I buried my father this past week. I saw him for the last time in August, when he, my mom, my sister and her husband, and my wife and I and my children met them in Las Vegas for a brief couple of days. It used to be that we’d meet my parents there about once a year, but over the past decade that had ended as it had become hard for my parents to travel as they got older. But this last summer, my father decided he wanted to go to Las Vegas again and so off we went.
We had a good time with him, but I could tell that not all was well with his health; besides having trouble walking or standing, he seemed less alert than normal and kept repeating himself.
Not too long past Christmas he fell down and he couldn’t get up; it turned out that he had suffered a slight stroke. Not long after that he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and his dementia set on very rapidly. From then on, he was unable to get out of bed and went back and forth from hospital to nursing home and never returned to my parents’ house in Ohio.
My father was born in 1932 when his mother was 40 years old, the youngest of three children (an older sister and brother). He grew up on a farm near Sunbury, Ohio and after high school worked for a while for Kroger’s grocery store, before getting married to my mother in 1953 and joining the Air Force, where he stayed for the next twenty-eight years. After his retirement, he ended up becoming the assistant athletic director at Otterbein University in Westerville Ohio, where he remained for twenty years before finally retiring from that in his early seventies.
My Dad’s time in the Air Force included several overseas trips at government expense, including a year in Turkey, during which time I was born, and two tours of duty in Viet-Nam where he managed to earn the Bronze Star twice. His last overseas tour was during my junior year of high school when he was sent to Thailand.
Since I was a coin collector, he always brought home a variety of coins from the places he visited and I still have all of them.
My dad was an outstanding athlete and played for Air Force teams wherever he happened to be stationed. Had his parents not discouraged him from trying, I am convinced that he could have ended up as a professional baseball player. As it was, he played for Air Force fast pitch softball teams throughout his career winning numerous first place trophies still on display in my parent’s home. I remember looking at them all the time as I was growing up. He not only could bat both right and left handed, he could pitch both left and right handed, easily striking out batters no matter which arm he used.
My father was always very proud of me, even though my academic bent was something that he never fully understood. He taught me to play baseball while I was growing up and encouraged me to participate in sports. Baseball was the one sport I excelled at and enjoyed very much and I played in little league teams growing up, usually playing center field, occasionally second base, and one season I ended up as the main pitcher—primarily because the team I was on wasn’t really very good and somehow I was the only one who could—thanks to my dad’s earlier training—pitch well and accurately.
But while I still enjoy watching baseball immensely, my focus was on the academic end of things: I was a bookworm and happier inside reading than outside playing. In college, my dad was particularly enamored of one of the classes I took, my second year of biblical Hebrew, because of the official class title: Hebrew Syntax and Exegesis. It tickled him and he happily shared that bit of info with everyone he could.
When my books started coming out a few years ago he marveled at them, wondering how in the world I could managed to write so many words.
Until he was diagnosed with lung cancer a few years ago, my dad’s health had always been excellent; he was a non-smoker and so why he developed that cancer remains a mystery. But even though the cancer was beaten back and went into remission, his health was never the same and he started declining.
I’ve been away from home for very many years now, with college age children of my own and I didn’t talk to my dad as often as perhaps I should—we can always say that about the people we love, I think. I will miss him. Many cultures have traditional mourning rituals. I’m a Baptist; we don’t have anything. But in the Jewish tradition I've heard that how long one mourns for someone depends on their relationship to you. The longest period of mourning is reserved for your parents. Why? While you can always get remarried, and you can always have more children—you can never replace your parents.