In his final years, Dad’s routine was always the same. He was a man of settled habits and was comfortable with the familiarity of how he lived his life.
For 48 years his routine was work. The same foundry. The same ham sandwich for lunch. The same schedule. The same day over and over again. Kind of like his own version of Ground Hog day.
But his routine changed when Alzheimer’s settled in on Mama’s world. He was retired from Southern States by then. So, his routine was not about work. It was about her.
I’m telling this story because this week marks nine years since we laid him to rest. Mostly, this is a way for me to tell my grandchildren, who never knew him, that he was a man worth knowing. He gave us something worth remembering.
Dad grew up farming. He plowed behind mules and picked cotton from the time he was old enough to hold the reins. The old implements and harnesses that hang on the walls of the barn, or that set in the corner under the shelter all have his DNA on them.
When we all gathered at Haisten’s Funeral home in Griffin, the place was packed with those who knew him best. Red Floyd came in and sat in the corner. We talked about rabbit hunting and bird hunting. Reminiscing about a good pack of beagle hounds. Linwood Brooks pulled me aside and told me that if it wasn’t for Dad, he would never have had a clue about raising calves.
“Your Daddy helped me build my pens and showed me how to give shots, tag and feed them and get them to the sale barn,” he said. “Never a finer man.”
There are perhaps a thousand more stories that people still tell me about the things he did. About the life he lived. Things that a son would otherwise never know. No doubt, he was a devoted friend and neighbor.
But his focus changed in the 8th decade of his life. One cool, sunny day in November the four of us got in the car to make a trip that changed everything. I drove. Mama got in the seat next to me. Dad and Marian got in the back. We were taking Mama to the Mount Carmel assisted living facility.
For quite some time, not clearly known to me, he had been taking care of her. I knew that her mind was slipping away. She asked a lot of the same questions all the time. She told the same details again and again as if it was the first time.
I first noticed Dad was caring for her when it became obvious that he was helping her with her make up. Dad didn’t know the difference between lipstick and eyeliner. Not that I would do any better. They would come to the tree farm to visit and she looked “a little off” with exceptionally rosy cheeks, brown lips and strange looking red eyebrows.
I’m sure he doted on her and hid her situation for as long as he could, but now we were taking her someplace where others would care for her. It was too much for him.
And this is the part of the story that I want you to know.
I remember Dad mostly as a very practical man. No nonsense. I don’t remember the two of them holding hands or making much show of affection around us. I’m sure they did. I just don’t recall it.
What happened next surprised me. I should have known. I mean, I should have known him better than to be surprised that his routine would become all about her.
A typical day: It was cold in the house. Dad got up and stirred the coals in the wood stove. He put a couple of sticks of wood inside, closed the door and opened the damper. She was not around. He made a cup of instant coffee. Sanka. Someone had brought him supper the night before, and there was a left over biscuit that he toasted in the oven for breakfast.
He got dressed. The bed was unmade as it always had been since she left the house. It wasn’t his thing. To keep house. She had done it all for him. He put three more logs in the wood stove and closed the damper a little. It would hold until he got back.
The drive to the nursing home was his life now. He would go three times a day, seven days a week. He never faltered, never wavered from this. When he got there, she was sitting in one of those rolling lounge chairs. Half curled up. He kissed her on the forehead. Then he sat down and fed breakfast to her while he talked about the day. She would listen but she wouldn’t respond.
“Why don’t you take a break,” a friend would suggest.
“No. I’m fine,” was all he would say. He wouldn’t think of not seeing her.
He went to see her at lunch. And he went again at supper. One evening when he got there, she was in her bed, lost in a mind that was no longer hers. He bent over to kiss her on the lips. She thought that she was being fed, and she bit the starch out of his lower lip. He should have gotten stitches, but he didn’t.
“I bet that hurt,” I said, trying sound sympathetic. He just grinned.
My cousin Mary Kate has told me many times, “I never saw anyone who loved Helen more than John did. Did you know he went to see her three times a day every day?”
“Yes Ma’am. I knew that.”
A man doesn’t get a chance to leave a legacy but once. In his last years I saw a tenderness that I never knew existed. All the roughness melted away because she needed him. And I think he realized how much he needed her. The bed was empty. The kitchen was quiet. The house was full of a loneliness that defined his days. She was all that mattered.
Dad always wanted her to go first. He felt like he could handle her being gone better than she could handle him being gone. She would miss him too much. He didn’t get that wish. And, she did miss him. Don’t ask me how I know. I just know.
I’ll quit with this. Of all the things to which he devoted himself, his final devotion to her was his best. That’s something worth remembering.