The real Walt for me is my dad—Walt Johnson. He passed away 23 years ago today. It’s hard to imagine he’s been gone for almost a quarter of a century.
Dad loved Christmas, and I suppose I missed him most those last few Christmases he spent with us—because he was noticeably absent those last few years. Oh, I’m not saying he was physically elsewhere—he spent Christmas with us. Nor did he check out mentally. It wasn’t as if he was suffering from some form of dementia.
But, Dad was so ill those last couple years of his life; the man who loved Christmas, was no longer involved.
In Haunting Danielle’s The Ghost Who Came for Christmas, Danielle cooks up a batch of oyster stew for Christmas Eve, a recipe she is not thrilled with, but it was a tradition of her late father’s, so she feels compelled to prepare it. Dad’s signature dish on Christmas Eve was oyster stew—and like Danielle, I was not fond of it. I don’t prepare it on Christmas Eve, but I let Danielle do it for me.
Dad had been battling congestive heart failure for a couple years before he died. Don and I moved to Havasu in 1991, with our two young children, to help my parents run the family business, Havasu Palms—and to help Mom take care of Dad, which included running him to the hospital several times a week for overnight treatment. When I say running him to the hospital, I mean taking him across the lake on Havasu Palms’ supply boat.
Mom and I stayed by Dad’s side that last week. He had been in and out of the hospital numerous times during the year prior to his death, yet we knew this trip to intensive care was different. The night he died, Mom and I got a hotel room in town, and Don returned across the lake to Havasu Palms, with the kids.
During that final week, Dad had been out of it. We weren’t able to have a real conversation, and when he did say something, he really didn’t understand where he was or what was going on. At one point, he started rambling about seeing people he knew.
A male nurse showed up during that last day—we had never seen him before, and considering the amount of times Dad was in and out of intensive care, we knew the entire staff.
But this nurse said he was on loan from another hospital, and strangely, he didn’t seem to have any other patients he needed to tend to. Instead, he spent the time with my mother, talking to her about Dad, encouraging her to talk about their life together.
I will confess, I rather wanted him to go away. I just wanted to be alone in my grief—yet, Mom seemed to need him. So, I didn’t say anything—and mom continued to talk to the nurse, letting him help her through her impending loss.
When she had said all she had to say, he quietly excused himself—and disappeared. We never saw him again, and I will admit, we have often wondered if he wasn’t a nurse at all. An angel perhaps?
Later that evening, after Mom and I checked into our hotel room and grabbed something to eat, I told Mom I felt we needed to get back to the hospital. It was not long after we returned to the hospital that Dad moved on.
I remember how it reminded me of being at a train station or an airport, when we’d wait with someone who was waiting to take off on a trip. (Back in the days when you could wait at the airport with someone departing.) You sit there and talk a little, maybe say nothing, then when the train or plane arrives everyone starts talking and saying their goodbyes.
It was like that for us. The moment Dad flat lined—I began talking to him. All week I had been by his side, yet it had been impossible to communicate with him. I figured this was my last chance. During his illness I had read numerous books on near death experiences, and the belief that a person’s departing spirit can hear all that is happening around his body immediately following death.
I told him how much I loved him. What a good father he had been. I told him my sister Lynn wished she could be with him. I told him to follow the light. Mom joined in and started talking to him too, saying her goodbyes. I did my best to ignore the female nurse who was now in the room, and not allow myself to grow silent from embarrassment. Saying goodbye to Dad was much too important.
I remember the feeling of being engulfed by his love. The day after his death, a tenant of Havasu Palms’ mobile home park offered me her condolences. In that moment, I remembered something Dad had told me the previous Christmas, when I had asked him want he wanted. He told me, “Get me something you want.” His meaning of course, was that since he was dying, whatever I gave him, I would be getting back.
Dad had this amazing—and sometimes inappropriate sense of humor—so when the woman offered her sympathies, I said without thinking, “At least I hadn’t bought his Christmas present yet.”
Of course, she looked at me like I was either insane or a horrible person. Yet, I could hear Dad’s roar of laughter at my comment, and once again, his love embraced me.
Merry Christmas Daddy. I miss you.
(Photo: me and my dad, Walt)