We sat at the edge of his winter garden on an unusually bright and mild December day for the mid-Atlantic.
My father and I were visiting. An elderly man, he was experiencing the middle stages of Alzheimers. For him, it was a better place to be. He had moved beyond the frustration and anger of the disease, and now he lived in his own version of the truth. He was happy and joyful for the most part, and only seemed to remember the good things in his personal history – rarely revisting the bad. My dad was certain that he was still a CEO who ran a farm and whom also broke out of a Texas jail with his best friend Walt on occasion! Of course, he advised me, they did it by jumping out the back window landing on horse back, Billy the Kidd style.
He regaled me that day with half truths and fantastic stories of adventure sprinkled in between family historical realities. The man could spin a yarn…must be his Scotch Irish heritage. I sat with him in the late afternoon sun, watching him delight in his own recollections, taking notes every now and then on family members and dates when I realized that I was getting facts interspersed with fiction.
We talked about his upbringing, a child who was raised in the post depression era. A time when families lived multi-generationally because they couldn’t afford to do otherwise. His father was a mess. And so he was raised by something like 11 aunts and uncle’s, several of whom were pairs of twins in the post reformation South, Georgia.
In this fact, he was crystal clear and he would say to me, “Daughter, don’t let history confuse you – it took many generations for the south to recover from that damned Civil War…. ” A man in his late 80’s, he personally had elderly family as a young boy who shared their own painful recollections of the worst time in our nation’s history.
My fathers mind and personal history was molded by the extended family history and the collective verbal experience of many. In that, nothing meant more to him than land, his God, his country and the history of his great nation. He had a private faith, which is very much part of his generation, but he understood what sacrifice looked like, both from an historic point of view as well as because he grew up in post-depression; it was a time in this country when many families literally had nothing except for the barest of what the needed, but rarely did they have what they wanted. My dad shared that he never went without a meal, usually got a new pair of shoes annually, and though he had a job after school every day, he used that money to support himself and his family. He was proud of that and never once complained. This was a child whose only Christmas present one year was when his aunt and uncle built a small wooden car from scraps, using wooden thread spools to make the wheels, (in a time long before Hot Wheels hit the toy market). Still, this is the gift my dad always talked about with such vivre, and still thought it was the best Christmas ever.
As I sat and listened to his stories, some having heard for the 100th time, I thought that for me, this December day may have been among the best for this daughter ever.
As the sun began to wane and the shadows grow long, a chill came up and we decided to go for a drive. I helped this once strong but now slightly feeble man into my Jeep and at once he was excited, because it was he who taught me my own love for 4-wheeled drive cars. He felt at home there and told me multiple times how much he loved being in it. We took off like errant kids and headed down Springs Road, one of his favourite drives, a long beautiful and rural road which ran from his historic farm to the local historic town.
We talked about nothing and we talked about everything and he told me what a fortunate man he was. At age 86 he was still passionately in love with my mother and told me so, saying, “Your mama is such a special woman, she has put up with so much from me.” Of course I rolled my eyes and giggled, he had become such a sentimental lovely old fool. This sense of humility in him was not who he used to be, so in a twisted sense of appreciation, I just listened and smiled and enjoyed seeing something new in a man that had in the past been a source of great angst for me. You see my father was a very proud man, and at times a difficult person to grow up with, but age and disease had mellowed him and to see the heart of the real man was such a sweet moment.
Though Alzheimer’s is one nasty voracious master, sometimes God can bring good out of it and he did in the case of my relationship with my father and me. I finally got to meet the man with a gregarious personality and the heart of a lion.
As we wandered down Springs Road, my father looked eagerly at his surroundings, as if seeing it for the first time – not as a man who had lived in that area for more than 30 years. He loved that part of the county and he constantly commented on the beauty of the red-soil fields, the rolling of the hills and the angle of the sun in the valleys. It really was a lovely evening and I finished it with him by my side, watching him literally drink in the beauty of his Virginia.
It is August now and tomorrow I will bury my father. He will be laid to rest on his property, at his historic cemetery. It is a property that he adopted, loved and took pride in. He molded it as his own, and as a “dirt farmer” Georgia boy, as he always referred himself, Virginia reminded him of the Georgia clay he grew up around as a boy.
Tomorrow we will return his body to the red Virginia clay that he came to call his own. I am melancholy. But I am thankful. Because today when I went to go pick up his remains, it occurred to me that I was taking the same road I traveled with him on that beautiful December day. That was the last time I had been on Springs Road- with my father, chatting about life and about how his love for my mom, how he was proud of his son, that he thought my oldest sister had a very sweet heart. He discussed his young grandchildren and laughed about one of them who loves to climb trees and remarked that she was the wild one. He liked that about her. He told me about how much he loved his dogs and asked me about my own son’s and how they were doing in college and that he was excited for their futures. My dad was all over the place that day – and probably talked more in one sitting with me than I can ever recall.
That was the last full day I spent with my father before I left town for the winter…and when I left him that day, I had this odd sense of finality. I mentioned it to my brother a few days later. It was like my spirit knew what my mind did not want to admit.
Today’s journey back down Springs Road… and here I was again, in my Jeep, with my dad in the seat beside me and the sadness and fullness of it all at once enveloped me. My heart filled with pain but also peace, as I said out loud, “Dad, I am bringing you back home…”
I drove in silence down that road and relived our day of conversation just a few short months prior. My eyes filled with a few tears and as I slowed at that very farm where he had appreciated the curve of its fields I let his spirit take another final look. I sighed audibly and whispered a private farewell to him and the view.
As I turned down into the very long driveway of my Dad’s home, it began to pour rain. At the end of the driveway I saw the historic sign which names the property and the year of its “birth.” 1730. I sighed with a small bit of pride and parked the car. Pulling my hood up over my head, I grabbed the box of his remains and headed straight through the front door of his beloved home. It had been too long since I had been there. I began to sob and my niece, who was there prepping for the funeral and also is the core of strength, swept in and met me, took her grandfather’s box and ushered him into his fav room of the house. She placed him at his table, right where he used to sit at dinner and that was it, he was home. Right where he belonged.
Tomorrow ‘s forecast is expected to be an unusually bright and mild August day in the mid Atlantic. My dad’s journey on this earth is complete, and he will rest happy and beloved, nestled peaceful at last into in his own Virginia clay.