed too good to be true.
So she told us the story. “He felt worse than ever tonight. And he asked me, ‘If I give my life to Jesus, will He take away the pain?’ I told him that he couldn’t expect that. God could do it, but He wasn’t obliged. He had to believe that Jesus is the way of salvation. That’s all. And he said he wanted to. Then we prayed together for the very first time!”
The next day, we made our way back to Plymouth—Dad shuffling his feet, hunched over at the waist, folding himself in two when the pain was at its worst. But a new man. Inside out.
Late on our last evening in England, Dad W crept down to the living room and curled up his bony frame on the couch. We hadn’t expected him to make another appearance that night; he had gone up to bed hours before. He pressed the POWER button on the remote to turn the telly OFF—not something he did often. Peter, Mum, and I sat near him on the floor. It seemed Dad W wanted to talk.
“It would be easy to get bitter about this disease,” he started. “But I’m trying to see it as an opportunity. I think it’s an opportunity to get my life sorted with Mum, and with you, Pete, and with God. And I wish I had more time to know Kelli.” Then he expressed his love for each of us.
It took a moment for any of us to know how to respond. But eventually Peter began, “I love you, too, Dad—”
But Dad W lifted the remote. “That’s enough,” he announced, pressing POWER and again filling the little room with the sound of rugby. “I am still shallow.”
And we laughed, in spite of ourselves.
Once more we followed our departure ritual—Mum and Dad to bed late, Peter and I packing later, BBC 2 on the telly until our eyelids lost the fight, two hours of sleep, 5:30 wake-up call from Dad W, cup of tea from Mum, pre-dawn ride to the bus station.
There were desperate hugs. But the poignant words didn’t come. The music didn’t swell. Time didn’t stand still.
The bus driver called for us to board. Again Mum and Dad W stood in the parking lot, waving. And we waved back until they were out of sight.
The Final Good-bye. Take Two.
On Christmas morning, six weeks later, Dad W woke and said to Mum, “I made it.”
Peter and I were back in England. We spent the day at Aunty Jackie and Uncle Den’s near the Plymouth coast. Dad W, no longer the Center of the Fun or the Universe, sat hunched quietly in a corner on the couch, shriveled and yellow, taking it all in. His niece and her baby on the floor, his nephew and his four-year-old son jumping around the room. Not even the electronic Triv game could tempt him. No one mentioned cancer. No one acknowledged that this was our last Christmas. Dad W wouldn’t want us to.
Long holidays were no longer possible, so our only “family trips” during that Christmas visit were short drives into the Plymouth city center. Dad W could handle a half hour of shopping before he needed to go home and rest.
On January 3, the early morning drive to the bus station was made in silence. We were afraid that this Good-bye would be the Last Take. “A wrap and a print.” We pulled into the parking lot of the bus station. A double-decker bus was being loaded, more eager passengers than us lining up with their baggage. When we had wrestled our suitcase from the boot, Peter pulled it over to be loaded. I was left alone with my in-laws. I hugged Mum and told her I loved her.
Then Dad W opened his arms. I gave his frail body a gentle hug, and he whispered in my ear, “Thanks for all you do for Pete.”
That was it. But with those simple words, I knew he thought me neither dimwit nor crook. I was a daughter. And that he thought me a good wife for his only son was a very high compliment indeed.
I took a breath, blinked back the tears, and looked him in the eye. “Thanks for all you’ve done for me. We have wonderful memories. Thanks especially for Paris.”
As Peter and I climbed onto the bus, I asked if we could go to the front of the top level to avoid motion-sickness. The question seemed embarrassingly trivial for that moment, but Peter agreed. We settled into our seat. Then we looked out the window for his parents, waiting for the Worrall wave. There they were, standing side-by-side in the parking lot—his tiny, bubbly Mum and his now-shriveled Dad. But the bus windows were tinted, and they couldn’t see us. They were waving at someone—on the lower level, near the back. We waved harder from the top front window, trying to get their attention. But they continued to wave passionately at someone else. And the bus pulled out.
“That could be it,” Peter said as they disappeared from our view.
I sighed and grabbed his hand. “And they were waving at the wrong window.”
And we laughed, in spite of ourselves.
The Final Good-bye. Take Three.
On Monday, January 26, Mum called. Dad W had been sick all weekend and had been taken to hospital. The nurse said that now, for sure, he had only days. Once again Peter begged off of work. But I couldn’t leave until Friday.
Peter arrived unannounced at his Dad’s bedside on Tuesday afternoon. Dad W was still conscious. “Crikey!” he said over and over. “Crikey! Crikey! It’s Pete!” Then, “Where’s Kelli?” Peter assured him I would arrive on Saturday.
I kept my cell phone with me that week, and Peter called frequently with updates. Late on Tuesday, the nurse said they didn’t expect Dad W to make it through another day. He must have sensed this because he began his Final, Final Good-byes, giving each family member what he knew they needed—even though it meant being personal. He told his sister she had been a good sister. He gave his sister-in-law a big kiss. To his brother-in-law, fellow motorcycle enthusiast, and friendly rival, he said, “You won’t see me in heaven.” And as the family exchanged puzzled looks across his bed, he added, “I’ll be too fast!”
On Wednesday Dad W was weaker, but late in the day he started smiling.
“I’m getting excited!” he said.
“What are you getting excited about, Dad?” Peter asked.
“Kelli’s coming!” he replied.
“Yes, Dad, she’s coming on Saturday. Just a few more days.”
The extended family came and went that week, but Peter and his mum rarely left Dad W’s side. Hour after hour, as Dad W faded in and out of consciousness, they talked of holidays—America and Wales and France. Peter and Mum slept in shifts in a chair by Dad W’s bed. And they kept me updated by phone.
Friday finally arrived. When I was on my way to the airport, I got another call. Dad W was still hanging on, but barely, so Peter wanted to put him on the phone. Perhaps to say good-bye.
I pressed the phone into my ear to try to make out every sound. There weren’t words, at least not words I could distinguish. There were only moans, then a sort of wailing.
“I’m on my way to the airport, Dad,” I told him. “I’ll see you soon.”
The flight was eternal.
I was met at Gatwick by Uncle Den, who didn’t have a cell phone and hadn’t spoken to the family since the day before. We took a train down to Plymouth and were met at the Plymouth station by Aunty Jacky, who said Dad W was still with us, resting peacefully.
I could breathe again. I was going to make it. I was going to have a Final, Final Good-bye.
Aunty Jacky ushered me through the hospital, up to the cancer ward, and down to the end of the hall, last room on the left. She knocked softly and Mum opened the door. Mum was alone with Dad W. She gave me a hug and turned to him.
“Kelli’s here,” she told him with a smile and a stroke on his head.
I looked down into his face—a face I hardly recognized although I had seen it just a month before. His features were distorted; his skin was yellow; his eyes were glazed over and staring blankly.
I took his hand and tried not to let my face register my shock. “I’m here, Dad. I came to see you.” He moaned, but his face registered no recognition. I hoped he knew me; I hoped he knew I had come.
Peter, Mum, and I settled in around Dad W’s bed. We took turns holding Dad W’s hand, standing in his line of vision, stroking his head, and giving him water on a sponge. Around dinner time, Peter and I offered to fetch tea and a snack. We returned to find Mum again bubbling with news.
“I think he knows Kelli’s here. He said, ‘All the way from America just to see me’!”
At nine-thirty that evening, Mum sent me to the dayroom sofa to rest. “We’ll call you if anything happens,” she said. So I curled up on a couch and fell asleep. Less than an hour later, Mum was gently shaking me.
“He doesn’t have long now,” she said as I tried to open my eyes, “and he would want you there.”
We returned to his side. Peter was stroking his head; Mum and I each took hold of a hand. Dad W’s breathing was shallow and sporadic—a little gasp for air—followed by a long pause—then another gasp. We said little. No poignant words were necessary. They had all been said. No music swelled, nor was it missed. The silence was right.
At 10:33 there was a final gasp.
And he was gone.
The following days were filled with visits from family and ministers, funeral directors and friends. One after another they came—morning till night. I took to making tea and supplying biscuits for each guest while Mum and Peter graciously re-told the story of Dad W’s last days, supplying as much comfort as they received.
Tuesday was a welcome respite from the barrage of guests. Tuesday we had errands. Peter, Mum, and I met with the undertaker and the pastor and the musicians and the florist. And in between the other calls, we stopped at the Magistrates Office to register Dad’s death. The undertaker needed the Death Certificate to continue with his plans.
Mum greeted the receptionist and explained the reason for our visit. The woman replied with a sincere, “I’m sorry,” and pointed us to the appropriate office. We filed in and sat in a row across the desk from the registrar.
The meeting was all business. Sign this form. Take this pamphlet. Call these people. And in twenty minutes, it was done. Dad W was officially dead.
We rose to shake hands with the registrar, I gathered the forms and the brochures and the certificate of death, and we took our leave. As we walked to the car, we planned the rest of the afternoon.
“Perhaps we should get lunch,” Mum suggested. “We kept forgetting to eat.”
“We could get a pasty at Sainsbury. Their chicken vegetable pasty is good,” Peter said.
“But Oggy Oggy has the fruit pasties that Kelli likes,” Mum said.
“Wait a minute.” I interrupted the pasty debate. “I just realized…I’m holding all of the important papers.”
Mum smiled. “Dad would definitely not be comfortable with that.”
“He sure wouldn’t,” Peter agreed.
“I know,” I said. “I feel so naughty.”
And we all laughed. In spite of ourselves.