Today is my dad’s birthday. If he were still here, we’d have a nice family dinner, I’d give him the latest John Grisham book (after I’d read it first), and we’d make banana splits. My whole family would be together – my mom, my brother, our spouses, all our kids – and we would have a nice, low-key celebration, just the way he liked it. “Don’t make a fuss,” he’d say.
Anyone who has spent any time with me at all knows that my dad had a lasting impact on my life. He was a man with a big presence and I loved him fiercely. He wasn’t perfect, and there were many views we didn’t share (much to his chagrin). He was not a patient man; he was terribly uncomfortable around people with mental disabilities and physical deformities, and crying women. He was intolerant of what he called “willful stupidity.” And he hated to stand in line. But he was a great dad. He was keenly aware of his shortcomings, humble about his successes, generous with his wisdom, and a magnificent mentor and friend.
My dad died of prostate cancer at the age of 62. Let me rephrase that … my dad died because he was stubborn, bull-headed, and unwilling to go the doctor when there was still time to do something. He deliberately ignored his symptoms, for years. He ignored the fact that his own brother had died of the same disease, that his father had been treated for it, and that the deck was stacked against him. He ignored my mother’s pleas to see a doctor. “Nobody’s going to go poking around in my orifices!” he said, and THAT was final.
When dad was finally diagnosed, it was much too late. Too late for treatment, too late to take action, too late to change the course of what was now a limited future. I was angry.
“It’s your fault,” I told him. “Did you really think you were going to get out of this life alive?”
He thought about it for a few minutes, then turned to me and quietly said, “You know, I think I did.”
“Well,” I said. “You were wrong.”
“Forgive me,” he said.
And I did.
My dad gave me a lot of gifts over our lifetime together. The first one I can remember is when I was in kindergarten. My friend Linda had the neatest little cabinet to keep her doll clothes in and I really wanted one. One evening, after my mom had picked my brother and me up from daycare and we walked into the living room, there it was … my very own dolly dresser sitting on the dining room table, with three shiny red apples resting on top – one for each of us! My dad had fashioned it out of scraps of panelling that he made at the mill where he worked nights. It had two sliding doors and a drawer at the bottom, much fancier than Linda’s! That doll dresser lasted my childhood, and my own daughter’s. Right now, it holds a collection of vintage Nancy Drew books in my guest room … waiting for the next generation of little girls. (Note to my daughter Tori, no pressure ….)
My dad liked to give me books that he thought I might find interesting. One of the last ones was a small paperback titled Meditations for Women Who Do Too Much.
“What’s THAT supposed to mean?” I asked him.
“You know,” he answered.
And I did.
He had some definite ideas about giving presents. “Don’t wait for a special occasion to do something for somebody,” he’d say. “Do it now!” There’s a little wooden knife he whittled for me on a fishing trip. And a few Albert Terhune books about dogs, his favorite as a child. On our back deck, is a cedar bench with planter boxes he built the summer before his passing. At the foot of our bed is a beautiful, pine blanket chest he made. And in that pine chest is a box of hand-written notes that my dad wrote me over the years with words like “Way to go, Piggo, I’m really proud of you!” and “I knew you could do it!”. And my personal favorite, “You must have had truly amazing parents!” (Yes, as a matter of fact, I did.)
The intangible gifts my dad gave me are too numerous to count … modeling for me the difference between being fair and being just, why the animals need to be fed first, never let the sun go down on your anger, speaking your gratitude, do it now, and how to plant corn. I’m grateful for all of it.
But the best gift he gave me – that he gave all of us – was the last one. Because when my dad knew that his days were numbered, he embraced the final leg of his journey with grace and gratitude, and he made it his mission to make it as easy on us as he could.
There are indignities involved in the process of dying. And for a man who had always lived life from a position of strength, this was not an easy pill to swallow. There came a time when the man I’d always known to be solid as an oak and strong as an ox could no longer get himself in and out of bed. He lacked the strength to stand on his own two feet. He could no longer walk and had to be pushed in a wheelchair. And then there was the personal stuff … no, he couldn’t do that for himself either.
Again, my dad was a PROUD man. He had no sympathy for weakness in others and he detested it in himself. But he was not a selfish man. Never, ever, in my entire lifetime, did I see my dad put his own wants and needs before his family. Ever. And so he did what had never come easy to him, he accepted help. He accepted strangers into his home to help bathe him, administer medications, and take care of the personal stuff. He accepted offers from friends to finish the projects he couldn’t, even when it meant that they weren’t going to be done the way he originally intended. He encouraged my mom to get out of the house and do things without him, even if it meant he spent some time alone. He spoke his gratitude, frequently. He did not make demands on us. He did not want to burden us in any way. He welcomed the help of my brother and me and our frequent visits, even when there wasn’t much to talk about. As unpleasant as must have been for him, he never complained. His first concern was always for his wife, his children, and his grandchildren.
My mom and I talked about this yesterday … of Dad’s last gift to us, of how it very well may be better to give than receive, but that if you’re not willing to receive, you deprive others of the gift of giving. He allowed us to see him in his weakness even though it humbled him, to express our love to him in quiet and simple ways, and to work through the process of saying goodbye. He granted us the privilege – and oh, what a privilege it was – to care for him and accompany him on the journey. He knew how hard it was for us. And in those last few months of his life, he gave me the gift of many truly holy moments that changed me, strengthened me, deepened my faith and character, and filled me with such gratitude that I am determined to spend the rest of my life saying grace.
Happy birthday, Dad. You really were the life of the party.