Jan. 14, 1980.
As I walked up the lawn of my neighbor’s house, and my cousin approached me somberly, I heard the words in my head. Before he ever uttered those words, the very essence of which would change my life forever, I heard them in my head. “I’m sorry, Donna, he didn’t make it.” Somehow, I knew it was coming. There it was. “He didn’t make it.” My father, Harry Bernhardt, had died at the young age of 55. From that moment on, at the tender age of 15, my life would never be the same.
Although I never had the opportunity to speak to my father again after our house went on fire, the fire that 12 hours later claimed Harry’s precious life, I was told and had read in the newspaper what my father’s last words were. “Are my children all right?” “Promise me that they won’t see me like this.” While it is inconceivable to imagine the pain he must have been experiencing, my father’s last thoughts and moments were spent worrying about the effect it may have on his children if they were to ever see him like this.
At the time I remember thinking to myself: How could it be that everything can change in just an instant? I can still remember where my father and I were standing and how lighthearted the conversation was just a few short hours before the fire. “Dad, can I go to Mary Ann’s house tonight? I promise I’ll study for my mid-terms if you let me.” After agreeing to this deal, I kissed him goodbye and said for the very last time, “Thanks Dad, I love you.” What made my father even more amazing was that my dad had taken on the role of a single parent to the three of us five years earlier. I have to say that, through it all, he handled it all with grace, dignity, humor and love.
After my father died, I found a note that he had penned in response to a letter that his cousin Alice had written to him. Apparently, she must have shared how sorry she was about his “hard life” as a single parent. His response to her letter touched me deeply:
“Alice, the hard years that you describe never existed. While it’s true that I am mopping the floors on my day off and am busy doing the dishes, who else do you know who dances with the mop and who sings happily with his hands immersed in dishwater? The kids are great and I have to say that I think I have been the world’s greatest father, not including God, of course.”
As long as I live, I will never forget the self-sacrificing spirit that my father, Harry Bernhardt, displayed to us, his children. Even now, some 38 years later, I always shed a tear on Jan. 14, remembering when and how my father died. I take a deep breath and I remember — I always remember. I say a quiet prayer and remember how blessed I was and how thankful I am that, even if it was for 15 short years, I had the privilege of having Harry Bernhardt as my father.