After a full life spanning 90 years, my father recently passed. We were very close and it was difficult letting him go. At his funeral service, I asked John Hairston to deliver my remarks as I knew I would be unable to maintain the necessary composure. He did a splendid job.
In my first book, The Keys, there’s a scene in which the main character is haunted by dreams of an incident that happened when he was a small child. His drunken father threw a can of condensed milk striking his mother in the head while he stood trembling on the blood covered kitchen floor. Unfortunately, that was not fiction. It happened to my father when he was a small child.
Though raised in a home where this type of physical abuse was common, he rose above it when he finally had his own family. My father worked hard to be the type of father that he wished he’d had and to give me the childhood he would have wanted.
He was a good father. He was a giving father. He was a good man. He was a proud man. One who didn’t ask anything from anyone save the love of his family.
He suffered from a severe case of stomach ulcers but never let that deter him from chauffeuring me about in those early teenage years before I could drive or from working long hard hours to provide the type of life he felt his family deserved.
As a high school aged teenager, I always sought to avoid buying gas with my meager funds. The result was that on numerous occasions I would be headed home from a date and would run out of gas. My dad never complained about the late-night rescue calls. He would always come bearing a can of gas never chastising me for my foolishness.
My parents had lived in Key West during the final two years of his Navy service after the end of WW II. He truly loved it there. In turn, I fell in love with the Keys the first time I visited with my parents while I was still in graduate school at the University of Miami. On one of my many trips, I bought a fishing style shirt embroidered with Key West and a billfish over the logo.
A few months later, my father and mother were down in Florida camping in their beloved Airstream trailer. I happened to be down there driving back from a business trip and we met for lunch. He commented on how much he liked my shirt. So after lunch, I snuck out, changed shirts, and left it for him in his trailer. He loved it and would tell the story of how his son have him the shirt off of his back. He also said that he wished to be buried in it.
I noticed that while he wore it several times, eventually it disappeared. I later learned that he was saving it for that day.
My dad with his granddaughter Brittany
My dad was a patriot. He believed in this country and risked his life to defend our Constitution and freedom. Like the Constitution, the 10 Commandments were sacred—not open for negotiation. They represented beliefs that you stood for and if need be you defended with your life.
My dad believed in the classic ideal of a man. A man was someone who stood strong. He was someone who put the interests of innocent women and children above his own. My dad was a man. My dad was John Wayne tough.
When he was well into his 80s, he resisted using a cane and refused a walker. “Those are for old people,” he said.
My dad never saw himself as old until one of his many trips to the hospital in his final years. He was waiting in the emergency room when he overheard the medic refer to “that old man” lying on the gurney. Later he mentioned this to me.
“I’m old, aren’t I?” he said but never truly accepted that fact.
He wasn’t perfect. None of us are. But he tried to live his life as a Christian and help others.
He loved God and was generous in his giving to the church his entire life. On numerous occasions, he would do random acts of kindness like slipping a few dollars to the single mother in front of him in the grocery store line who seemed unable to pay for all of her items on the counter.
He always wanted to do something special for me on my birthday. Of course, like all of us, as I got older there was really very little that I really wanted or needed. But on my birthday last year, in response to his constant questioning as to what he could do for me, I suggested that we take a couple of days and go stay in a condo on the beach in Panama City. Of course, he insisted that he pay and I let him.
It wouldn’t be much, just a simple long weekend trip. But he was thrilled and so was I.
We had a great drive over. We went to his favorite oyster bar for dinner and ate a couple of dozen.
But that night, he began to have problems breathing. Though he refused to go to the hospital, the next morning I convinced him to go to a local clinic. They immediately sent him to the emergency room where he stayed in the hospital for the next five days.
Though he had fluid on his lungs and was quite sick, his main concern was that he had spoiled our birthday get-away. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was the beginning of the end for him.
I wish we could have had one more trip with him in good health but it would be our last road trip together.
During his final weeks in the hospital, it was a roller coaster ride of hope. One day they would tell me that he could recover and have a little more quality life. The next, they were having an “end of life” conversation with me when he took a turn for the worse.
He fought so very hard. There was no quit in him. But when he got pneumonia for the third time, his breathing became labored forcing him to go back on the ventilator, and I knew the end was nearing.
The next day, the doctor made it official when she said that his organs were shutting down. I went to his bedside and looked down at him where he lay with the breathing mask covering his mouth and nose.
Before I could say a word, his eyes met mine in a knowing look. “I’m not going to make it am I?” he asked. I couldn’t voice the words but the tears that fell on his chest were all the answer he needed.
He gave me a little smile and said, “I’m going to miss you.”
My dad then made the decision that no one ever wants to face. But with no chance of recovering to continue with anything remotely resembling quality of life, he made the heart-breaking decision to come off the ventilator, to remove all of the tubes, and place his fate solely in God’s hands.
I can tell you that there is no pleasant way to experience the death of a loved one. But I suppose that I was lucky in that I got to tell him one last time that I loved him and he understood. Then he got to tell me one last time that he loved me and as the final tears fell from my face, I understood.
By now, I’m certain that he’s impatiently waiting in line at St. Peter’s Gate eager to join my mom for coffee.
I pray that God, will help me to come away from this to live as a better person in honor of my father’s passing. I pray that in the years before me, I can live a life that makes me worthy of all he tried to do for me and the wondrous things God has provided in my life.
I pray that my father has now found eternal peace in the arms of Jesus and my mother. He was a good man. He was a good husband. He was my father and I will always miss him. But perhaps he’s at peace now as he goes to meet God dressed in his beloved Key West shirt.