My daddy died on January 2, 2003. He was 94 years old. For the past three years he was a resident of the Van Andel Pavilion, a unit of the Holland Home system in Grand Rapids, Michigan that specializes in the care of those with Alzheimer’s.
Daddy’s Alzheimer’s was not advanced but was obvious: memory loss, especially short term, living in the past and confusion about the present. Occasionally he’d wonder, “Where am I?”–“What am I doing here?”–“Where’s mother?” (meaning my Mom, who died five years previously). Thankfully, he almost always knew his children, though not always his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He also retained his hearty appetite (double portions at each meal) and much of his physical strength. Dad had always prided himself in his strength and physique, often to the embarrassment of his children. Even after being confined to his wheel chair because of two broken hips, he insisted that he could still run and jump and do one-handed push ups.
He also prided himself in his voice and loved to sing. Singing Christmas carols was one of the activities at the staff and resident Christmas party this past year. The staff told us that Dad was the loudest and most enthusiastic participant of all, singing in his usual baritone but also mischievously trying the highest soprano and the lowest base ranges. And he led everyone in singing all the verses.
His love of singing was inherited by his children, all five of us. When individually we went to visit Dad we would sing hymns with him. Dad would amaze us by again remembering all the verses when we were stuck after the first. The same was true of reading the psalms, which he dearly loved. We would only have to start reading the first verse and he would take over by memory. Reading the psalms would always bring that soft, tender, relaxed look to his face, an expression that revealed his connection to the One in whom his soul rested.
That soft, tender, relaxed look was one of the fond memories we siblings shared at the time of Daddy’s death. We remembered how his face took on that look when he prayed at the meal table. But we also had some sad and painful memories. Daddy could be very impatient and his anger flared frequently, though he was not physically abusive. I remember feeling angry with him when his temper flared over a spilled glass of milk and the rest of the meal was spoiled–even if it was our favorite fresh corn on the cob.
Yet for me the painful memories pale compared to treasured memories. And my feelings as I remember my Daddy are predominantly warm and fuzzy, simple feelings, full of love–contrary to the very mixed, complex feelings I experience remembering my Mother. I have a theory about why this is so. When my sister was born while I was still a baby (not yet a year old), Dad took over my care. I have very early memories of sitting in his lap and on his shoulder and taking long walks with him holding his hand. I have absolutely no doubt that he loved me very much and I loved him.
One story says it all: It was during the Second World War. We lived in Rochester, NY, a large city even at that time. These were the days of ration books and long lines for everything from nylons to bubble gum. My younger sister and I were about eight and nine years old. We both dreamed of having a bicycle, but they were scarce. Very early on a Monday morning, when it was still dark, dad woke me up. A bicycle shop on the other side of the city was receiving a large load of bicycles! Daddy and Mom determined to buy one for each of us. That in itself was a huge sacrifice.
Daddy told me to get dressed, fed me some cereal, and we were off to the bus stop on the corner of our street. (We had no car.) The bus took us to downtown Rochester where we transferred to another bus, which took us to the other side of the city near Kodak where my Daddy was involved in “war work.” We arrived at the bike store about 6:30 a.m., the third and fourth persons in what would become a huge line of hopeful people. Through the window we could see the bikes, in a great variety of brands and sizes, all lined up in shiny rows. I picked out the one I wanted–the blue one at the end of the second row. My heart beat wildly and the clock moved slowly as we waited for the store to open.
Precisely at 9:00 a.m. the doors swung open. I felt the adrenaline rush as the stampede began. Dad had warned me not to hesitate for a moment to see if there was a bike I liked better than the one I had picked out. And he could not hesitate to ask questions, or to look for a particular brand or the cheapest price–amazing in light of his frugality. I ran to the blue bike, Dad grabbed a green one nearby, and we stood possessively waiting with the others who were “lucky” enough to grab one, for a salesperson to come around.
After the bikes were paid for we headed for the bus stop for the long ride home, transferring downtown and arriving home about lunchtime. Daddy ate quickly but Bonnie and I were far too excited to eat. After lunch Daddy immediately headed for the bus stop. He was going to pick up one of the bikes. He boarded the bus for downtown and again transferred to the other side of the city. Meanwhile two little girls waited for hours on the corner looking intently for a man on a bike to come over Merchants Road hill. We could hardly contain ourselves when we saw him in the distance.
But one bike for two little girls would not do. Back on the bus he went–downtown, transferring to the other side of the city to the bike store. And he rode the other bike all the way home! It was dusk when he arrived to two very happy little girls. Then off on the bus again for the night shift at Kodak.
“As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him . . . ” (Psalm 103: 13). My Mother was the spiritual teacher in our family, but it was through my Daddy that I tasted God’s compassionate love.