Calliopes and Such

I recently received a forwarded email from someone looking for pictures of an old trolley car that was being restored. My father was a railroad and transportation historian and had hundreds, if not thousands of pictures and negatives in his collection. This individual wondered if I still had any of them, which I don’t, since they were all sold at auction.

He went on to share fond memories of my dad and mentioned that he plays the steam calliope that toddles along through the Halloween parade held in my hometown the last Thursday in October. Wow. My father died on the night of that parade ten years ago, and I will never forget the eerie sound of the calliope a block or two away playing “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In,” which my dad would have loved. This gentleman played it that night and went on to say that he would be thinking of my dad when he played it in this year’s parade, bringing sudden tears to my eyes.

Most of us who have lost a loved one can tell stories of odd things that happened when that person passed. An appearance of their favorite wild bird or an out-of-season butterfly fluttering by the window. An extraordinary gesture from a nurse or caregiver. A last cuddle with a family pet.  Waiting for the arrival of a child who lives far away, or a spouse to leave the room, before he or she moves on to the next world.

A friend of mine received a cryptic text message the day after her father’s funeral that said, “in heaven now” with no identifying number. A hospital floor nurse caring for my husband’s aunt sang “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” to Aunt Marie, not knowing that it was her favorite hymn. When my husband was a little boy, the phone rang just as he and his family were preparing to go away. As his father picked up the phone, Brian thought, “Uncle Dick’s dead.” Uncle Dick, who was like a beloved grandfather to Brian, had collapsed and died while buying a newspaper at the drugstore.

People who know me will confirm that I am a skeptic, firmly rooted in reality. No “woo-woo” stuff for this girl. I remember one of my high school boyfriends took me to his Pentecostal church for a New Year’s Eve service where people gave testimonials, including one where a woman claimed she saw Jesus in the mist coming out of her vaporizer. We Episcopalians tend to play our religion cards close to the vest and are not given to testimonials, especially on New Year’s Eve. I glanced over at my date that night and thought, “This relationship has no future.”

But I am also a person of great faith, so I am not in a hurry to write off these odd occurrences as strictly coincidental or the product of an imagination overwhelmed with grief. I like to think of them as times when the Holy Spirit gently places an arm around our shoulders and whispers, “I’m just going to send you a little message that I’m here and that it’s all going to be ok in the end. Just hang on, I’ll be in touch.” Even those of us who are non-believers must admit that things happen which simply cannot be rationally explained by science or circumstance.

Late October always brings back memories of the end of my dad’s life. Sitting in his bedroom listening to the relentless drone of the oxygen machine. Every time I open the refrigerator, seeing that box of medication intended for his last hours; the one containing the Ativan and the extra morphine vials, discreetly provided by the hospice staff. The dining car bell he used to summon his nurses, now silent for days on the bedside table. Reading the words of Evening Prayer with him at bedtime as he barely whispers the Lord’s Prayer, dry lips struggling to form the syllables. Late night phone calls from the nurses reporting on his respiration and physical signs of impending death.

The Halloween parade lurching along past the house on the night that he died. Thumping drums from the bands, flashing lights from the floats and police cars. Streets blocked off delaying the arrival of the hearse, the funeral director apologetic as he appears at the door. And as the gurney bearing my father’s body is carefully maneuvered through the hallways and doors, off in the distance, the calliope plays its haunting recessional.


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