We had plenty of time to say goodbye to my father. And he to us. Like a roller coaster reaching the apex of its climb, his life began to slow up some years ago. Then, in the last twelve months, he spiraled down, the decline accelerating with each passing day, hour, even minute.

Each time I visited I was acutely aware it might be the last I’d see him alive. On the way out the door on our last visit, I stopped at his recliner, leaned over and kissed his forehead – a relatively recent gesture in our relationship – and told him I loved him.

He said, “I love you, too, son.” Then he handed me a twenty dollar bill for gas money. I didn’t need it, but I took it. One does not deprive an old man the pleasure of giving to his children, the feeling that he still has something to give.

My brother called on a Tuesday while we were vacationing. “Dad is headed to the hospital. Don’t come home. I’ll keep you posted.”

That changed Thursday morning in a text. “You should head this way. Soon.”

Throughout that day, the grandchildren who were nearby managed to get by and see him. Mom, my three siblings and I were there for his last three hours. Then he simply drew in and exhaled a final breath. My sister-in-law, a nurse, felt for a pulse, leaned in to listen, then ever so slightly shook her head. He looked exactly the same thirty seconds, a minute, five minutes after that last breath as he had before. Except he wasn’t.

I was a little bothered that I didn’t cry right there in the hospital room. Mom cried. My sister cried. So did my sister-in-law, the nurse, and her daughter, my niece. I’ve been around grief enough to know that different people express it in different ways. But I am definitely a weeper. I cry when Barry Manilow sings Mandy, for crying out loud. In that moment, though, with my father lying lifeless before me, my heart was heavy but my eyes were dry.

The next morning was filled with the administrative minutia that follows the death of a loved one. A suit for burial had to be picked out. A shirt, a tie. Friends and relatives had to be notified. Calls had to be received and handled. Arrangements made. All the while, we were checking on mom and each other.

“Are you okay?”

“I’m good. You?”

“I’m good.”

And still, I hadn’t cried. Not a single tear.

And then I saw his shoeshine kit. I was rummaging in his closet, for a tie I think, when I looked down and saw the simple wooden box with the hinged lid and an inclined shoe-shaped platform on top. Back when men still wore suits and ties to church and required their sons to do the same, that shoe shine kit was at the center of a sacred Sunday morning ritual.

After breakfast, my father, my brother and I would move to the den where Dad would manually tune the TV to the Gospel Singing Jubilee. While the Florida Boys, the Spears or the Happy Goodman Family sang southern gospel favorites, Dad would open up that wooden box and oversee the shining of the shoes.

It began by twisting the little wingnut on the appropriate colored tin of Kiwi shoe polish – always and only black or brown. A little rubbing alcohol would be poured into the tin to assure even distribution of the wax. We’d lightly dab a wooden handled brush into the tin, then rub it into the leather of each shoe.

After giving the wax a few minutes to set, we’d use a soft-bristled brush to remove the excess, then buff out a shine with a long piece of felt cloth. Dad would always inspect our work to make sure we had given the heals as much attention as we had the toes of our shoes.

The sounds of southern gospel, the smell of the wax, the shine of a freshly polished pair of little boy shoes all rushed through my mind the second I saw that wooden box.

And then I cried.

Memory is deep. Family is strong. God is good. All is well.

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