Curious George turned six in November. He had never had a party with friends, although, let’s be honest, when you have a large family, every birthday is a party. Still, though, he yearned to have a “real birthday party” with friends, and we were happy to oblige.
November is a busy month for us. My father’s birthday was the 13th, a birthday he shared with one of his younger brothers, my mother’s birthday was the 18th, a birthday she shared with Curious George, and a few other uncles and various family members also have birthdays in that week. Lindy’s birthday was the 21st, a day she was sharing with Curious George for the sake of his party, and the day, it turns out, which we will always remember. It was the day on which my father died.
My father fell on November 11th and broke his pelvis. He celebrated his 74th birthday in the hospital. I was not there that day, although I did end up spending two nights with him in the hospital–the first one and his fifth one. I did wish him a happy birthday by phone, but Dad was not able to talk on the phone. Parkinson’s disease had robbed him of so much, but the fall robbed him of so much more. Between the pain and the pain medication, his lucid moments during those painful days were few, brief and unpredictable. He was transferred to a rehabilitation facility on November 16th, and he passed away on November 21st.
In the last few months, Dad had lost confidence in his mobility. He was still getting around okay, but his steps had become less sure. He had been relying more and more on his walker. His brain did not process things as quickly. He was having more days where he just couldn’t find his words. And yet, his sparkle was still there. He would still tell jokes. He would get a gleam in his eye when something tickled him. He was less able to tolerate noise, which made his Thursdays with us a challenge at times. For him, it was about constantly having to make allowances for noisy boys and a baby who did not understand that Opa needed quiet. The boys had to learn how to reign in the inner noise-maker. Even with the challenges, though, it was still a privilege to care for my father that one day a week. Even on the bad days, when he would mostly nap, we enjoyed each other. Always, though, he looked forward to seeing Mom at the end of the day. He always wanted to know how much longer before she would be home.
Being with Dad was exhausting. It gave me such respect for my mother, who cared for Dad day in and day out, taking time away only to teach a few days a week. She was the true hero in the midst of the last year. She could have put Dad in a “home”. She refused. She cared for him lovingly. Spending one day a week with my father was the very least I could do, and it was my joy to do so.
In the last ten days, the entire family rallied to make sure Dad had visitors every single day. Some of us were able to take turns staying with him in the hospital around the clock, while others were able to visit him daily at the rehabilitation center. Dad rapidly and progressively lost his ability to talk coherently, although he did say different names, and we knew he was thinking of different people. At one point in the hospital, he looked at me with tears in his eyes, and he said, “You are such a good girl.” In that moment, Dad was present, and he knew who I was. It was a balm to me to hear those words. Dad felt so honored that we would all take time out to care for him and visit him in the hospital.
Dad often gestured towards things we could not see during those last days. He was often restless, and then we would hold his hand or speak to him, and he would calm down. The hip fracture made it impossible for Dad to sit up or roll over on his own. He was in so much pain. But he knew when we were there, and he responded to us. On our last Thursday, Little Princess and Lil’ Adventurer went with me to visit Dad in the rehab facility. He was pretty unresponsive at first, but he rallied when Little Princess asked him if he wanted some juice. He said her name, and he indicated he wanted to sit up a little. And he drank his juice and some water for her. My sister lived very close to the rehab facility, and when she called to see how we were faring, I mentioned that Lil’ Adventurer was very bored. She came by and picked him up. He got to spend the afternoon with his cousins. So Little Princess and I just sat with Dad until my mother arrived. I got him to eat most of his dinner. We all kissed him goodbye, and we left. It was the last time I saw him alive. I am not sure I would have done anything differently had I known that I would not see him again. I think that loving someone well does not leave room for regrets, but it does leave room for sorrow that there wasn’t more time.
It is strange the way that life and death coexist. We had a house full of family and party guests the day Dad died. Mom had opted to spend the afternoon with us to celebrate the birthdays. My father had developed pneumonia, and my brother had called my mother to tell her that the rehab facility wanted to transfer Dad back to the hospital. My brothers and sister had been with Dad that day, along with a family friend. They had all just left after spending hours with him. That’s when his heart stopped beating. A nurse walked in to check his vitals and immediately knew something was wrong. Five minutes after leaving the parking lot, my brother got the call. We, in turn, got the call while all our guests were still here.
The rest of that day is a blur. My dear friends were here, and they took over. Little Princess was distraught, and Mama Tammy took her home so she could process her loss. My friend Gayle-Rae stayed here and folded mountains of my laundry and cleaned my kitchen with Gladys Mae. I went with my mother to the rehab facility so we could say goodbye to Dad one last time. He was gone–his body nothing more than a cold, empty shell.
I am grateful for my mother and all three of my siblings. We spent that evening together, reminiscing, grieving, crying, laughing. I am grateful that in the end, we were all able to be with Dad in various ways, freely loving him as we were able. In the end, Dad knew he was loved.
I don’t know that my father knew Jesus. I loved my father as well as I could, flawed though I am, and I have to trust God with everything else. I am so very grateful that I was reconciled with my parents when Dad’s time came. We had precious times with him…..taking him on school field trips, having him listen to Lil’ Adventurer as he read the latest phonics reader, seeing him encourage Little Princess with her piano playing. We took Mom and Dad out on a pontoon boat a friend owns up on Lake Rabun last August. That was a fun afternoon. All those sweet memories play in my mind, and I am grateful that I have them. Through it all I tried to show him what it meant to trust Jesus.
In my younger, Pharisaical days, I quoted so much Scripture and spouted so much dogma, I know it turned my family off. (Some of them have been gracious enough to tell me so–followed by the assurance that I have changed.) It is not that I stopped believing the truth. Rather, I began to believe even more fervently that God is the one in control of who believes in Him and who goes to heaven. I do have a responsibility to share the gospel. Sometimes I even use words, to paraphrase John Wesley. But what do you do when the person you so desperately want to share it with refuses to hear it? Well, then you do what Jesus did…love them anyway. And love them well.
I am glad I don’t have to depend on my actions being enough. God’s wisdom and power are so much mightier than my own. In fact, I know I was often not enough, but there was grace to go around.
We are leaning on that grace now as we mourn and remember. I am watching my children process their loss. Curious George is least shy about asking questions. Today he wanted to know what Opa looked like when he died. (We had Dad cremated as was his desire.) Other days he says things that are pretty insightful for a just-turned-six-year-old, like the day he said he had one grandfather left. He then quickly followed it by saying he really had two grandfathers, but one is just not alive any more. Lil’ Adventurer has spent a lot of time fighting his little brother. His mourning looks like anger. Little Princess spent a lot of nights crying herself to sleep, as Gladys Mae reported. (“Mama,” she said, “I might be breaking Sister Code, but I think you need to know that Little Princess cries herself to sleep almost every night.”)
Most of all, I just want to remember my father. His strength, his height (all 5′ 18″ of him), his humor (not always appropriate, though, as it was), his laugh, his deep bass singing voice. I know my children will have different memories of my father. Their memories will be more of his last days. And I guess that is okay, because there was a beauty in those days, too. Most of all, I want to remember that my father loved us, and that he was loved by us. In that, I think we all succeeded.
Love is the one thing that will stand at the end. God’s love for us poured out through Jesus, and in turn, poured out through us. God’s grace to all mankind. When all else fails, and it will, love will stand. 1 Corinthians 13:13 says, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” Amen.
Jim Blachly 1941-2014
Dad and Lil’ Adventurer on Lake Rabun August 2014.