Today, is my dad’s birthday. He would have been 77 years old. He died in May of 1999. I don’t think a day goes by that I don’t remember something that he taught me-something that reminds me of him. On some days it is subtle. I can be sweeping the floor and be overcome with emotion because he taught me to be efficient even in sweeping the floor. You don’t sweep over the same spot twice-plan your sweeping. You don’t keep your wash cloth in a ball when you wash off the table-you open it up-it is more efficient. Funny-the things I think of–
He walked into my life when I was 9 years old. He had met my mom at the bar where she worked. We lived in a one bedroom apartment; my mom, my two brothers and I. We shared a bathroom with the family across the hall. I remember having the stomach flu. This new man in my mom’s life, took over care of me–mind you–in a shared bathroom. He bought me a new winter coat for my birthday. I had never had a new coat. My clothes always came from donations from the school or social workers. He took us out to eat. I had never been out to a restaurant to eat. I had to learn some manners. He patiently taught me. They married that July.
Our lives changed. We moved from that 1 bedroom, shared bath apartment, to a 4 bedroom duplex across town. I had never had my own room before. I wasn’t sure how to stay by myself. I had so many fears as a child. I cried myself to sleep many nights just because I didn’t know what to do with my fears. I had watched a scary movie one night. I cried in my upstairs bedroom because I was sure The Boston Strangler was crawling up the side of the house to climb in my window. My new dad, who I still called Bob, called me downstairs to him through the vent. I remember him cradling me in his lap until I fell asleep. I woke up in my bed-safe and sound. I started to call him Dad.
We moved to the country. I had a new baby brother by then. We had 5 acres to roam. My dad took me hunting- taught me to shoot skeet. He taught me to skin a rabbit. He taught me to make eggs-over easy. We watched Lawrence Welk and the Evening News. He taught me to love music and encouraged me to play the flute because he said I had a feel for soft and beautiful. “Only girls who don’t know poetry and voice play those loud instruments”– he once said when I wanted to play the trumpet just like him. I can still remember him playing. To this day-I have never heard someone play the trumpet like he did-explain 6/8 time-and whistle like a song.
Things were not perfect. My mom didn’t know how to be a mom-let alone a wife. They spent a lot of time going out drinking and dancing. My brothers and I spent a lot of time with friends-the wrong kind of friends. I remember hitch-hiking into the city to hang out with our friends one night. We got caught. We all sat at the kitchen table. My dad-my mom-my brother, who was 16-and me, who was 13. My dad wanted to know what had went wrong. Why would we defy him and why did we want to ruin our lives. I just wanted to stay out of trouble. I knew my dad’s weakness. He wanted our family to work. I blamed our delinquency on the fact that we never went to church. They went out all the time–remember–I just wanted to stay out of trouble. Our family life changed. We went church as a family. My dad became involved in the church’s ministries-he led the singing-he sang in the choir-he helped with the church budget. I know this was the result of prayer from his mom and dad. My grandpa was a Southern Baptist Preacher. He left the pastorate because my dad was the black sheep of the family. He was divorced-married a woman with 5 kids. My dad knew for our family to work-we needed to follow God’s plan and not his plan or my mom’s plan.
I remember a lot of family time. This was all so new to me–it took me a while to get adjusted to this togetherness thing. I grew up in foster homes and when I was with my mom-she was at work all the time.–now–we played games in the evening. I wanted to watch television-but we almost always played games-unless Lawrence Welk was on that night. We went to the bank and grocery store every Saturday. We cleaned the house on Saturday afternoons-together.
My dad could give directions like any farm boy. That is what he was. He grew up on a farm in Illinois. I used to love to hear his stories of his mom tying him up to a clothes line because he was always wandering off. He could tell you every landmark from the South side of Decatur, Illinois to Ramsey, Illinois–and every place he had ever been to. He would tell you to “turn left at the gas station on the corner of 5th and Broadway-not the Shell station-you know the one Bob Born sold last year to that Shaffer guy from Moline–the Sunoco station-right on the corner-they put up a new sign just last week-it was about time too-the other one has been there since the Boyd’s owned it back in ’57”–we learned quickly to make sure we asked dad directions an hour before we needed. Maybe that is why I still have a problem with directions.
As I became a teenager-we moved again. This time into a small town. We lived right on the edge of town. I grew into the normalcies of being a teenager. I loved my small town. My dad took me to buy my first car. He taught me to drive a stick shift-and came and got me when I got it stuck on a hill my first time driving alone. He came to every one of my plays-band concerts-and saw me perform during half-times at football and basketball games. He was always there. When I was in a rush to get out the door-off to school-or off with friends-he would always be sitting at the kitchen table. He would say-“Vonda, could you come here for a minute”–I would dutifully come back to stand beside him at the table. He would always say-“How far would you have been if I hadn’t of called you back?” I would fall for it every time. I stayed out of a lot of trouble because I did not want to disappoint my dad. He trusted me. He still taught me things everyday-“keep all your hangers facing the same direction-if there was a fire, you would want to grab them all quickly”–
I went off to college. He called every other night. He sent me money in the mail when they had no money. He had a heart attack while I was in college. He had to stop working. He sent away to become a locksmith by correspondence. He had another heart attack. I moved on with my life. My parents moved again too. They moved to the small town where my grandparents lived. My dad’s health continued to worsen. He was diagnosed with emphysema. His heart was bad. He still tried to work. He wanted to take care of his parents. His dad died-it was his heart. My dad could not continue to take care of his home. The doctors put him on oxygen. They moved back into the city-into Senior Housing. My heart broke for him. He never complained. He took care of my mom-he became the resident handyman at the apartment complex. His breathing was so bad he had to take breathing treatments 4 times a day. He could only walk about 10 steps and then he had to stop to catch his breath. His weight went down to nothing because breathing took all of his energy. I saw a strong man stay strong in spite of his physical strength waning. He made it to my wedding-walking me down the aisle with his oxygen tank in tow.
I got a call one day. My dad was in the hospital again. He wanted to talk to me. He said-“Vonda, I just can’t do it anymore–they are putting me in a nursing home–your mom too–she can’t take care of herself and I won’t be there.” I was devastated. I knew a nursing home was a place people go to die. I wanted him to come and live with me. The doctors said no. He needed constant care. He was malnourished-dehydrated-he needed to be on a machine that would cleanse his blood from the CO2 buildup. He would be in and out of the hospital 6 times to get his blood cleansed. He called me one last time. “Vonda-can you come?”
When I walked into the hospital room-the first thing he said was, “Vonda, I can’t do this anymore. I don’t want them to put this machine on me anymore. I am tired. I want to go to heaven.” I understood. I looked at my mom. She just told him–“whatever you want, hun.” The doctor came in about this time. I didn’t understand what this machine was doing and what his prognosis was. I told the doctor that my dad was tired. He doesn’t want to fight anymore. The doctor told us that he would continue to worsen. He would need this machine eventually more and more. He would never get better. This machine was keeping him alive. The doctor said once the machine was removed-he would live between 12-24 hours. I called my brothers and sisters. I called his mom. I called his only brother. That first night his brother came and spent the whole night with him. They sang-they talked about heaven and how much they longed to be there together. They reminisced about their childhood. They had a wonderful last night together. We spent the next day reading from the Psalms, letting him sleep. I remember seeing the nurses trying to get him to drink Ensure. I cried. Ensure? His last few hours and all he gets is Ensure. I can still not look at a can of Ensure. He didn’t want anything. They gave him morphine and breathing treatments. They moved us to a ‘dying room’–I gave him ice chips. His lips were so dry. I read to him–one last time he said, “Vonda, can you come here–you were the best daughter any father could ever ask for.” Then he closed his eyes. The hospice nurse came in. She said it would be a hard death. She said he would suffocate. My mom-my brother and I prayed. His breathing became very soft and even-just like when he wasn’t sick. He slept peacefully. I was so grateful. Then he stopped breathing and was in the presence of his Savior. So peaceful.
I want to always remember all the little things. I want to remember how kind and compassionate he was. I want to remember how funny he could be. I want to remember all he gave to a little girl who had nothing. He gave me a family-a home- a legacy of what a man who loves God can make of nothing. Happy Birthday-Dad.