I’ve told most of this story before. I hope the good one’s bear repeating.
My dad is on my mind as Father’s Day approaches. I’ve asked you to tell me about your dads and the things that have stood out to you. Some of you have written me some pretty astonishing things. I’m still working on that story.
I just thought I’d revisit one of the stories that perhaps represents the best in him that I ever knew. I’m not saying he was perfect, by any measure. All dads have their best and worst moments in life. It’s called being human.
But the most impressive time in my dad’s life, to me, was in the final years that he and mom were together. Having lost my own wife has given me a more intimate appreciation for what he must have gone through when he lost her.
They were married for 67 years. Most of those years were like any marriage that ever survived the turmoil and complexities of life. I am fortunate to have witnessed how they navigated those years together. I had a friend recently tell me about the regrets he has in losing his dad way too soon in life.
“You are very lucky to have had him as long as you did,” he said.
It was a clear November day when we drove up to the assisted living home just north of Hampton. I was driving. Mama was in the seat next to me. Dad and Marian were in the back seat.
Mama understood enough about what was going on that she kept saying that she didn’t want to go. But she was not completely clear. Her mind was on home. “Take me home,” she would say. And by home, she meant her childhood home in Walton County.
I could see Dad in the rearview mirror. Moist eyes staring out the side window. I imagine he was feeling the emptiness of what we were about to do. He was tired. He had hidden her condition for as long as he could.
When he did her make-up for her, he wasn’t well versed in the different uses of things like eyeshadow and mascara, lipstick, and eye liner. I couldn’t help but quietly chuckle at some of the faces he painted on her. Good Lawd! If she had only known she would have been mortified. But it was a tender thing to me that he tried to take care of her.
My dad was a blue-collar man to the bone. He never knew any kind of life that didn’t include hard work. He was a small man, but his hands were thick and scared. He was industrious. He was hard-headed. He was good and kind, willing to help anyone who needed whatever he could offer. And for as long as she needed him, he did his best.
But the time came when he could no longer give her what she needed.
For the 55 years or so that I knew my dad, he was the most reliable and consistent person in my life. He was devoted to his work. He was a foundry man and a cattleman. He was devoted to his family. He was devoted to his church. He honored his promises and was loyal to his friends. But, in the end, his greatest devotion was to her.
I have some idea of what it is like to lose a spouse. As hard as that is, I can only imagine what it was like for him to lose her and yet still have her around. But that is what Alzheimer’s does. It steals a person from you without really taking her completely away. She remained in his life even though she was gone.
He went to see her every day, three times a day for the last five years that he lived. She rarely knew who he was. There was no conversation that made any sense. Nothing was said between them that allowed him to connect with her in the way he needed her. Eventually, the conversations just stopped. Replaced by empty stares. Still, he faithfully went to see her.
I thought I knew him pretty well. His no nonsense way of doing things. His fierce intolerance of any half-hearted work ethic. His tireless telling of old yarns and stories. His high expectations. His unending patience. His jokes. His love for hunting and fishing. His voracious reading. His humor and wisdom. His willingness to help a neighbor in need. His short phone calls. His stubborn ways with answering machines.
I knew him better than most, I thought.
But nothing prepared me for this side of him. I don’t think anything in my life surprised me more nor impacted me more than being privileged to see his devotion to her in those final years.
He wanted her to leave this world before his time. He talked about it a lot. He wasn’t wishing her to die. He just felt like he could handle her being gone better than she could handle him being gone. I get that now. I miss Beth every day. I’m also pretty sure she would have had a more difficult time without me, had I gone first. There’s no way to know for sure about these things, but I think I understand now what he was saying way more than I did at the time.
He did not get his wish. And, though she was not coherent when he died, she felt his absence. When his visits stopped, she became agitated in a way that she had never shown before. When Beth and I would go see her, she would be upset. She, of course, never uttered a word, but I knew she knew that he was gone.
So, my friend was right. I was lucky. I had a great dad. That’s about as simple as I know how to put it. He was hard on me. He made me work. He whipped my behind when I needed it. He showed his disappointment when I deserved it. He supported me every step of every road I ever traveled.
In short, he loved me. I have no doubt about that.
Yeah, I think a lot about the little things. Working cows together. Camping trips. Cutting grass at the church. Cleaning birds. Eating watermelon in the backyard. Dipping homemade ice cream out of the churn. Tossing the baseball around in the front yard. He was my best man at my wedding.
He was, to me, the model of what a father should be. He loved his family. He looked after me and my sister is a thousand different ways. He came to have lunch with me every Friday so he could see the tree farm and make sure I was doing okay. I’ll never forget these things.
My greatest memory of him, however, is of those quiet days he spent alone thinking of little else but mama. Even in her absence, he gave every ounce of devotion to the most important people in his life.
Neither of us knew it then, but he was showing me how to live my life now.