Twice before I’ve buried men I loved – one was my best friend and one was a man I really thought I might marry. Both events were awful, soul-splitting times in my life that still hurt, years later. But, on June 15th, I attended a funeral that made those look like a skinned knee. That day, I buried the very first man I ever loved.
He was a handsome man – I always though so. Maybe he wasn’t handsome in a matinee idol kind of way, but he had a ready smile and these powdery blue eyes that sparkled. He had dark brown hair that would sometimes glint red in the sun and he wore an epic beard trimmed Just So that made him look distinguished. He smelled like forests and breath mints. He was a wonderful cook and I loved him completely. I loved him so much that I didn’t even mind that I had to share him.
After all, my sister was born five years before me and he was her daddy first.
Dad was sick last Fall and came to live with me, my sister and my “damned cats” for about six months. We got him all patched up and strong again. Although we wanted him to stay here, Daddy wanted to go home to his own house; but, we were worried. We found a lady that would come spend five hours a day with him, make sure he took his meds, ate well, hadn’t fallen and had survived the night. You see, he wanted to die at home “with his boots on.” We didn’t want him to die alone. He was 85 in February, older than anyone in his family has ever been, and he knew his body was wearing out.
In May, his helper Jennifer began to raise alerts that his health was deteriorating and that he was losing weight. My sister went over to check on him and, sure enough, things were not looking good. Dad was going downhill fast although he was still talking about going to Omaha again (he went to 2018 and 2019) to attend the College World Series if the Mississippi State University Bulldogs made it to the tournament. Dad graduated from MSU in 1959 and LOVED Mississippi State Baseball.
Dad had been with us during Thanksgiving, but because of his frailty and the pandemic, the planned extended family gathering was postponed to the summer. At the end of May, we agreed it could be postponed no longer; so, we set a date of June 12th.
On June 5th, some guy chalked up his 4th DUI by driving up my driveway, totaling my car, destroying my home air conditioning unit and spraying the property with shattered auto glass, but we were full steam ahead for Thanksgiving 2020.5! I invited friends and relatives from near and far. I got Thanksgiving themed placemats, napkins and decorations that we put on tables in my yard. And we ate ham, turkey and dressing, sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, butter beans, bacon wrapped shrimp, smoked pork, fresh garden salad, desserts by the pound, and drank soft drinks, iced tea, pina coladas, and, of course, traditional Thanksgiving margaritas. (We declared them to be traditional, anyway.) We put our feet in the wading pool and played corn hole, but mostly we just talked, visited, shared love and stories with one another about our lives and about Dad. He wasn’t strong enough to come down into the yard, but he sat on the porch where I joined him to eat lunch. He was quietly looking over the mob when I asked, “That’s a pretty good view, isn’t it?”
“It’s a wonderful view,” he responded.
Eventually, he came back into the cool house (a miracle worker had replaced my air conditioning unit the day before) where everyone rotated in and out to talk with him for a few minutes and where he could watch the Mississippi State vs Notre Dame baseball game that was on television. (Mississippi State needed to win that game and one more to make it to the College World Series.)
As I was helping him get ready for bed that night, I asked him if he had enjoyed the day. (He never liked to be the center of attention and I was anxious about him feeling overwhelmed.) He said that he had enjoyed it very much but that he had been surprised that so many people had come from such long distances. That statement crushed me. I turned to look at him and said, “Dad, why would that surprise you? You are a remarkable man who has had a tremendous, positive effect on the lives of more people that you can imagine. Of course, people came!” He looked skeptical as I tucked him in.
Sunday, we were all exhausted and slept most of the day. Monday, he refused all food and drink, but he, my sister Chele and I still all watched the last game of the Super Regional Tournament to see if Mississippi State would make it to the College World Series. We watched the game like normal, sitting on the couch, holding hands, questioning the elastic strike zone, and cheering on our Bulldogs. From time to time Chele and I would have to leave the room to collect ourselves because we knew this would be our last game with Daddy.
Outfielder Tanner Allen clinched the game for the Bulldogs with a three-run homer. I was in the kitchen at the time, but walked back in the living room to see what all the cheering was about. When I walked around the corner, I saw Dad, who could barely make a sound, with his hand in the shape of a megaphone around his mouth cheering. It was a sweet sight and one of the last sounds he made.
On Tuesday, Chele and I got him home and into his own bed where he went to sleep and did not wake up. I climbed into the bed with him, put my forehead to his and shared memories of family vacations we took, the time he took me to work with him when I was five or six, rafting trips, him playing with my young son, memories of everything.
Sometimes as people are in their last moments, they will struggle to breathe; but, Daddy didn’t. He was very peaceful. His breathing got slower and slower until it just stopped, his spirit quietly left and we all got what we wanted. He died at home with his boots on, he didn’t die alone, and the Bulldogs went to the College World Series.