Anyone who has known me for a while knows that I often joke that the number one cause of divorce is…marriage. At no time has it been more apparent to me than today that the number one cause of death is…life. One cannot experience the torment of divorce without getting married anymore than one can succumb to death without having lived.
Toward the end of my second grade year, and well into my third grade year, my father undertook the ambitious task of building a house for our family. With very little carpentry experience, a table saw, and a great big “How-To” book on construction, he began. We moved in nine months after the first stake was driven in the ground. Had it not been for my uncle helping him every possible hour that he could, our home might have been an unfinished project.
Shortly after we moved in, my uncle announced that he wanted to build his own house, too. He had calculated that if he built a house, lived in it a couple of years, then sold it, he could reinvest the money to build a larger house, and by the fifth house, he would own the house free and clear.
My father was born on Christmas Day in 1944. His brother was born just barely 11 months later on December 7, 1945. My grandmother used to joke that she found my father under the Christmas tree, and the next year, he found his brother. That’s about as close as two brothers can be without being twins. Anyone who knows them both will tell you they are cut from the same mold, with few exceptions.
As a teenager with no real direction, trying to absorb everything I could about the ever-changing world around me, I spent many summer days on construction sites with my uncle. He would put in a minimum of 8 hours a day, seven days a week, on his houses while working full-time on the railroad with my father. He would sign onto the “extra board” which amounted to being on call 24/7 to fill in when someone took off, or when an extra job had to be added. He could get a full week of pay, even if he only worked three shifts. Although, that rarely happened. He had a telephone installed on the utility pole at the work site so the railroad could reach him. I can remember many times that he went straight to the house after working a graveyard shift and worked all day on the house, only to be called in to work an evening shift. Though he and my father are alike in many ways, his level of determination is unmatched by anyone I have ever known. He built those five houses…and more. I lost count of how many, but if I had to guess, I’d say probably fifteen to twenty; including the houses he built for his daughters.
It was pretty common knowledge in the family that his determination grew from the lack of approval he couldn’t get from his grandfather. He turned “you’ll never do anything with your life” into “don’t tell me that I can’t do something,” and he did it with purpose and intent. I asked him once how he could possibly do what he did, day in and day out. He replied, “Work when you’re awake. Sleep when you’re tired.”
As days turned into months, and years, and decades, we grew apart. We would see each other once or twice a year for holidays, birthdays, reunions, or funerals. I never really made an extra effort to go see him, partly because I could never live up to his expectation of himself; much less his expectation of me. Funny thing is…I never knew what his expectation was. In recent years, usually after a TV appearance or interview in the newspaper, I would get a text from him that simply said, “you did good,” or “good job!”
Just about two years ago, he was diagnosed with an incurable lung disease. Not only was it sudden and unexpected, it hit him with the vigor of a category 5 hurricane on the Gulf coast. It wasn’t long before an oxygen bottle was needed to leave the house, but his pride wouldn’t allow him to use it. In October 2016, I ran into him at a McNeese tailgate party where he was in charge of the barbecue and refusing to use his oxygen bottle. We visited for nearly two hours during which he told me that he had been reading everything I’d written and was following everything I do, and that he was proud of me. I had no idea.
On May 5th, 2017, after being turned down by several hospitals, he entered St. Luke’s Hospital and underwent a double-lung transplant and heart-bypass at the age of seventy-one. His recovery was strong at first, but within a few days, he started having complications. While his new lungs were working well, his kidneys had failed. Between multiple infections and repeated medically induced comas, it seemed like each step forward was met with two steps back.
I tried my best to make the trip to Houston every other week to spend time with him. Some days we were able to visit; other days, he didn’t even know I was there. I would often arrive to find him watching old Westerns on TV, and he would always ask how my father was doing. When I left, I would tell him, “Walk when you can. Rest when you can’t.”
While I don’t put much stock in horoscopes, I do read mine daily and sometimes recognize that I might have navigated a conflict better had I paid more attention to what it said. On the morning of my last visit, my horoscope read,
“VIRGO (Aug. 23-Sept. 22): Don’t feel like you have to make a change just because someone else does. Do your own thing and trust in your ability to get things done properly. Helping someone elderly will be appreciated and result in an unexpected gift.”
When I arrived, I was blessed with the opportunity to visit with him, alone. Not that I wasn’t comfortable with others in the room, but I sensed that he wanted to talk to me alone. I know, now, that this was my gift.
I knew immediately that he was in a different state of mind. There were no Western shows, and when we weren’t directly engaged in conversation, he turned his blank stare to the wall. Again, he asked how my father was doing. I told him, “He’s fine, but he’s worried about you.” I asked him why he hadn’t been doing physical therapy. He said that he couldn’t feel his legs, and he was scared. I noticed a tear in his eye. I said, “you had no idea it was going to be this hard, did you?” He only shook his head, “No.” I asked him if he was tired, and he nodded, “Yes.”
I reassured him that having the surgery was the right thing to do and told him that the doctor said very clearly to me and his daughter that without the procedure, he had only months to go. He looked at me in disbelief. I reminded him that I had never seen him stand before a mountain that he couldn’t climb, and he could do whatever he put his mind to doing, but I knew he was already preparing to climb his mountain. When I left, I told him, ”Get some rest. I’ll be back, next week.” He smiled and wave to me. I knew that I wouldn’t be back.
The last eight months have been a difficult and tiring journey, especially for his wife, his two daughters, and their children. His death leaves a large void in their lives. For me, the visits that we’ve had during this time have been a gift and an opportunity to reconnect. Instead of a shadow of a memory, he will always be a shining light.
“Work when you’re awake. Sleep when you’re tired. “