As Father’s Day approaches, my thoughts naturally turn to my Dad more often than usual. The other day, I purposefully kept my eyes from looking at the Father’s Day cards written for Dad as I perused the cards and made my choice. Even now, over three years since his death, looking at those cards for Dads will certainly bring the tears. I’m sure that Mary Beth and Bob, John and Jeanie, Jan and Bob, and Kathryn and Jimmy feel the same as Gary and I do. We have so much to be thankful for………..many good years spent with such a kind and dear man rather than only a few, as is the case with so many others. Yet I know that no matter how long he would have lived, the missing would never be any easier. He was just that kind of man.
I think that perhaps the attribute of our Dad that made him the dearest was his selflessness. This trait was evident in the way that he could laugh at himself and allow us to laugh with him………..or laugh at him, too……….without any hint of pride at all. He also took time to talk to people and to really listen without seeming hurried or disinterested in what was being shared. He looked for ways to reach out to others with a helping hand, a few dollars, a wise word of advice, a ride somewhere, a visit, a shared laugh………….always with kindness. He wasn’t out to promote himself or protect his time. He was all about others and about family.
I saw the greatest demonstration of his selflessness many times during the month that I spent with him and Mom before he died. I’ve heard it said that the way a person handles his impending death is a real evidence of the person they truly are. I can vouch for this statement when I think of Dad. He was polite, and humorous, and gentle, and thankful even as he daily faced pain and uncertainty and the knowledge that he was leaving Mom. I learned a lot from him during that emotional month.
Dad was very modest………very, very modest. During our childhood, we never saw him without a shirt on. Even when he mowed the yard on a hot summer day, he wore a shirt. If we happened to see him shaving in his bathroom with the door open, he was wearing a tee shirt. And never, ever did we see him in a pair of shorts. That would have been very out of character for him. We didn’t think anything about it…………we just accepted this aspect of Dad’s character and loved him for it.
All of us kids hoped that Dad would still be able to preserve his modesty during his final weeks of fighting cancer. None of us wanted to see him have to face that loss…….that humiliation. It weighed on my mind as I flew home to be with him and Mom before he died. I was there to help, to minister to them both. We children were all doing what we could, but now as he declined rapidly I dreaded what may be ahead. He was getting so weak, I learned, that Mom had to swing his legs up into bed at night as he sat on the edge of the bed. This was very difficult for her, physically. On my first night there, as I listened in the other room, Mom told Dad that he should let me come in and help him into bed. He surprised me by saying, “I will not!” But I could understand. He wasn’t being difficult. It was simply that his modesty and privacy was hard to relinquish.
It was only a matter of days after I arrived that he was allowing me to assist with getting him into bed. He had pajamas on but it was still hard for him. Yet we both laughed and said funny things and as always, he was able to handle the situation with humor and sweetness. Soon his health declined enough that Hospice brought in a portable toilet that sat in his room. Dad was determined to be up and about in his wheelchair every day as much as possible, but the bathroom was impossible. Mom was handling all these details herself, of course, as I waited in the living room.
One day, after a particularly trying time for Mom both physically and emotionally, Dad called me to his bed. He said, “I don’t want your Mom to ever have to do that again.” He told me that he wanted Amy, his precious Hospice nurse, to train Jan and me on how to care for his personal needs.
Jan and I were both dreading this moment, more for him than for us. We knew how hard this decision was for him. Yet he came to this point not for his own welfare, but for Mom’s. He was so worried about her health and her emotions that he was willing to give up his own feelings in order to care for her. Jan and I both talked to Dad, asking him if he was very sure – and he confirmed that he was. When Amy came to the house the next time, she briefly showed us what to do – yet was able to do it in such a way as to preserve his dignity, which was a real blessing. The entire time that we helped with his toilet needs, we were able to do so with respect and with little invasion of his privacy. Still, it was a monumental change for him and for us.
Soon after we began this new phase of his care, I had positioned him back into his wheelchair when I looked down and saw that he was crying. It upset me and I quickly knelt down by his side, feeling that he must be embarrassed at what he was forced to do. “Dad, what’s wrong?” I asked. He then told me, in his weak and slow voice, that he was sorry. Sorry? “Dad, what are you sorry for?” And he answered, “I’m sorry that you and Jan have to do this.”
The reality of what he meant hit me with such force that I could hardly speak. Dad wasn’t crying for himself or for his own humiliation. He was crying because he felt like he had made Jan and I be a part of something that we should, in his opinion, never have had to do. He was thinking of us, not of himself. He was apologizing for what he felt he had caused for us – embarrassment at having to take care of our father’s personal needs. I hugged him and assured him that we were privileged to be allowed to care for him. And I told him that I didn’t want him to ever feel that way again.
This picture of Dad’s selflessness will stay with me forever. If anyone had a right to feel sorry for himself and to cry over his own situation, my dying Dad sure did. Yet he still thought of others, of us, as he did until the day he died. He was still teaching us by his actions how a man of God should live………..and how a man of God should die. Thank you, Dad.