As Summer now submits to Autumn, I’m catching myself feeling both melancholy and anxious in the midst of the year of the “firsts” without Dad. Undoubtedly, it will be on the minds of all the family, increasingly, through its conclusion after the holidays.
Summer was always Dad’s favorite season, regardless how hot, muggy and buggy it might get in Missouri. As far as he was concerned, bring on the longer days and shorter nights, the early sunrises and the late sun that was still up when they went to bed.
If ever there was a rare spare moment in their busy post-retirement schedule, you could usually find him in the yard or garden: mowing, cutting, chopping, digging, raking, pulling, trimming, harvesting…and sometimes, napping inside the shade of the barn, both doors open to encourage the heavy breezes lumbering by, laden with the intoxicating aroma of freshly-cut grass from his or a neighboring farm, serenaded by the Killdeer, Red-Winged Blackbirds, Martins, Mockingbirds, grasshoppers, crickets, frogs, locusts and cicadas (et al) engaged in the cacophony of their sizzling Summer Symphony.
And so it was, in so many ways, quite fitting (in retrospect), that it was around the last days of his favorite season last year that he would unexpectedly learn that it would likely be his last Summer. After several weeks of experiencing an increasing discomfort while eating, his doctors would determine that he was at Stage IV of a fast-growing cancer that had begun in his esophagus and was advancing. The doctor speculated that left untreated, he might have 4 months; with treatment, possibly a year, maybe a little more.
He and Ann (his wife of 45 years), having voluntarily served as caretakers to dying family and friends over the years, and Dad knowing his own strong dislike of prolonged discomfort and hospital stays chose to let it take its course, going more for quality rather than quantity of remaining days. They struggled for a couple of days to find the right words and the right time and the right way to inform the immediate family (all 5 of us). For we two sons (aka “the boys”), it came in the form of a brief, matter-of-fact note — Bill’s was left for him on their kitchen counter one afternoon he came by to help with some chore, and mine came via an email with the subject, “A Turn of Events” (a phrase that became the shorthand for referring to his imminent circumstance).
Dad had survived two heart attacks, quadruple bypass surgery, vertebrae fusion and heat stroke (among other things) over the preceding 30-or-so years (not to mention two sons for over 50 years). Except for the scoliosis and bone deterioration making it difficult (and painful) for him to be as active outside as he would have liked, he would never be heard to complain nor ever withdraw from any family or social activity or obligation despite whatever physical discomfort he might experience. Not surprisingly, this “turn of events” wouldn’t change his attitude, good-naturedness, positive demeanor, or even his sense of humor, either.
“Well, everybody dies,” he would say. “In a way, it’s a relief knowing that it’s coming.”
The Summer of 2014 had gotten off to a really great start: I was in Missouri for an extended visit that included Fathers Day, Independence Day and Bill’s birthday — all very special occasions in their own right — but extra-special in that it was the first (and now only) time since moving to California (in 1981) that I had been with Dad for Fathers Day. The 4th of July was extra-special in that all seven of us were together for the traditional pork steak BBQ and homemade ice cream, the latter of which Dad proclaimed to be the absolute best homemade 4th of July ice cream he’d ever had in all his 80 years. Bill’s birthday was extra-special because it was his big 5-0 (whoa, he’s my younger brother) half-century day. Now, of course, everything we got to do together last year is extra-extra-special.
As the year moves to a close, the new memories we all made together last year draw themselves forth. I feel compelled to write about them — already it seems to have helped ease some of “the process” — recounting them is not out of sadness, but as a continuation of the joyful celebration of and gratitude for our Dad, who taught with his example to be in awe, fascination and wonder of the world all around us.