He was 93 that year. In June, he had survived some falls and slips that landed him in Assisted Living, alone as it turned out, because his wife, my stepmother, died that very month. December brought his first Christmas alone in 61 years, first Christmas not in his home, first Christmas in Assisted Living. When the tears came, he would shake his head and say “Now I’m not going to be that way.” And he wasn’t, not if his three kids could help it.
I brought in a little nativity scene, a mini Christmas tree, some porcelain carolers who would sing a little if you pulled their string. Every walker that rolled by his room was stopped, its owner invited in to look at his festive décor and see every single Christmas card he received, plus pictures of every child, grandchild and great grandchild, accompanied by lots of long stories. Oh he was a talker, was my Dad.
Greg and Jo, my brother and his wife, came up so often to take him out for dinner, some people thought they were on staff. Our older brother Jack in California called him so many times, Dad began carrying his cordless phone around on his walker. Friends phoned and came to see him. And one of them donated a keyboard for his room. He delighted in leaving his door partially open, putting the keyboard on autoplay, and pretending to stroke the keys as it played classical music. When he received compliments on his extraordinary playing he would accept them graciously, eyes twinkling. Reminded him of the time he had a piano recital as a boy, and was supposed to play something “longhair,” but instead sat down and tickled the ivories to the tune of “Tiptoe through the tulips.” He was promptly “disinvited” from all future piano lessons. Oh he was a kidder, was my Dad. He told everybody the most frequently used word at Miller’s assisted living was “HUH?”
At 93, skinny as a stick, posture like the parenthesis that goes on the right, a little bit hard of hearing, he was still the hottest ticket at Miller’s Merry Manor. The ladies loved him, hugged him, kissed him, watched over him. The prettiest one proposed to him every single day, and sometimes twice. He always turned her down gently, reminding her that she was already married. His favorite time was the Friday night singalong, when his lovely old tenor voice still rang out on the old hymns and love songs that made his eyes well up with tears. He went to Bible study, bingo, every musical performance, every meeting, every church service Miller’s offered. Usually he was the only man there, which he complained about, but somehow I think it suited him just fine.
We had some good talks in his room at Miller’s, Dad and I. About history, about God, about his life. About his Mom, my grandma, taking him to church when he was 6 weeks old and laying him right on the pew. Seeing a poster about a revival when he was 12, and walking miles all by himself to get there. How he made a decision that day and never changed his mind. “Just give me Jesus.” About the time his Grandpa saved his life when he was drowning in the river. The time an angel must have intervened when somebody hit his 1920’s roadster and flipped it over. He rode in it upside down till it stopped, and up and walked away. He bragged he had nearly died three or four times, but he suspected the next time would be the real thing. About the betrayal and hard times he had suffered in his life, and how God always brought him through. About the fact that every one of his three kids was wonderful, brilliant, successful.
On Christmas Day, it took a son and a grandson to get him up the steps to my condo. We had a lovely meal which he declared to be the best food he had eaten since…..well, he couldn’t remember. Of course, we asked him to pray before we ate. We loved to hear the way he talked to God. We opened presents and every single one delighted him. A signed copy of Tony Dungy’s book. New shirts. The story of Caleb, by Frances Rivers. An oak-framed picture of an old man and a little boy fishing. A TV remote finder that beeped when you whistled, or, as it turned out, whenever my dog barked. Dad thought that was pretty funny, and whistled all afternoon to make whistle, beep and bark occur simultaneously. He was fascinated by my new Roomba, a robotic vacuum, asking to see it go around the room more than once, Sir Pooch in pursuit. Later, all his friends at Miller’s told us he had gone on and on describing his happy Christmas day.
We had one more big celebration with him in July on his birthday, when all the kids and grandkids and friends we could gather took the longest table at his favorite German restaurant, the Rathskeller in Indianapolis. Just a week later, his aneurysm burst, and took a day to kill him. He spent that day in the hospital, waking every now and then to thank us for being there, to thank God for us, to talk on the phone to faraway people who called to say they loved him. And a few times, when we thought he was asleep, we would hear that old tenor voice softly singing, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. Oh he was a believer, was my Dad.
This will be our first Christmas without him. Maybe we’ll tell all his old stories, sing his old songs, tease the dog to make him bark, and think of Dad laughing.