The end of this month will mark the one-year anniversary of our father’s passing. John Michael Milliron was a gentle, kind, and caring man whose joy in life came from watching the comings and goings of his nine children and 11 grandchildren.
He was diagnosed with terminal small-cell lung cancer in February of 2004 and given 3-6 months to live. We were devastated. He was devastated. For the first time since he was 13, he had to quit work and stay home. Driving him to pick up his things from work was crushing. He was 'going to work' for the last time; and for a man who came of age in the fifties—an organization man—this was tough stuff. You could see it in his eyes.
But serendipity soon came. He used this time to dive deep into our worlds, to spend hours and hours talking with us over morning coffee, finally reminiscing about his past, and encouraging us about our roads ahead. The older children took turns going to the house to spend time with him in the mornings before work. It was like he was running his own little Starbucks. I have the sneaking suspicion that he was having so much fun connecting with his kids and grandkids, he fought harder through the chemo, weight loss, and nausea to stay in our lives. He was with us almost three-times longer than we expected. In fact, he was placed on Hospice in October of 2004, and the doctors told us we were probably six weeks away, at most. After more than six months, they realized this might be a longer haul. Although it was a painful time, it was a special time. A time we wouldn’t trade for the world.
I had taken a new job in North Carolina in the fall of 2004. Julia, my wife, was completely supportive of me flying back to Arizona on a regular basis to stay with family, help with Dad, and get my morning conversations in. I could write forever about these experiences, but today, as we approach the one-year anniversary of his passing, I’ll share a lesson that came my way. I was reviewing my journal from that time and found a piece I had written called The Homecoming. I witnessed this scene after having to cut one of my Dad trips short and rush to the airport to get back to NC for work meetings.
I’m sitting at the airport, which is no surprise, eating a quick lunch before I pass through security and get on to the gates to board my plane. As I’m people watching to pass the time, I notice that a plane with soldiers must have landed—kids returning home from Iraq, from what I can tell. They’re streaming by with bags in tow, all shapes and sizes, all in a hurry. The first thing that strikes me is how young these guys are. They barely look old enough to drive, much less lead a charge in Iraq.
The next thing that catches my eye is a family patiently waiting just beyond security. There’s a nervous and excited mother, wringing her hands, nervously checking her husband’s watch, and trying to keep the two kids close by. There is what looks like a 10-year-old little girl and maybe 4-year-old brown-haired boy. The latter is bouncing off the walls; the former has yet to move a muscle. She’s just staring into the group of soldiers emerging from the terminal. The father is an average-sized man, with a tension about him; but clearly he’s the rock. His worn jeans, what looks like a work shirt of some kind, and tattered black shoes tell you he’s not used to airports, which is also clear by the glances he shoots at business travelers buzzing by as they talk on their cell phones. The family is standing together about 100 feet back from security, eyeing each soldier, as if wondering if they can still recognize their child. Finally, their son emerges from beyond the check point.
First the four-year-old charges the child soldier and tackles him waste high. The short-haired, short-standing boy guards himself against the charge and picks up his little brother. The sister and mother are next, shrieking as they rush to his side, kiss him, hug him, and maul him with joy. The father hasn’t moved. He’s just standing and watching as if in disbelief. After a little of the excitement settles, they all turn to the father. There is a long pause, and then the son puts down his duffle, guides his little brother to the ground, and slowly walks to his Dad. He boldly puts out his hand, but in what is clearly not a natural motion, the father opens his arms. The boy, taken aback, falls into his father’s hug. The father guides his son’s head down into his shoulder with his left hand, and holds on with all his might with his right.
The mother, daughter, and brother are standing just staring at this scene—as are we. No one at close range can look away. Overwhelmed, crying, the father is holding on to someone he thought he had lost forever. And he won’t let go. The rest of the family gently moves closer and just put their hands on the two. And then they melt into the hug as well. He is home.
I took this all in and just melted in emotion for a bit. I wasn’t going to fight it. When I’m 70, I would never remember the meeting to which I was rushing. I would remember, however, my coffee talks with Dad. I went to the US Air counter, canceled my ticket, and got a cab. When I came into the house with bags in tow, my Dad looked puzzled . . . but pleased. “Flight was canceled,” I said. “Got any more coffee?” He just grinned and poured the Folgers.