This is the thing about writing of any kind. I never know what is going to emerge after the first sentence. In yesterday’s blog I happened to recall the morning I was struck by a certain memory of my father and the unexpected, surprise moment that followed that memory.
Today when I dated my morning scribing I realized that it was 16 years ago this morning that I received a call from my sister saying, “This is a call you haven’t wanted to get.” She told me that my father had gone to sleep the night before and did not wake up.
That was a Saturday morning. The Sunday church bulletin had a special insert that was titled “A Mighty Oak Has Fallen,” sharing the news with a congregation he had been part of most of his life.
One reason for the title was that on the last day of my dad’s life, at 91 years old, he had loaded his trailer three times with wood and made three trips to the home of a man in that church who was recovering from heart surgery, unloading each trailer and returning for the next load. The wood came from having lost multiple trees on our property during Hurricane Floyd that September. He spent weeks with his power saw, adding exponentially to our wood pile that was a supply for the wood and coal stove, down to one rather than three.
The plumbing was put in when I was born. The electric heat did not arrive until I was in college. Three wood and coal stoves beautifully and fully warmed our small home. While two were removed when the heat was put in, we have always kept one in the kitchen.
As part of his caregiving of us as a family he was the first one up each morning and in the cold weather would “shake down” the stoves, get the heat flowing, and refill the coal scuttles in the cellar to put on the new layer of coal.
Pondering his life from my adult perspective, parts of him remain a deep mystery. He was a man of few words and was not one to dialogue or share what he was thinking or feeling, much less what he might have been wrestling with. His lack of capacity to engage in difficult conversations meant that differences of opinion were often conveyed to my mother and she was left to be the communicator. I do not know why that was but like to think he couldn’t bear to hurt my feelings. On the other hand, he was someone who, when he did feel strongly, reacted strongly. That was so rare that I can only remember one or two occasions ever. Perhaps he knew how to hand off his displeasure or difficult decision in a way that would keep him measured. I don’t know.
He was well read and what I make up about him, given the number of NY Times crossword puzzles he mastered, is that he was very smart and had a way of holding information that he never talked about but through which he could fill in those little numbered squares. Our conversations were only about the cats, the land we lived on, or the routines of life and what happened between breakfast and dinner.
The mysteries endure and I think I am still looking for clues to help me unravel them. They are not, however, where I dwell.
My father was a man of immense generosity, cheerfulness, and one rarely to engage in gossip or judgmental conversation. It does not mean he did not have some strong prejudices but he chose not to give voice to them in a way that would hurt others. Rather, his was the hand of kindness always stretched out, a smile for strangers and friends alike, and putting others before himself.
I realized that he sang “Home on the Range” so often not because of our land, which I always thought it was about (and I’m sure it was, in part), but because of the line, “where never was heard a discouraging word.” He had little tolerance for discouraging words. How we need his presence in our current culture.
Random thoughts…his caregiving of bank customers meant that when he moved banks so did many of his customers. He went out of the way countless Sundays to give rides to women in our church who otherwise would not have been able to go and often, as a child, I was next to someone who was not as thoroughly bathed as I was an there was a bag of food waiting for her. His garden produce found its way to someone else’s car as if by magic. He never complained about his work, even when he worked Saturdays for a period of time. There was not complaining about money but I realized later in life that he worked those Saturdays because it was needed. He drove an hour and a half one day, when we had no idea where he was, to go to a particular store to get me a sweater…just because he wanted to.
The list goes on. I will end, however, with one of the greatest gifts he gave me. I was one who was always on the go, asking and wondering what we were going to do next. During one of my late teenage, perhaps even college years, my dad was sitting in a chair by our barn, a common spot for him after working on the property. He beckoned me to the empty chair next to him.
When I sat down he looked over and said, “You do not have to be doing something all the time.” It was in the kindest, most loving way, and in that moment I was given full permission to do absolutely nothing and simply be. I have not looked back once! Caregiving, yes, and more than 4 decades later it is as real as if it happened yesterday. A man of few words… 11… that I have never forgotten. I have shared that story with so many who tell me they do not know how to relax or take time for themselves and hope I can pass along the permission with care. He lived them every single day.
His words of care to my mother (and any of us who were home) every single night, as he most always went to bed first, and the last words he spoke were: “ Call me if you need me.”
He left a legacy of caregiving. Sixteen years of absence and yet so present.
And the truth is, each one of us contain mysteries. It is part of who we are. No one will ever know all.