My dad passed away peacefully on April 22 after a nearly 40-year battle with heart disease.
He fought several battles in his life. The first one, I imagine, was over the last piece of fried chicken at a dinner table surrounded by ten siblings.
I spent Dad’s 87th birthday with him and Mom. They didn’t stray too far from home by themselves during his last few months because of his declining health, so I told him I’d take him anywhere he wanted to go for his birthday. I knew he would want to go to an antique shop somewhere, which was fine with me because I inherited his admiration of things that were made when people appreciated beauty and quality of workmanship.
We ended up going to one of his favorite antique malls, located on I-55 south of Springfield. To get there, we took the two-lane roads. He guided me through tiny Illinois towns with names like Bullpitt, Kincaid, and Pawnee, places I was sure I had never been. I had to chuckle because it so reminded me of those two-lane road trips we used to take when I was a child. We ate lunch at a mom-and-pop restaurant where they had eaten before. The food turned out to be very tasty, meaning it was also pretty unhealthy. But on this day, I didn’t care.
Our excursion cost me $97.50 in antiques that I couldn’t live without, several dollars’ worth of gasoline, and three inexpensive lunches. I would have spent a lot more to have that time with them. Just the three of us.
Dad was contemplative that day. Traffic was sparse, and I stole an occasional peek over at him as he watched the world go by. This was his world – fields almost ready for planting, ramshackle farm buildings, smokestacks from a distant factory that puffed white smoke into a vivid blue sky, trees in full bloom because of our rare, early spring. Rural areas where he grew up.
What was going through his mind? I couldn’t help wondering if he knew that this would probably be the last time he would pass this way. He commented about returning to the area next month to visit another antique shop that he was too tired to walk through this time. His voice was wistful. He knew it wouldn’t happen.
He was in deep concentration looking through the car window. Occasionally he would point out something of interest with his aged, trembling hand that showed purple bruises from past IV attempts. I can’t pretend to know how he felt at that stage in his life. Was he absorbing everything around him as if he had never seen it before and would never see it again?
There seemed to be a calmness about him, as if he had accepted his own mortality and was approaching death on his own terms. Oh, sometimes he talked about doing things months in the future, and I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me that had optimism. After all, he had defied the odds for years. I knew the cold, hard facts as they were presented by the doctors, but even I wondered if he would overcome the obstacles just one more time.
Sometimes, he talked of the “lasts” in his life, in not so many words. Something would be said about an upcoming event, and he would say, very matter-of-factly, that he wouldn’t have to worry about that anymore, or someone else will be taking care of that, or he’d never see that happen. Was this his last birthday? As it turns out, it was.
He said he had mowed his last lawn. Reluctantly he admitted that he had driven his last car. He’d taken his last trip to my brother’s house in Kansas, knowing he could no longer handle the 7-hour car ride. He’d restored his last antique car, painted his last set of shutters, climbed the stairs in my house for the last time. It was hard to believe, looking at his frail image now, that just thirteen short years ago, he was painting the inside of my new house. He loved to paint; I did not inherit that gene.
He had seen his sister from Oklahoma for the last time. He would no longer be making his annual Memorial Day trek to place flowers on his parents’ graves. He would never again make us cry with laughter at Christmas as we played our corny gift exchange game. He would no longer sit in the swing on his front porch.
This would be Dad’s last war. I think World War II was part of what made him so tough, made him endure everything that had happened to him in his life, made him survive all his health problems for so long.
Determined to do his part, he enlisted in the Army during World War II and served with the Rainbow Division in Germany and France. He was shot in the wrist and taken prisoner of war by the Nazis. He was undernourished during his time there, watching the Germans pile bodies of his comrades who starved to death in a corner of the prison. Dad was determined not to starve.
Each time the doors opened, the soldiers feared the Nazis were going to shoot them. They heard and felt the bombing of Dresden five miles away, so close that they worried that the Americans might accidentally bomb their camp.
Dad never removed his shoes while in captivity because shoes were a valuable commodity to be stolen from the careless. The Nazis marched them from camp to camp, so shoes were crucial. After the war, they had to cut Dad’s shoes off his feet.
Imagine what all that was like for a young farm boy who had never been out of rural Illinois!
Dad was never lazy. He worked hard after the war, making a good life for Mom, my brother and me. Though we were by no means wealthy, we always had food on the table, clothes on our backs, a good car, and a nice house. We had our fair share of treats. Santa never missed a visit.
Dad was smart, sensible and energetic. He worked well with numbers and became a bookkeeper and a salesperson at a local lumber yard, where he stayed for 44 years. Building contractors would seek him out to figure estimates for their projects and ask his advice. He was a man of his word and bent over backwards to help people. He earned the respect of all those who knew him.
He was also a skilled carpenter and passed on his knowledge to my husband and my brother. Dad had built his last house, remodeled his last room, repaired his last antique table. Those who he taught helped him with his projects in later years, repaying the favor.
My three grandchildren adored him. My young grandson would take his hand and pull him towards his workshop, where all types of old toy cars and trucks were housed in an old glass-front cabinet. Dad collected the toys from antique shops and allowed his great grandchildren to play with them. Dad’s face would light up when they visited, and I’m convinced that he lived longer because of them. Dad recognized the important things, and I know he was happy with his life.
I’m confident that he’s in a good place, probably hugging my beloved grandma and being followed around by my ornery cocker spaniel. I’ll miss his mischievious smile as he tells me about the bargain that he got at an antique shop. I’ll miss his sense of humor. I’ll miss how he couldn’t keep from chuckling when I’d give him a skeptical look as he was trying to put one over on me. I’ll miss cussing and discussing the Cardinals game with him. I’ll miss walking into their living room and seeing him in his recliner. I’ll even miss the same stories he told time and time again, as if I had never heard them before. I miss him already.