I buried my father yesterday.
He was 87 years old, a veteran, an amateur magician, gifted gardener, and for more than fifty years he’d worked as a machinist.
One of my earliest memories of my father is of him teaching me to read. I must have been only 3 or 4 at the time but he soon had me reading whole sentences. As a child of the depression, my father’s schooling ended after the eighth grade, when he had to go to work to help support the family. He was being raised by his grandmother along with his three sisters, because his mother had died when he was only 8 years old.
Now, while I owe my love of suspense fiction and thrillers to my mother, it was my father who sparked an interest in me for the mysteries of life. Despite his shortened formal education, my father had dozens of books on philosophy, history, and esoteric studies. His vocabulary was vast, his knowledge wide, and if the man ever uttered a curse word, I don’t recall hearing it.
Beside teaching me to read, my father also taught me to be generous to those who had less than I did. After a fire ravaged the home of relatives, my father and mother told me that I had to give up some of my toys, clothing, and books, so that my cousins wouldn’t go without. I was only 9 years old and I was willing to give up some of my toys, didn’t care a hoot about my clothes, but parting with my books, that hurt.
I had over fifty of those old Hardy Boys Mysteries with the bright blue covers and I loved looking at them. After reading them, I kept them lined up on a shelf that was above my bed. I gazed up at those books often and they were the first fiction series I ever read. I gave the books away at the urging of my father because my cousins needed them more than I did. That was the day that my father taught me both compassion and selflessness.
In the years that followed, my father taught me many other things. He taught me how to change a flat tire, how to tie a Windsor knot, drive a car, and I fondly remember him teaching me to shave the peach fuzz that developed on my chin in high school. Now, by the time I was eighteen I was certain that the old man couldn’t teach me anything else and that I knew everything, but of course, I was wrong and had many lesson left to learn.
My father was wise enough to let me work out most of those lessons on my own, but whenever I needed him, he was there for me. Just by being around him I learned what it was to be a man. By observing him react with others, the aged, the sick, the less fortunate, I discovered what it was to be a good man. Then, as it always does, time passed. I found myself not only fully grown, but middle-aged, and until a few days ago, I would have said that my father had no more lessons to teach me.
I was wrong. Over the last few weeks of his life he taught me the most valuable lesson he ever could.
You see, my father had cancer and it had begun to spread into his bones and affected his ability to walk. Yet still, my father refused to give up. I remember one of the doctors advising my stepmother to face the reality that my father would succumb to his illness and to make peace with that fact. She was right of course, but she had said these words as if my father would pass away at any moment. At the time, he was bedridden, had stopped eating, and was suffering from dementia.
Not only did my father recover his wits to a great extent, but he grew strong enough to enter a rehabilitation facility. While there, he was determined to get back on his feet and someday return to his home, where he had his beloved garden. Less than two weeks before his death, my wife and I watched my father as he took physical therapy. He rose from his wheelchair under his own power and, with the aid of a walker, he traveled a distance of over two-hundred feet.
His therapist said that he had never walked that far before and was surprised by his progress. At that point, it looked like he would make it home again. However, it wasn’t to be. Days later, my father’s health took a turn for the worse as the cancer became more aggressive and caused him great pain. In time, he was made comfortable with the aid of a morphine drip and he died with his loved ones watching over him.
Like all of us, my father had no control over the way he came into this world, nor was he able to change the fact that he grew up without a mother. At his end, he couldn’t avoid illness or accident and was betrayed by his own mind in the form of dementia.
However, in the middle, where most of life is lived, my father chose to be a good man, to be a loving and caring human being, and he always had a smile for anyone he met. He lived with zest, had traveled, and when nearing sixty, he was brave enough to drive alone across the country and make a new life in California. Once there, he married my stepmother and began his second successful marriage, after having been wed to my mother for 35 years, until her untimely death.
My father made friends easily and often, a talent I lack, and he exuded a quiet sense of dignity and strength. Self-confidence and poise flowed from the man the way that light flows from a candle and he had a keen sense of humor and a spirit of playfulness.
In the middle of his life, in the space between childhood and old age, my father studied magic and often thrilled children by performing his act for free. He chose to be a man who gave instead of taking and he worked hard at any task he decided to tackle. He taught himself carpentry, auto repair, home repair, and I once saw him fix a leak after being assured that only a plumber could stop it. My father never shied away from hard work and often worked two or three jobs at a time when he was a young man.
He raised four children, had numerous grandchildren, and so far, four great grandchildren. He is also survived by a stepson and stepdaughter. I never met anyone who didn’t like him and I was impressed by the turnout at his funeral.
Earlier, I wrote that my father had taught me a final lesson, and he most certainly did. During his last days, as I watched him slowly disappear and fade away, I often thought about what a horrible and undeserved fate he had. That may be true, but just like childhood, in life’s beginning, where we don’t get to chose our circumstances, we also don’t get to chose the events that will bring about our ending. Even those that opt for extinguishing their own lives aren’t the architects of the circumstances that drive them to such an end.
We can’t chose our beginning, nor fashion our end, but we get to decide who and what we’ll be in the middle of our lives. My father was a good, decent, and loving man and he lived life to the best of his ability. Even at the very end he was fighting in rehab to make it back home where he wanted to be. I felt pride on the day I watched my father rise up from his wheelchair and walk. He died on his feet. I pray that I’ll someday be half the man he was.
My father’s final lesson?
He taught me how to die well.
I love you, Dad, and God how I miss you.