One thing I will never forget about my high school graduation is my daddy finding me in the crowd outside the new gym at old T.L. Hanna, shaking my hand, and telling me, “I’m proud of you, son.”
Daddy has never been one to make speeches, so those words have resonated with me.
Today I cling to every last word as I clutch his hand and sit by his bedside at Anderson's Hospice House, which is just a mile from that gym. It’s 5:30 a.m. and he is curled up in his bed, his breathing labored, and his aching knees numbed by morphine. Occasionally he raises his left hand to his gray eyes as if he could still see the wristwatch on his leathery arm.
“Is it time to get up?” I hear him say. Most of his words the last few days have been indecipherable, hoarse, snippets of dreams. So these lucid moments are precious.
“No, Daddy, you don’t have to get up today,” I tell him. “You can sleep in.”
This is the first time I’ve ever sat through the night with someone who is—hard to say it about my Daddy—dying. A million thoughts and prayers and memories race through my mind. Above all, I have the comfort of knowing that Daddy is about to meet his Lord and Savior and hear that wonderful greeting, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Daddy wasn’t showy or preachy in his service, and none of us are perfect, but his heart is as good as gold, and his soul is in the hands of Jesus.
About his heart: Daddy almost worked it to death back when he was raising our family. I had to stand in for him at my little sister’s graduation because he had suffered a heart attack at age 51. A few weeks later, he had a second heart attack and had to retire from Owens Corning Fiberglas.
That was also when Daddy retired from smoking. It was important to him that none of his kids fall for that nasty habit, and we didn’t. When I was about 12, he promised that if I made it to 18 without smoking or drinking, he would give me a car. Those vices never tempted me, and I was so content and mobile on my Schwinn 10-speed that I didn’t even bother getting my driver’s license until I was 18. But Daddy was true to his word, and not long after my graduation day, we found a gold '68 Mustang at a used-car lot on South Main, and he gave me the down payment.
The nurse has just come in to reposition Daddy so he doesn’t get bedsores. We remove the nest of pillows he has assembled and start to lift him, but he cries out, “No! Please don’t!” He dreads the stabbing pain that will come with the slightest movement of his knees. The nurses here are merciful, and repositioning can wait until morning.
Even in his pain, in a moment most of us would cuss, Daddy still says Please and Thank You. He raised us to say Yes ma'am and no sir.
Daddy showed us how to live, and now he's showing us how to die. Unselfishly. Humbly. Responsibly. His generation wasn't much for public displays of affection, yet in his later years we saw more and more glimpses of his love for Mama. He instilled in his children simple proverbs that we call Dwightisms, like "You learn more by listening than you do by talking," and "If you're not gonna finish it, don't start it."
Daddy knew how to fly. He joined the Army Air Corps as World War II was ending and became a flight engineer on a B-25 bomber. For his 80th birthday, we gave him a ride on a T-6 Texan two-seater, the same plane he had trained on more than 60 years earlier. Daddy amazed the pilot with the details and secrets he knew about that aircraft.
He built model airplanes that are works of mechanical art: shaped by his hands, prized by his friends, and brought to life by radio-controlled servos and glow-fueled engines with propellers that could lop off your finger.
Daddy also got to experience the cockpit of one of the world’s largest planes, the Soviet-built Antonov 124. Samaritan’s Purse chartered these to deliver shoebox gifts from Operation Christmas Child to children around the world. Mama started the OCC collection center in Anderson, and Daddy gladly helped, so I took them to Atlanta one December to see the jet being loaded. The cockpit is on top of the massive cargo hold, and to get up there you have to climb a two-story ladder. Daddy went right up, bad knees and all, so he could hear the Ukranian crew explain to him how they flew it.
Speaking of Atlanta, Daddy used to take us down there to see the Braves play, to camp at Stone Mountain, and to eat at The Varsity (but never at Lum’s, because their hot dogs were steamed in beer). One of the first games we saw around 1967 in the old Fulton County Stadium featured Hank Aaron against Willie Mays. The last Braves game we attended together was in 2007 at Turner Field, when Tom Glavine pitched for the Mets against John Smoltz.
Daddy was never a ballplayer and didn’t push me to be one, which was okay. We enjoyed watching the games, and I was able to make a career out of that.
Our last game together was just five nights ago, when he sat up way past his bedtime to listen to the Clemson bowl game on the radio. (He can’t see the TV.) As a surprise for Daddy, I asked the Clemson announcer, Don Munson, if he could send out a personal greeting during the game. Don made it happen, and Daddy’s face lit up in a proud grin. “Yeah, I heard it,” he said. Basking in the Tigers' victory, he went to bed that night and since then has not had the strength to get back up.
Daddy went to Clemson for a couple of years but “turned pro” before he graduated. When Fiberglas opened its new factory in Anderson, he was among the first men they hired. They promised him a pension that he still gets today, 37 years after his last day in the shop. He made the platinum nozzles that produced the glass threads that keep houses insulated, fishing rods limber, and oil flowing through the Alaska pipeline.
Now he’s resting and breathing a little easier. Dawn is breaking.
I’m proud of you, Daddy. I love you. I'm going to miss you.