The End Is Near
I moved back home as soon as I heard about his stroke in December 1981. A little while later we learned he also had advanced lung cancer.
It was time to break some strong, silent-type traditions that permeated our neighborhood culture. I told him directly and repeatedly how much I loved him, and I began to physically hug him when we were together.
For Christmas, I wrote him a letter trying to describe how I felt. It began: “Dad, to me you represent all that is right in this world. Everything loving and good I associate with you.”
Another first: I saw him crying as I read it by his bedside.
But my fear of losing him was also reflected in a sense of denial—and lack of humility—that must have placed an added burden on him.
The final paragraph of the letter is jarring to read 33 years later even though it was intended to keep his hopes up as the doctors still were discussing possible treatments. It read: “However you choose to lead your life now, please do not give up. I love you. I need you more than ever.”
Over the next few months, we became a two-man band, walking a few steps at a time up and down the neighborhood in exercises to recover from the stroke.
In that pre-accessibility era, we went to the movies and the theater, visited friends at work and at restaurants. We found ways to accommodate the wheelchair. On Sundays, I would carry him and his wheelchair up the front steps of church. (Shortly after his death, the church built a handicapped ramp.)
And my lessons continued.
Many people today still associate humility with terms such as humiliation, meekness, or timidity. And it is true that humble people can leave themselves open to disappointment if their trust is abused.
But when my strong, independent father was at his weakest point, people stepped up.
Two of my father’s friends with executive experience kept the business going so that his employees would have jobs and that my mother would have an income. One of the men worked full time until the business could be transferred to another company.
One way I helped out was to collect debts. My father was pretty easy-going in that area. But when they learned of his situation, people paid up. I remember talking to two young men at a struggling company who at first made it clear they were not going to pay. But as we talked, there seemed to be a kind of moral awakening that caused them to agree that this, among all their debts, must be paid.
I also was to learn of the extent of the sacrifice my father made to see that I was able to go to college. This man, who had no rainy day fund or retirement savings or pension, borrowed $25,000 from a major customer and friend to pay for my tuition.
When my father became sick, this businessman was in the midst of selling his company. He made it a condition of the sale that the loan would be forgiven. When talking to an executive from the purchasing company, I was equally inspired to hear him say how happy he was to agree to this after learning of my father’s life.
My father, with no extended family of his own, had “A Wonderful Life” moment as friends, neighbors, and people from church filled a banquet hall for his 62nd birthday party less than two months before his death.
In one of the last moments that we could still talk to one another, after he was admitted to the VA hospital for what we both understood would be the final time, he asked me to read him the Christmas letter again.