My father died last week.
He had been doing well, or as well as 97-year-old widower with memory issues could do. When friends asked me if he was happy, I usually said, “He seems content.” Happy seemed like a big ask.
We saw him Saturday when we stopped in to explain that we wouldn't be having our regular Sunday dinner because I had to go to a three-day conference in the Twin Cities. As had become usual in the past few years, when he saw me, his face lit up.
“Boy, it's just great, us running into each other today,” he said. Since we were sitting in his room, it wasn't a huge coincidence, but it was rewarding to see him so pleased. I tried to see him three or four times a week, because I'd come to realize that with the passage of time and the deaths of so many people, there were things he wanted to talk about, and I was the only person on earth who knew all the relative background.
Something I've been thinking about this past week is that it went both ways. After living in close proximity for sixty-seven years and spending half a century working together to make a living, I keep an avalanche of memories with him as the only witness. My mom went back to college to get her teaching degree when I was quite small. I suppose some form of day care existed in the early 1960s in Big Stone County, but I'm sure it was considerably cheaper to have me tag along with him while my two older sisters lived their teenage lives. As a result, I spent a lot of time in auction barns and milking parlors, being almost-but-not-quite in the way enough to park somewhere else.
A story I liked to tell often, because he was both proud and embarrassed to hear it, involved me wandering past a group of teenagers during a town team baseball game just when my father came up to bat and hit a ball over the bus garage. “I've never seen anyone hit a ball that far,” one of the kids said. I flushed with pride hearing that, and he blushed every time I told it. He never told me not to tell it.
Dad came home from the war and went off to college. He had an intuitive grasp of math and design and probably should have been an engineer, but his father needed him on the farm, so he came home to help. His skills didn't go completely to waste. One of my earliest memories is watching the flickering light of the welder in his shop as he worked into the night repairing some piece of worn-out equipment to get through another day. After he died, I found a folder of photos he took of various bits of equipment he designed and built. He was proud that several times farm magazines published his creations.
It took me a long time to realize that my father was just a little different than many others, that many of the men in our community did not have a house full of books, were not so relentlessly, painfully honest, were not quite as supportive of their wives having careers and opinions. During the public kerfuffle when candidate for president Donald Trump was caught on tape saying appalling things about women, a common defense was, “That’s just how men talk.” Someone said that to my oldest daughter, and she replied with indignation and complete confidence, “Not the men in my family.”
Honest, honorable, and courteous does not mean easy. I used to say he didn’t have ulcers, but he was a carrier. That’s not quite accurate, it’s just that he was so driven and unsparing of himself, he would forget how hard it could be to be in his orbit, and the more he loved you, the harder he was on you. Dad was convinced every problem had a solution, even if the solution was simply to work harder.
This week I talked to a friend who’d been a pastor here a few decades ago. He told me, “I still remember your dad’s phone number – 325-5312. It was my go-to number if I had a problem.” He wasn’t the only one.
When the staff found him on the floor of his room, a scan found a blood clot. I was two hundred miles away, but my understanding is that the doctor explained to him he could live a diminished life as many stroke victims do, or he could be given a drug that would dissolve the clot but ran the risk of causing a fatal brain bleed, and the decision was his. The past decade has gradually but steadily chipped away at his independence, until almost every decision in his life was made by others. That at the very end, when it really mattered, he was able to choose his own road makes me weep.
By the time I reached the hospital, Dad was unresponsive. The doctor explained what had happened and thought he would probably die within a couple of hours. He was moved to hospice, and I spent the next twenty-four hours watching him breathe, until he didn’t.
Whenever he came out to Sunday dinner, or just for a ride, it was kind of a project. I’d help him walk to the car, lift in one leg at a time, buckle his seatbelt – and every time he’d say, “I’m really a pain in the butt.”
Twenty hours into my vigil, after they said he had two hours to live I had a moment of pleasure when I looked at him and thought if he could talk, he’d say, “A pain in the butt, right to the end.”
I miss him so much.
Photo Credit: Dean Riggott
Copyright 2023 Brent Olson