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Dad, my Sister and Me

This father’s day, I think back on my father, as do so many people of a certain age, people whose parents have gone on ahead and wait for them.  May you, gentle readers, whose parents are still here, appreciate what you have.  I wrote about my father on the occasion of his death on April 12, 2015.  Perhaps there is something there for us all on this Father’s Day.

My father, B.G. McDaniel, died this morning. He was of The Greatest Generation, one of those who fought for western civilization, and after WWII, worked to build it. He was one of millions that made America America. They left a magnificent legacy. We’re not doing so well with it these days.

There are a variety of figures for the average American male lifespan. For my father, the average was probably the low 70s. When he died at 95, he’d beaten those odds by more than 20 years. He spent the last year of his life in a nursing home, and he died quickly and without suffering. He was not broken down by disease and wracked with pain. After breakfast, which he didn’t feel like eating, he lay down, and within  minutes, was gone.

We knew he was deteriorating, and recently, his decline accelerated, but unlike with many elderly, there was no timetable, no deathwatch. He could live another year or five, or die at any time. The notice came via a voice message, which I found between Sunday services at the church where I’m a paid, professional singer. I always turn off my phone during rehearsals and performances. Before I listened to the message from my Sister, I knew the content. She never calls on Sunday morning.

It was a good place to receive the message and I used the opportunity.

His short time in the nursing home–a good and reasonably cheerful place as such places go–was mercifully short, as was the manner of his death, and for that, and so much more, my sister and I are grateful.

Of his immediate family, only my sister and I survive him. The oldest child in the family, he survived his parents and his three younger brothers and sister.

He was a man of his generation. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps but because of his MOS, spent the war stateside, at Ellsworth Air Force Base, Rapid City, SD, where my sister and I were born. Children often follow in the footsteps of their parents, and I also served there in the Air Force. When my parents retired, they moved to Rapid City, and at one time or another, so did my sister and I.

Dad worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, designing, building and maintaining radio systems, and just about anything else electronic, all over the western United States. He worked out of Aberdeen, SD, where we mostly grew up. A cold, but good place for a more or less normal, middle class childhood. B.G. stands for Buford Gabriel–Dad’s family hailed from the deep south–but everyone knew him as Mac.  He was a tech whiz on earlier technology, but computers and he were never friendly.

He did what was expected of him. He worked hard, and was on the road visiting reservation schools and other facilities more than he was home in the office. We didn’t always see much of him, but he did his duty and provided a solidly middle class living for his family. We always had everything we needed and much that we wanted, though sometimes, wants weren’t fulfilled, not necessarily because there wasn’t money, but parents of that generation believed it wasn’t good for kids to get everything they wanted. I’ve come to appreciate that value more and more.

Dad missed many performances, track meets, art exhibits, plays and other events in which my Sister and I participated, but that only made us stronger and more independent. We always knew we were loved, but were sometimes lonely. Oddly enough, dealing with that was expected of Dad too, and he met his responsibilities.

Just as he traveled and led an adventurous life, so did I–so do I.

When Dad retired, Mom and he found, what was for them a dream home in Rapid City, west of town in the Black Hills National Forest, surrounded by forest, where my mother got to feed and watch the deer and other animals she so enjoyed. When she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Dad took it in stride, as those of his generation were expected to do, with remarkable patience as she became occasionally violent.

When the disease took her, Dad never really recovered. He did find God, something he had never done seriously before then, and for that too we are grateful. In a way, he was lost. He still felt the urge for adventure, but could never simply go somewhere without a mission. He was still stuck in his earlier patterns and had to have a reason to travel. He couldn’t choose a place he’d never before been and decide to go there, he had to go places he had been, places he knew, he had to try to recapture moments long past–lost–so he often contrived missions without a rationale and tried to fulfill them. It was always unsatisfying, but he couldn’t admit that to himself.

In his last decade, he began to become forgetful, and would often forget where he intended to go while driving, leaving him driving about searching for that answer. Finally, he drove to Aberdeen on the spur of a confused moment, telling no one. Perhaps he was searching for his past, for memories or simple pleasures lost. There was no specific person, no friend, he needed to see.  We could never get a rational explanation from him. Not long before, my Sister spent some time there for her work. She found the town diminished, colorless and small, like returning to one’s elementary school. You really can’t go home. Maybe Dad was looking for that. I’ll probably never return there. No reason to go back, really.

On the way back, he somehow got onto an Interstate highway the wrong way and traveled against traffic for more than 100 miles. Miraculously, no one, including him, was injured, but that was the end of his driving. He was never completely happy again.

We all hope we’ll do better, that we’ll keep our faculties, our abilities, our wit and personalities until the end.  Some do.  Many don’t.  Even tomorrow isn’t guaranteed.

My sister and I were determined to keep him in his home as long as possible–he had more than earned that–and we managed for most of a decade by hiring a home health care worker who fortunately cared very much for him. But eventually, his mind retreated more and more into his diminishing shell.  He could no longer control his bowels and urination, and angry over his limited mobility, I suspect he didn’t much care. That’s why a little more than a year ago a nursing home became necessary.

The proceeds from the sale of his home paid bills and provided a year of good care, but no real inheritance for us. I suspect we’re like a great many middle class children: there will be no comfortable inheritance, and in truth, we never expected it. Like Dad, we’ve always taken care of our families, expecting nothing from others. He taught us well.

Almost immediately after entering the nursing home, Dad began to decline even more rapidly. It’s hard to know whether that decline merely coincided with his placement–part of the continuing progression that put him there–or whether it was a substantial cause of the mental and physical decline, the last loss of control, the slipping away of a final reason to live.  It was clear being able to see my Sister and me was no longer sufficient to keep him here.  It was only in the last month or so we began to expect that he might not see 2016.

As regular readers know, I spend little time spilling my angst over these pages, but perhaps there is something here for other readers whose beloved parents are of an age.  The sense of loss is profound. I’m rehearsing the Brahms Requiem for performances at the end of this month and the beginning of May, and I won’t be able to sing it at rehearsal tomorrow. In a week, probably, but not now. Even so, it’s an occasion for joy, secure in the knowledge that one day, I’ll see him and Mom again, where we’ll all be together, better in every way, all cares, responsibilities and duties finally fulfilled.

He’s gone on his last great adventure, an adventure he doesn’t have to plan or justify, a mission he doesn’t have to accomplish. There, finally, he’ll be happy and fulfilled. He worked long and hard and did what was expected of him. He deserves it.

In his later years, it was hard for Dad to talk to us.  All of those years traveling, he became a master of coffee shop conversation, but that’s not discourse of any depth.  One day, I’ll see him in his favorite coffee shop on that glorious road, a place where everybody knows Mac, and is glad to see him.  I’ll be glad to see him too.

NOTE:  To all that were kind enough to express their condolences, the eternal gratitude of my Sister and me.

Ave Atque Vale, Dad.