The months in between his birthdays saw the gradual decline of Dad's health. Walks got shorter and were aided by a cane and then a walker. Finally they stopped all together. Pain increased as the cancer overtook his body. But he never let it get to him. Every time someone would come by and ask how he was he would say good. I think it's because he knew where he was heading. One of the last things Dad said to me was, 'Before I was dying and the cancer got real bad, I decided to hand everything over to God. And that's worked really well for me. I never did get my big miracle, but I got little miracles every day along the way.' If I take one thing away from Dad's life, I want it to be this. An unwavering faith and the knowledge that burdens are a whole lot lighter when you let God carry them.
These months also showed me a new side of Mom and a strength I didn't know she had. As Dad got weaker, she got stronger. She was determined to give him his final wish of being able to die at home. And she did it. Love looks a lot different in the final stages of life than in the honeymoon phase. Holding a cup with a straw in it so Dad could have a swallow of water. Begging him to have just one sip. Injecting morphine into a port in his belly every couple hours so the pain stayed at bay. Holding his hand and singing him to sleep when he was too scared to face the night alone. And finally, holding his hand as he took his final breath and passed away. Now that is true love.
I want to share a few of my favorite memories of Dad now. Some are new and some I have written about before. You'll have to bear with me. Some days I still can't believe he's really gone. But here goes:
One of my favourite memories of my Dad growing up was him making waffles. These were no Eggo in the toaster kind of waffles. This was a whole morning experience. Egg whites were mixed separately and folded into batter, this bowl was added to that, oil was brushed onto the waffle iron. He took it very seriously, and the result showed. I think the amount of dishes generated drove Mom nuts, but that's a different story.
The waffle experience actually started long before the first egg was cracked. It started in the living room at the record player. We had one of those big console record players that was an entire piece of furniture unto itself. You could take a whole stack of records and put them all on and they would just fall into place one after another. Kind of the precursor to a CD changer I guess. The record selection never varied that much from time to time - there were some alternates, but there were a few constants as well. Johnny Horton was one. Dad would always sing along, '..and when we touched the powder off the gater lost his mind...' and then he would chuckle. Johnny Cash was also there. And Waylon Jennings, Kenny Rogers, Petula Clark, Jeannie C. Ryley. I'm sure I'm forgetting some, but those were some of the staples. I hope someday my kids remember the music I play.
Then came the actual waffles. We ate them a little differently too. We put ice cream and warm butterscotch pudding on them. They were/are awesome. The entire morning's work was devoured in about 5 minutes, but it was worth it. Looking back, the morning's work was where the memories were made.
He was always there for us. We all played hockey, and when it was -30 outside, the temperature in some of those small town rinks was the same. I remember coming off the ice almost in tears because my toes were so frozen. He would take my skates off, blow in them, and put my feet in his armpits as he crouched down in front of me. That was the warmest spot for cold feet, he said.
He had a couple of pieces of advice too. One was, "Don't ever start a fight, but if you get into one, make sure you finish it." I guess being a good Mennonite, I took the first part of that to heart pretty well, because I never have been in a fight. Another was, "When you are at someone else's house, you eat what's on the table." I've done a pretty good job of this over the years as well. There was one time I remember I couldn't do it. Dad used to do some custom bailing for some old bachelor farmers and I would help sometimes and occasionally we went in for a meal. One day we went in and there were two large pieces of tomato on my plate. (I HATE tomatoes.) I looked at the plate with terror in my eyes. I gave it a real effort. I made it through the first chunk with a lot of whatever there was to drink and stuffing some other food in my mouth at the same time. Eventually I couldn't take it anymore. I gagged a little bit. I didn't think I was going to make it. It was at that point a fork came over, stabbed the remaining culprit on my plate and it disappeared into Dad's mouth. You wouldn't believe the relief that came over me.
He used to recite random song lyrics at times too, and then chuckle. I never knew the songs, but as I've gotten older, I think I've identified them all. He used to say, "I drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry." I didn't know what a levee was or what song it was from, but it always made him laugh when he said it. Imagine my surprise the first time I heard American Pie. Another was, "I Got Stripes - Stripes Around My Shoulders, I Got Chains - Chains Around My Feet." Again, I had no idea that was Johnny Cash until much later in my life. I find myself singing song lyrics from my youth to the kids too. I hope that before they think I'm weird, they get some good memories out of it.
His work ethic always amazed me too. From the barn to the field to the bush, he always led by example. Growing up in the city, my kids will never have to experience the same kind of work I had to, but I hope I can still instill the same values in them. Always give it your all. If a job is worth doing, it is worth doing right. Finish what you start. We spent a lot of hours together in the barn and cutting wood to burn in the wood stove. I'd be lying if I said I enjoyed every minute of it at the time, but looking back, they were good times. I also learned that certain language that was not acceptable in the house, was okay in the barn.
One of Dad's favourite ways to escape is to fish. He used to get away once a year with my uncle and some friends. I remember the first year I was old enough to come along. We were in the boat and I went to cast. The whole rod, reel and line came right out of my hand and went straight into the lake. I was surprised how fast a fishing rod sinks. I was devastated, but Dad just looked at me, smiled and said, "Don't worry about it. We're fishing." That was one place to just forget about everything and relax. I got the chance to fish with him and my brother one weekend a few summers ago. We didn't have a boat and we didn't catch anything, but it didn't matter. We were fishing.
One evening, the girls and I were doing the dishes. They wanted to listen to music while we were doing it, so we all took turns picking music. I wasn’t a big fan of what they were listening to, but I let them play it anyway. I remember coming home from school and watching Video Hits every day and Dad would play solitaire and listen too. I can only imagine what he thought of most of the music. But he let us watch. We never started chores until it was over. There was only the one time he couldn’t take it. That’s when the infamous ‘This is sick!’ came out and he turned off the TV. I still know which video it was too. Then there were all the Friday evenings of Good Rockin’ Tonight. Dad sat through all of those with me too, occasionally thowing in a ‘this is sick’ and chuckling. But he played plenty of his own music too, and for that I am grateful.
The last few summers, the girls all loved to pick raspberries with Papa. I hope this is a memory they will hold onto for their whole lives. Littlest referred to mom and dad as the raspberry nanny and papa. Dad got out to pick with the girls one last time this year and when he couldn't make it out, they brought some in for him.
Now when I want to feel near to Dad, I put his music on. I've got most of his favourites on my phone (that's the amazing thing about Apple music now). I put my headphones on, take the dog for a walk and get lost in the songs. I may be in Luckenbach, Harper Valley or Alaska when it's forty below. Some times I chuckle. Most times I cry. But that's ok. I miss you Dad. But I'll see you again. Later.