Ivey and her Grandpa, October 2010. Happy days that we thought would last longer.
It's a painful thing to write and impossible to put into words, and that's why I haven't yet. But on December 11, 2013, after a long hospital stay and a much longer bout with Wegener's Granulomatosis, my dad died. He was surrounded by his family, under a piece of the Wardlaw tartan he loved so much. I'm glad I got to be there with him during his last moments on Earth, because I think he knows we were there. Not everyone gets to have that. But it was still the most painful few hours of my life, and I know I'm not alone in that.
We all went in one by one to tell him goodbye. I don't know if he could hear me. He never got to tell us goodbye; when he last talked to us, none of us had any idea it would be the last time. I wonder what he would have said. Nurses cried with us. Hospital staff thoughtfully brought in sandwiches and drinks and a prayer shawl for my mom. A music therapist came and played hymns on the keyboard, and the hospital chaplain and the minister from our church came. He died around 6:45 in the evening. We had to leave and make the strange, lonely drive home without him.
I never knew before that a house could be sad, but my parents' house was. The walls just ached with emptiness. The home our family had shared for decades, that my dad had cared for so meticulously, mourned with us. We brought home the tiny 12-inch tree Jordan and I had decorated in his hospital room one day before. One day before. How quickly things can come crashing down. It was the only Christmas tree in the house this year.
Upon arriving at the church for the funeral in the steady cold rain, I thought I was fine. I had managed to not melt down at visitation the night before. But then I opened the door to the church and heard the bagpiper. The one thing my dad really wanted at his minimalist graveside-only service was a single bagpiper to play Amazing Grace. We had tried to get a whole band, but because it was Christmastime, hardly anyone was available on such short notice. So he got his way. Every time I'd heard bagpipes in recent years, mostly at various Highland Games events, Daddy had been there. In fact, I'd been there because of him and his enthusiasm for our Scottish heritage. This time, he wasn't. I looked across the churchyard where the funeral tents over his grave site sheltered his casket from the rain. The beautiful, sad bagpipes were there to mark our farewell. I loved the music, but it hurt.
My brothers and I wrote down some memories of our dad and asked a good friend from church to read them at the funeral. Lots of people couldn't hear what was being read because the rain was pounding on the tent for the whole service. The rain was inconvenient and messy, but also kind of perfect. I told my family over a month ago that I would post what we wrote on my blog for people to read. I've been meaning to do it, but knew that writing this post would take me back to that dark little hospital room. It's a place I've been trying to stay out of mentally for the past few weeks, as we process things and find a new normal and try to walk our children through their grief as well. But I feel a little better now that this is written. Here is what we all wrote to be read at Daddy's funeral.
Music has always been one of the things I have enjoyed. I remember dad spending time with me as a child and playing Highlights of the Messiah and Bach Organ Fugues on the old RCA record player. He told me he enjoyed these when he took music appreciation and had to go to the Virgil Fox organ concert at Littlejohn Coliseum when he was a student at Clemson. I think he enjoyed listening to me play the piano and sing even through all the mistakes when one practices. He always encouraged me to practice.
I also remember the numerous times he would take me to road races when I was in high school and college. He taught me it was more about the effort one puts into things than winning. This could never be seen more than when he took me to the NCAA regional cross country championship meet and was waiting on me as I was the very last runner to cross the finish line. He shared that he was still very proud of me because I didn’t quit.
Although I enjoyed school, I never was one that exactly learned in the same way as others. Dad always encouraged me even through college when I changed majors at least four times. He never let me give up on myself even though there always seemed to being a great deal of obstacles in my way. He expressed to me that he was so proud to see the effort I had put forth through trying circumstances much more so than the fact that I earned my doctorate.
Dad encouraged me greatly in my spiritual life. He thought it was very important that I used my musical ability in church. He always taught us that we should use the gifts God gave us to serve Him. There were countless Sunday nights that he would wait on me because I sang in choir.
Later in his life, Dad became very interested in family genealogy and all things Scottish. As a family, we regularly attended the Highland games each year. Dad enjoyed having all of us there, dressed in our tartans and participating in all the festivities. He allowed me to represent our clan at the Kirking of the Tartans and allowing me to march our tartan flag in the parade of clans after the service.
My father, above all, was a great family man. He particularly loved playing with us when we were young children, and it was wonderful watching his immense enjoyment of being with his grandchildren.
Although he was a man of many interests, there were certain things he shared with each of us individually. Growing up, we spent lots of time fishing, arrowhead hunting, rock-hounding, and enjoying the outdoors. I especially enjoyed those times.
My dad was not an extremely social person, but the people who were close to him know that he had a fantastic sense of humor. His impressions of people, usually family, were priceless and hilarious. If he took the time to make fun of you, you knew you were special to him.
Later in life, he and I shared a love of music and art. We also both celebrated our family heritage, and relished going to Scottish Highland Games together with the family. He taught me from a very young age to garden, and was masterful at growing things. He loved woodworking and construction projects, but would become frustrated with it, as he was a perfectionist. I worked with him on many of those, and am so happy that we had the opportunity to share one last project: his garage, and now, my pottery studio.
I learned a great many things from him, the best of which is how to be there for my family. He will be sorely missed, but will live on in our memories and recollections.
One of my earliest memories is of dancing on my Daddy’s feet. Every time we watched Sleeping Beauty and the waltz would come on, Mama would say, “It’s your song!” We’d hold hands and I’d stand on his docksiders as we twirled around and around in our little kitchen.
You never would have found him teaching kindergarten, or even Sunday School—but my dad loved babies and little children. When I was about three years old, I used to throw my Barbie dolls across the room in anger, because I did not yet have the fine motor skills to change their tiny outfits. Daddy would hear the thud, come in and pick the Barbie up, and dress it for me. Memories like these are what I most want to share about my dad. Daddy could sit in the floor and join in a toddler’s games in a way that most adults can’t.
He read me endless Little Critter books, and our favorite Christmas book was “Santaberry and the Snard.” He played countless games of Pop-O-Matic Trouble with me, even though I wasn’t a very good sport and would run off crying if I lost.
Whenever I got a stomachache at school and called to be picked up early, he’d usually take me to his work in the P&A building at Clemson. Sometimes he’d bring me a little cup of Dr. Pepper because “it was what the doctor ordered.” Anytime I forgot something I needed for school, from elementary all the way through high school, I’d call him and he’d run home and get it for me.
Once I started middle school, I made him late to work nearly every day. Mama left for work at the crack of dawn, so he drove me. He teased me for putting makeup on as we rode—“This is a pickup truck, not a beauty parlor.” But I am thankful for the time we spent riding together in his little cream-colored Ford—from when I was six and so excited to be riding in a brand-new truck, to the last time before I started driving myself in high school. The summer after I graduated we got in that same truck and rode up to Clemson University, where he helped me find all the buildings on my class schedule so I wouldn’t be lost during my first days of college.
My father was creative and artistic, but this usually manifested in silly, small ways. When I was little I hated taking a bath. One night when bath time was unfortunately near, he said “I’m going to go draw your bath.” He ran out of the room and came back with a pencil and a piece of paper. A couple of minutes later, he handed me a sketch of a smiling little girl peeking over the side of a bathtub. “Jenny’s bath,” just to make me laugh.
Most people have no idea what a beautiful singing voice my father had. He never sang in public, but at home when I as little, he made up what he called “Little D songs”—D stood for daughter—and he would belt out improvised tunes about how sweet and cute I was. Though he obviously had a gift for music, he never played an instrument. He did, however, whistle. Every day of his life and always perfectly in tune, he whistled his favorite hymns and Christmas carols year round, especially “Sleigh Ride.”
He was also great at doing impressions. Dozens of people were skillfully imitated around our dinner table, but none more often or more lovingly than my maternal grandmother, Mama Susie. Daddy was hilariously accurate and had the spot-on facial expressions to go with the voices. It warms my heart to see that my eldest daughter, six-year-old Suzi, picked up on this talent of his and is refining it herself.
My parents’ loving marriage of 47 years was a blessing to us all. The day before my father died, my mother told me about a vision she’d had in the chapel. She saw her own hand, holding a few smooth, sparkling river stones, blue with silver flashes running through them. Jewels the likes of which you’d never find on Earth—an otherworldly, heavenly treasure. She heard God tell her to give them to Him, and she passed the precious stones into God’s hand.
My father was a treasure to us—to my mother, his best friend and wife, most of all—but the people we love are not treasures that we get to keep forever. We did not know how long we would get to keep my dad, especially after his illness began nine and a half years ago. At one point he was so sick and we were so sure we would lose him that Jordan and I considered getting married a few months early in a little hospital room in Greenville, just so I could have my dad at my wedding. His recovery was a miracle, and as heartbroken as we are to be without him now, I will always thank God for the last nine and a half years. Despite his illness, he did so much living in those years. We walked down the aisle together at my wedding. We spent one incredible week at Disney World, a place he dearly loved. About a year later I got to see the look on his face when I told him he was going to be a Grandpa. He made an amazing grandfather, and I’m so thankful that Suzi, Ivey, and Robert knew him. He rocked my babies to sleep, took them to the park, and read them nursery rhymes. It was also in the last decade that he realized how much he loved his Scottish heritage. He was so proud and handsome in his Wardlaw tartan kilt, and he loved it all so much he wanted to share it with all of us.
Losing my dad has been the worst heartbreak of my life, but I have found comfort in these memories and I hope you do too. And please—sometime this weekend when the mood strikes, take a minute to whistle your favorite Christmas carol in memory of my sweet dad.