It arrived unexpectedly in a non-descript, bigger-than-a-breadbox cardboard container, impossible to predict what was inside. The return address at least revealed it was from my dad’s wife, Anne.
Over the past year or so, it hasn’t been uncommon to receive mail from Anne; the majority has dealt with my father’s business affairs and she wanted to keep me and my siblings in the “loop.” It was thoughtful when she sent a sympathy card to me following Daddy’s death. I didn’t think to do the same for her. Anne was never considered our stepmother—they married when I was 28.
We are not close, but I’m grateful for how she took care of Daddy, especially during the last 14 months of his life. She was the type advocate you could only wish for if you were not in a position to speak for yourself.
Over the course of their 15-year marriage, she and Daddy have given us some rather unusual gifts. They enjoyed shopping at flea markets and it was always intriguing to see what they could come up with next. Sometimes their choices left us scratching our heads or searching for the words to express our gratitude for being remembered (while secretly wondering what in the WORLD were we gonna do with a wooden-beaded car seat cover).
And then this box arrived, containing one of the most amazing gifts I think I will ever receive. Buried within a seemingly multiplying sea of white Styrofoam peanuts, I reached into the unknown and extracted a treasure. Beauty in the eye of the beholder, this is a gift whose significance would mean little to most, but everything to me.
It was one of my father’s old cowboy boots, transformed into a decorative bird feeder. It sounds odd as I type these words that this gift could mean so much, but it does. These boots personify Daddy…somehow, in them, his memory lives.
As a little girl, I thought his boots were mysterious and held secrets of his adventuresome past. I can remember standing on top of his feet and “walking” with him, clutching around his waist so I wouldn’t fall off. With the passing of just a few years, things changed. From my tween years into college, I HATED those boots. They embarrassed me. I don’t know for sure, but western wear was likely in and out of style half a dozen times during those years, but it never mattered. To me, he was as unfashionable as you could get…I worried too much about what other people thought, a habit, I’m afraid, that took decades to break.
Although part of his childhood was spent on a farm, I don’t think that’s where his cowboy boot affection began. I vaguely remember him telling me about seeing a pair in New York City of all places, in a shop window, and liking the look of them. Plus, he liked the added height it gave him (barefoot, he was around 5’ 10”). Once he hit his 70s, though, he gave up his boots for tennis shoes. He finally discovered they were actually more comfortable.
Before speaking at Daddy’s funeral, I penned my thoughts to make sure I remained focused and steady. I wanted it to be a time to HONOR him, not for me to become unglued because of raw emotion. I read aloud my notes three times before his service—once with my aunt, once with my sister and once at the chapel before anyone arrived. EVERY time, I lost it at some point.
Until it mattered.
During his service, my spirit was calm and I was certain it was a result of many friends praying for me. It was a moment divine, a moment of beauty.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Following are some of the words I shared at Daddy’s service. One of my hopes at the time was for others to have a glimpse of him that maybe they had never seen before. I hope if they were meeting him for the first time today through my words – friends of ours there to encourage us might never have met him – they would have wished they had known him in life.
I’m not including everything (I couldn’t if I tried because I spoke this, I didn’t read it verbatim), just some of the thoughts that for me, bring Daddy to life. As I re-read this today, it was surreal…I remember writing so little of it…so I’m thankful I saved it.
“I never knew a visitation could be so wonderful. It wasn’t sad, it was a celebration, and we all loved hearing your thoughts about and condolences for Daddy. We’re glad you got to see pictures from his childhood, and learn about his years in New York and California, when he was chasing his dreams of stardom. I mean, how cool is that to have a father who starred in movies with Paul Newman and Henry Fonda, played poker with Steve McQueen and Walter Matthau and lived with loveboat captain Gavin MacLeod?”
(This was followed with some personal thoughts to my siblings, Anne, and a few others.)
“And now…..Daddy. What in the world do I say about Daddy? He was complex and unconventional. He played by his own rules and expected you to do the same. He was never a chameleon, he never just blended in. He was opinionated. He was not a planner, but I think he was a dreamer.
The two things I wanted to touch on today are his role as teacher and his legacy.
Sometimes his lessons were intentional, sometimes they weren’t. I can remember how he taught us to swim. He’d coax us onto the diving board and tell us to jump in, promising to catch us. We’d jump and he’d tread water backwards, just out of arm’s reach and challenging us to keep moving. I can remember being mad that he wouldn’t just catch me; every time I jumped, I thought “this time” he really would. But he never did and that was infuriating! The thing is, I never drowned…he always knew the exact time to reach out and pull me to his side, and in this process, I learned to be a strong swimmer.
When mama died he taught us to be strong. He allowed us to grieve, but when enough time had passed, he refused to let us drown in our sorrow. Somehow he cultivated the right tension between remembering and loving Mama, with the reality of moving on and living in a way that looked forward, not to the past.
The wildest lesson I think, is that over the past 14 months, in spite of his diminished capacity, Daddy, through his circumstances, continued to be our teacher. Alzheimers is often referred to as “The Long Goodbye”, and we have been grieving for over a year. It didn’t just begin Monday night. My siblings and I, together with Anne, have had to find a way to work together when not only were there no “good” answers, there seemed to be no answers at all. We’ve had to learn how to navigate the stresses of arranging 24-hour care in the home, physically help ourselves when we were able to, and forgive each other when one of us failed to meet the others’ expectations. We’ve had to learn how to give to and honor our father in ways we’ve never imagined. We’ve had opportunity to talk to him for hours on end and tell him all the things held close to our heart that maybe would have been left unsaid apart from his captive state.
And I look at his legacy, the things that matter that he left behind. A wife who loved him not just in word but in action. She was his greatest advocate and spoke strongly on his behalf when otherwise he would have had no voice.
And I look at his four children. All four of us have a faith that has carried us through his decline. As we’ve struggled through issues of life and death and sought the counsel and wisdom of man, each of us have come to the end of ourselves and found our answer in God. As we’ve prayed and searched scripture and had hundreds of others interceding on Daddy’s behalf, we have found our hope in God alone…who loves, forgives, blesses, redeems, who extends mercy and grace and wisdom, and who has made provision for eternity that lessons the sting of our temporal loss.
My childhood best friend Kimberly encouraged me to look for moments of beauty during this time. Each of us have found them, perhaps nothing more beautiful than when Daddy,…for as long as he could, continued to tell us he loved us and knew to kiss us when we kissed him goodbye.
So, today, while we are sad for our loss, we are thankful his body has been released from the prison he’s endured for the last year. This is a mercy for him. We won’t dwell on the months Daddy suffered with dementia; these are the things we’ll remember instead–
His black pointed toe cowboy boots, worn for so many years they came in and out of style half a dozen times….how we’d beg for “whisker rubs” from his stiff, five o’clock shadow and cheek-to-cheek we’d regret ever asking, but for some reason we’d ask him to do it again the next night…his laugh and his voice. He sang beautifully, and in my mind’s ear I can still hear…impromptu occasions when he played the piano and I thought it was magic. It was Daddy who taught me to smash my scrambled eggs through the tines of a fork, and that bacon crumbled into grits made all the difference in the world. I think of him every time I see my children doing the same thing…because they’ve grown up seeing me do it that way, because I grew up watching him.
I want to remember his lectures on “not everyone will like you” because he knew I was a pleaser, and that my heart would easily bruise, and it was his way of toughening me up.
I’m thankful for the commitment he kept to Mama following her death, giving up Sunday golf to take us to church.
I want to remember his terrible haircut and lack of fashion sense. The way he wore short sleeved polos in the coldest of winter, and always, always had a Bic four-color pen in his pocket because that was a necessary tool in completing a crossword puzzle.
I want to remember the way he HAD to have his ice cubes rinsed so they wouldn’t stick together before pouring a Coke…that as he got older he began to overprotect the way a young father does his toddler, worrying about me driving in the rain, or picking up our mail from the mailbox while the car was in drive not park, and that pointed tip knives are much more dangerous than round tip ones.
I can see you bouncing on one foot to drain water from your ear after swimming. I think it was him who who cultivated my love for the beach, he took us every summer I can remember.
It’s Daddy whose DNA I’m certain I share when I refuse to make plans in advance, and it’s totally genetic that I’m a “messy” and not a neat freak…he loved Big Red chewing gum, Hershey’s miniatures, peanut butter Ritz Crackers and pistachios
…and every night when we were little, he kissed us goodnight and said our prayers.
And so, I remember….