Cliff Holdeman (5th from left) with his children, some of their spouses and some of their children.

Cliff Holdeman (5th from left) with his children, some of their spouses and some of their children.

On 11-06-15 I wrote Waiting and Forgiveness, expressing the difficulties and guilt involved in the death watch, the last days and hours of the life of a parent. I observed:

We are of that age. Our parent’s time has come, and only Mrs. Manor’s father remains, but not for long.

There was less time than I imagined.

About an hour before midnight on Saturday, November 7, 2015, Clifford R. Holdeman, at the age of 93, died. Mercifully, he was not in pain, and slipped away, unconscious, but with his daughters at his side. Even so, he knew they were there, and that he was loved. Our prayers for him were answered, but we would have liked it better to still have him. His son Roger died in 2010 , but he too was present, in everyone’s heart.

Cliff shared much with my father.  Both were men of the greatest generation, and both served in the military. Cliff served in the Army, and was intimately acquainted with the M1 Garand, which he carried in the European theater. We know virtually nothing about his war experiences. He never talked about it, which was not uncommon for men of that time. Perhaps, like so many others, he was glad to have survived, but bore unquenchable guilt that he survived and others did not. Perhaps he saw too many things that no one should see, and didn’t want to remember. We didn’t push.

Cliff never made it to high school. He had to work, and work hard at a young age. No metrosexual anxiety and trendy agitating for political causes for him. He worked to feed himself and his family, and when WWII was over, he married and raised his own family: his son Roger, and his daughters, Lawanna–who I was blessed to marry–and Kathy, the youngest. He ensured they all had the chance to go to college and all earned degrees and had successful careers, very much the American dream.

Cliff went to work for North Central College in Naperville, IL, and became the superintendent of maintenance. It was not a job that required advanced degrees in those days. What was required was a solid work ethic, common sense, and the ability to build or fix anything, qualities Cliff always had in abundance.

He was always a little embarrassed by his lack of formal education, but whenever anything needed doing, he was the man the people with doctorates called first. “Cliff will know what to do. He can fix anything.” And he could and did. He was a wizard with the temperamental boilers that provided heat for the campus, innately understanding their quirks and all the jury rigging that had ever been done to keep them going. He walked effortlessly among all strata of society and was beloved by all. He was given numerous honors, including a beautiful fountain in his name on campus.

He enjoyed demonstrating the value of common sense over advanced degrees, chuckling over the foolishness of the highly educated. When a heavy lift helicopter was engaged to hoist a massive air-conditioning unit to the roof of a multi story dorm, Cliff snapped photos of the process and showed them to a professor friend. He chuckled with delight recounting how the professor was confused, because the helicopter’s blades weren’t blurry in the photo. Even a man who never set foot inside a high school knew the effects of shutter speeds, even as the professor did not.

My favorite Cliff story involved a small garage that needed to be moved from where it had been for years to a distant spot on campus. There were high-level meetings focused on tackling the problem, and much high wattage brainpower was fired up. Until, that is, they discovered Cliff had already moved it. He and his staff did a bit of bracing and unbolted the garage from its pad. Cliff drove a front-end loader into the garage, and lifted it off the ground. They removed just enough of the siding on one wall so he could see where he going and drove it to its new location, set it down, bolted it into place, and were done. Cliff didn’t think much of it. Everyone just went back to work on other jobs, which were constant on a college campus. It was only when the administrators and some professors were amazed to find the job done at no cost and bother, that Cliff realized how others saw such things. For him, it was just something that needed to be done with the available tools.

That’s what Cliff did. He raised a family and provided for them by getting out of bed each morning–early–and going to work. He worked as long and as hard as required, and he was a big, strong, heavy-boned man, able to work hard. Like so many of his generation, he didn’t waste time moaning about this or that or doubting his place in the universe. His place in Naperville was to do his job at the campus, and to ensure it was done right. In that, and everything else, he did was what necessary and enjoyed it.

Eventually, a long life of hard labor wore him down. Before he retired, he stepped down from his management position and returned to doing the simple work he loved so much. But eventually, even that was becoming too much. All of the stairs and walking became too difficult for his tired knees, and he had no choice.

Also like so many men of his generation, his work defined him. It was what he lived for. It’s hard to tell whether it was retirement that began his physical and mental decline, his rapidly advancing age, or the degeneration those decades of manual labor wrought, or perhaps a combination of all three, but it wasn’t long before Cliff was clearly unable to take care of himself.

With Lawanna and me in Texas and Kathy and her family in Wyoming, only Cliff’s son Roger and his three sons were still living in the area to help, and Roger had physical difficulties of his own. Roger’s unexpected death in 2010 hurt Cliff in every way, and we did what we could, helping him hire home care workers to do what he could not.

He loved to drive to a local restaurant in his beloved red Ford pickup. There, everyone knew him, and none of the waitresses had to ask him for his order; they all knew exactly what he would want at any time of the day. He was very much a meat and potatoes kind of guy.

But he eventually began losing his eyesight, and it soon became clear he could no longer drive. He took to driving his riding lawn mower to the restaurant for awhile, but even that soon was beyond his abilities, and Kathy and Lawanna went to Naperville to oversee the restoration of his home to salable condition, and to move him to Wyoming to live with Kathy. He nearly died of congestive heart failure before the trip west, but he survived.

That’s where he lived the last four years of his life. It wasn’t easy for Cliff, a man used to making his own way, or for Kathy and her husband, who had no privacy, and who had to sacrifice so much to care for him. Little by little he declined, eventually doing little but watching John Wayne movies and sleeping through most of those. Cancer, congestive heart failure, bowel, colon and kidney problems, and many other chronic maladies wore him down. Watching john Wayne, which he always loved, was virtually all he was physically capable of doing. He could barely make it from his bed to his recliner with the aid of a walker, and his heart wasn’t strong enough to keep him awake for very long.

Sometimes he was lucid; sometimes he didn’t recognize anyone. We were on the verge of having to make a decision about moving him to a nursing home–something none of us wanted to do–when he fell and broke his wrist. No one knows how it happened. Kathy found him on the floor of his room one morning. We don’t know if he was trying to walk somewhere, somehow rolled out of bed, or merely passed out and fell. At the hospital, pneumonia was diagnosed, his colon was badly blocked, and all of his other difficulties caught up with him. He was far too sick and weak for surgery.

He was only in hospice about a week. The doctor told us he could go anytime, and we could see the signs of impending death, but he would appear to rally, be pretty much himself, lucid and responsive. Finally, on Thursday he went to sleep, and remained that way until he died on Saturday evening.

We’ll return him to Naperville this week. Cliff once said he wanted to live to be 100. Considering the average life span for a man of his generation was around the early 70s, and considering he survived WWII, he did pretty well.

The love of his life, Mary, died of cancer in 1988. He carried on without her these 27 years, but he was never whole again. She died beside him in bed, as they slept. Soon, very soon, they’ll lie, side by side, together again forever.

As Mark Antony said at the end of Julius Caesar:

His life was gentle, and the elements

So Mix’d in him that Nature might stand up

And say to all the world ‘This was a man! 

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