Making Hay While the Sun Shines

CanyonlandsLiving half a world away from ageing parents, I’d spent most of my adult life steeling myself for the day that they would precede me in death. Even so, it was a jolt when the message came on a quiet Sunday morning in September:

Dad had a stroke at about 8 pm tonight affecting his right side. He is being flown down to [a regional hospital] soon to see if the clot can be removed. He will open his eyes and move his left arm a bit, but doesn’t respond otherwise.

With nothing to be done on my end, I tried to be sanguine while waiting for updates and got ready for church. There I cornered a retired brain surgeon in the hall and asked him how these things usually go. “It doesn’t sound good,” he said, then asked: “How is your relationship with your father?”

Thankfully, good. Ever since I moved around the world, and especially since my mother died three years ago, I was determined to

Mont

Walking by the garage of his youth

make hay while the sun shone. In 2015, for example, we took a family history road trip  to channel our shared grief over losing mom. I thought it would be good for him remember the good times and I wanted to learn more about the olden days. So we spent a week or so visiting the stations of their lives while he was still up and at ’em. Driving 1700 miles through California, Nevada and Utah, we had plenty of time to talk, our most sustained period of conversation ever. Growing up, he would usually come home from work, read the paper, have dinner and then head back out to fulfil one or another of his callings; there wasn’t time to talk, plus he had a raft of kids who competed for his time and attention. Once, when I was a young adolescent, dad decided to turn over a new leaf and have a one-on-one talk with each of us on Sunday afternoons. At the time I felt pretty awkward—just sitting down to talk wasn’t something one did with dad—and it didn’t last long. But now we had hours each day for over a week to do nothing else, and it was a rewarding time.

1947 Chevy

Somewhere in Nevada with the ’47 Chevy

Dad was born in northeastern Nevada during the Great Depression, which by his reckoning lasted until well into the 1950s when he went to college in Reno and met my mother. I learned on our road trip that he had turned down an offer to work in the Los Angeles area for a job in the Californian high desert, a region nearly as rural as anything Nevada had to offer. This had come as quite the blow when I first learned of it—”What?! You mean we could have grown up in the city?” But in retrospect, I’m glad I grew up in the wide open spaces at the end of an unpaved road, so far off the beaten path that not even the mailman would come out there (we had a post office box).

Once the kids started to proliferate, dad had moved us out into an unincorporated part of the county so the kids could grow up on a “farm.” It wasn’t actually a farm, but we had a big garden in

A and A

Homesteading in the desert

keeping with the contemporary Mormon emphasis on self-reliance and preparedness as well as a cow, goats, pigs and chickens. One of the challenges of being a Mormon out in the sticks was the trip to church. The building, which dad helped build, was about ten miles away and seminary was strictly an early morning affair. Until I was old enough to drive myself, dad got up with us at 5:00 a.m. and drove me and my brother to church so we could attend seminary at 6:00 a.m. Since the junior high and high schools were located on a Navy base, and you needed a pass to enter and we couldn’t ride the bus since we didn’t live in town, he would wait in the parking lot until 6:45 or so and drop us off at school. Greater love hath no man!

Dad almost always wore a white shirt—to the office, to church and to work on the car. When I was about ten, dad noticed that I was acting kind of weird, always sitting on the edge of the pew at church (I didn’t want to flatten the crease on my pants) and overly concerned about being clean. One afternoon he pulled me aside and talked to me about how dirty his shirts got in the course of eating lunch, putting ink pens in his pocket without a pocket protector, and so on. I’d never noticed. Exactly, he said. It was a turning point in my life; these days—thanks to non-iron shirts!—I wear the same shirt for days at a time to an office where the business suit is the costume de rigueur and don’t give a hoot what anyone thinks (I’m pretty sure they don’t notice either).

Dad spent his career developing weapons systems for various Navy aircraft, so last time we were home a couple of my brothers and I dragged dad down to the Planes of Fame museum in Chino, CA. Although his mobility was

Tail

A plane that once flew at the base where dad spent his career

becoming increasingly limited due to a degenerative neurological disorder, he still
managed to climb inside a World War II B-17 bomber and tell us about the importance of guns in the jet age. We wandered around the rest of the museum and even saw a couple of aircraft that had spent their better days at the same base where he had worked. It was so much fun that we decided to visit the USS Iowa in Long Beach and the USS Midway in San Diego in 2018. In fact, the last time I talked with my dad he said “Yes, I still have my sea legs for ships that are tied up to the dock” in response to the news that we had booked our flight and were still planning on taking him on a tour of the boats.

Those plans had been overtaken by events. The next update from my brother read:

There is no treatment except rehabilitation. In the morning he will be evaluated by everyone to start the rehab process.

Following the evaluation, it turned out that there wasn’t going to be any meaningful rehabilitation either. The clot in a cranial artery was still there and had shut off the flow of blood to the left side of his brain. Dad could move his head and left arm and that was about it; movement in his left leg wasn’t purposeful. He couldn’t swallow, speak or move the right side of his body. I was grateful that I’d had the opportunity to tell him I thought he’d done a good job as a dad and had spent what time we had making happy memories.

Since dad had already decided against life support, without which he wouldn’t live more than a few days, I booked a flight the next day and arrived at the hospital just as a couple of case workers were sitting down with the rest of my siblings to discuss the options.

We hadn’t all been in the same place together since mom’s funeral several years ago, so it was a bittersweet reunion. In contrast to the starkly diverging views regarding my mother’s care (to be fair, the situation was a very different one), everyone agreed that bringing dad back home and placing him into hospice care was the best course of action. The case worker proved to be worth her weight in gold, making the necessary arrangements for a smooth transition from the hospital’s care, including speaking the magic words to find transportation after we had called all the numbers on the list and not found any takers for a variety of reasons—distance, liability, etc.

With my dad’s future sealed, I was finally able to see him. I like to think he heard my voice

Hand

Dad’s last day at home

and recognized me as I walked in; at least he raised the only hand he could. Dad had never been the outwardly affectionate type, so it felt a little awkward at first to hold his hand, but I quickly settled into the new routine. The room was full of people. It reminded me of the last time I had been home when he had taken about thirty of his kids, grandchildren and great-grandchildren out to eat at his favourite restaurant. It was a fairly rambunctious affair and I told him: “Dad, you’re responsible for all of this, you know.” “Yeah, I know,” he replied, and I could tell he loved every second of it. Eventually the ambulance crew arrived, he was discharged and everyone who’d been at the hospital convoyed back to the old homestead.

The house where I grew up was a hive of activity when I arrived. Relatives who lived closer to home had scurried around to get the place ready for a hospital bed, a hospice nurse was there to see if my dad qualified for admittance, prescriptions had to be filled and a host of helping hands schooled in how to keep a dying man comfortable during his last days.

Amid the hustle and bustle, I saw my dad turn his head to the left, the only direction he could, to the wall where a portrait of my mother hung. I don’t know if he could see it—he wasn’t wearing his glasses—but I went and got the photo down and brought it over to him. To my surprise, he reached out and held it under his own steam for 20–30 seconds, looking at his wife of 57 years with both eyes open. For less than a minute, dad was back among us, and for that fleeting moment alone I will be grateful that I made the trip back home to see him before he died.

On dad’s last night, the bishop came by to offer what comfort he could and thank my dad for his years of faithful service. Despite (because of?) an unwavering testimony of the gospel and an uncommon dedication to implementing the program of the church, dad was never preachy, always content to let his example speak for itself. As I mentioned here, I am deeply grateful that my parents gave me the space to serve a mission on my own time, for example, and did not otherwise micromanage or second guess important life events, even when they deviated from his own example.

Dad’s final hours weren’t pleasant. He was in obvious pain and, unable to swallow, his breathing was a belabored rattling as fluid entered his trachea, interrupted only by fits of coughing. But at least he was home, surrounded by family. I resisted my inclination to turn away in the presence of great suffering and took my turn holding his hand, turning him and administering comfort. I think it was the closest I’ve come to measuring up to the spirit of Mosiah 18:9:

Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death

Death came early in the morning of his second day at home. I was standing on the front porch with my brothers as the mortuary staff wheeled dad into the van.

We had a family tradition where mom and dad would stand on the front porch and wave goodbye while those who were departing would wave back and honk twice as they drove away. In passing, I mentioned to one of my brothers that wouldn’t it be fitting if the mortuary staff would honk twice while we waved? “Good idea,” he replied. So I went back into the house to get my sisters. A few minutes later, as dad set off in the van toward the rising sun, we all waved from the front porch and, sure enough, two honks sounded.

It turned out that no one had asked the employee to honk; he had overheard our conversation and did so on his own initiative. This thoughtfulness and many other acts kindness that week helped blunt the loss of a parent. But what sustains me the most are the many opportunities dad and I had to love each other before death parted our ways. This, I believe, is how we prepare for that endless state spoken of by Alma, by making the most of the great commandment in the here and now:

Love is the beginning, the middle, and the end of the pathway of discipleship. It comforts, counsels, cures, and consoles. It leads us through valleys of darkness and through the veil of death. In the end love leads us to the glory and grandeur of eternal life.  – Elder Wirthlin

Comments

  1. Peter, I am moved to tears by this tribute to your father and the remembrance of where love’s path has taken you. My father has filled the role as caretaker to my mother, who is suffering from compounding, debilitating conditions. In the midst of my own exhaustion, we visited them last night. I asked when I could sit with mom a few hours so he could go do something, and he looked sad, and closed his eyes, and sang “Couldn’t bear it without you, Don’t get around much anymore”.
    Love is such a hard path, but never before has it felt so pure to walk in it. To wash and dress, to sing old songs together, to do the unspeakable chores the body requires–these are the terrible, beautiful things.

  2. This is beautiful. Thank you for sharing this with us.

  3. Beautiful. And makes me so aware that I need to try harder to get back home to my aging parents on a more regular basis. I am so sorry for your loss.

  4. Thank you for this. Your dad sounds like a great man. It is good that you were able to be there with him, and for him.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    A gorgeous tribute; thank you.

  6. Beautiful. Thank you.

  7. J. Stapley says:

    God bless you, Peter. And thank you.

  8. I needed this so much today. You can’t see my tears. That is okay. The message you shared has been one I have been trying to incorporate into my life over the past decades. To read it so beautifully written and lived by you re-inspires me to keep trying. It reminds me not to let bitterness of our imperfect life callous my heart.

    Thank you for all the beauty this presents.

  9. I love this. Thanks for sharing such an intimate moment. See you soon I hope. Hugs. 🍪👑

  10. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    Peter, by any chance was your dad one of the old folks from Ridgecrest who would come down to the Los Angeles Temple to work for one week a month, living in the patron apartments? I knew a couple folks who did that when I was a baptizer and veil worker there in the mid-’00s. (I lived a few exits down the 405 from the Temple and would joke about making my long, arduous journey back to the harsh, bleak landscape of Mar Vista.)

    This was a wonderful story. Thank you.

  11. Paul Ritchey says:

    Thank you, Peter, for the touching reminder that there are really only a few very important things, and this among them. Your love for your father clearly lends you grace in a painful time, and I can think of nothing more to wish you in your loss.

  12. Thank you all for your kind comments.

    Heptaparaparshinokh, indeed, the very same! Serving in the temple was one of his favorite things to do up to the end.

  13. Amazing. Thank you.

  14. Peter, this is beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing it. I love the part about your mother’s photograph.

  15. Such a beautiful piece. Thank you for being vulnerable and sharing here. I think I’m going to go call my parents.

  16. I’m so grateful for the chance to spend some time with my dad and hold his hand as he passed away. Thanks for this beautiful piece, Peter. A gift to your family and to the rest of us.

  17. Now I’m in tears writing this. I was finally able to make the connection today to what family you are from. When I moved into the IWV 16+ years ago your dad was the first Bishop to pick up the phone as I was calling local leaders to see if I could leave the moving truck in the meeting house parking lot overnight as I tried to find a place to live. I ended up finding a place in 2nd ward, but that first Sunday at church he made sure that he found me and introduced himself to me.

  18. You all know how to write. But when you write like this, it leaves a mark. Thank you for sharing.

  19. iAlex, thanks for sharing that.

  20. Thank you, Peter, for this lovely remembrance.

  21. The greatest generation. He was everything LDS.

  22. So sorry for your loss. This is a beautiful tribute to your dad.

  23. This is beautiful, Peter. Thanks so much for sharing it.

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