My Letter

April 25, 2018

Dear Ones,

The spring my dad (aka The Engineer) was 69 I was gadding about Ireland, hunting up old, dead Cunninghams in cemeteries thigh-high with grass. "No snakes in there, but watch out for the odd fox", he said. No old dead Cunninghams either in the cemeteries I checked. But I almost had my own old, dead Cunningham in San Francisco while I was gone.

By the time I got to him, he had been shocked back to life, survived a bypass, trudged through cardiac rehab, and returned home, a pale reminder of his former ruddy self. As I got out of the cab in front of his house, he waved a little wave from the front window, a sad prisoner in the high-rent district.

We talked about the facts of the matter - timelines, what he could remember, what Mom and the doctors had filled in for him. Data and timelines by then reduced to spreadsheets. When I got clumsy with a metaphor and opined that the heart attack was a "shot across the bow," The Engineer roared, "Across the bow, my ass! Through the vitals! Did you see the zipper up my chest and where they pulled the veins out of my legs? I've been gutted, girl!" And he had.

But he was also a survivor returned from the cold, dark sea. He had died, he told me, when his heart stopped in the ambulance. When he awoke after surgery, he professed that he had spoken to a nurse in blue scrubs who told him he was fine and sent him back into the world. Though there were no nurses in blue scrubs at that time in that hospital. The nurses wore green. "And it's not too bad, the dying part. I'm not afraid to die again," he said. "You know, parts wear out." And he wasn't, and they do.

Over the next nine years, as his health ebbed and plateaued, ebbed and plateaued, he was either in Europe or intensive care. No use staying at home and waiting for it, he figured.

Toward the end, he was being gurneyed onto an elevator to go up somewhere for a test as I was awaiting to go down to the street for a cab back to the airport. "Remember," he said as the door closed, "I'm not afraid."

"I know," I whispered to the empty hall.

A month later, on his last afternoon and evening, nurses on two different shifts told me that he had been waiting for something all week. Seeing us together that day, they knew what he had been waiting for. "You came," he whispered as I stooped to kiss his big Roman nose. "I did," I whispered back. "You look pooped," I said, speaking the obvious because there wasn't much more to say. "I am pooped," he sighed.

And the next morning, the parts wore out.

Some years later, the Irish poet, one of my favorites, Seamus Heaney sent his wife a last minute text before he died. "Noli timere," was all it said. "Don't be afraid."

And I try to remember.

Anne Cunningham Weston

Anne Cunningham Weston, Educator

This letter is part of the Death Letter Project - North Carolina, a means to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Historic Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh, NC.


Michael Palko