My father died after a long hospitalization. He was 91, and up until the end of 2013, had led an active, independent life, enjoying the fruits of retirement after a 30+ year stint in the US Army.
To say he will be missed is an understatement, particularly for me. When Mom died (in 1975), he and my stepmother Carolyn took over the chore of raising and guiding me through adolescence.
I was an unexpected challenge. When I was born, the youngest of four kids, he was already 41. In fact, I’ve never seen him without gray hair.
He was not a perfect man, and he knew it. Sometimes he could be painfully blunt and tactless, but he always meant what he said and said what he meant. For example, I asked him why he and Mom decided to have me so late. His answer: “You were a mistake, son. A slipped diaphragm.” I quickly learned only to ask questions for which I truly wanted an honest answer.
Usually stoic and unperturbed, I only saw Dad cry once, and that was when he came to tell me that Mom had died. I remember wrapping my 11-year-old body around him; he was my anchor against the emotions that rippled through me.
Yet, for years I resented that he wasn’t what I expected in a father. It took a while, but I finally realized he wouldn’t change and that I needed to get over myself. After that, I began to appreciate him for who he was.
He was a storyteller with a fine voice for spinning a yarn, providing enough detail to keep you enthralled but with a sufficient lack of clarity to make you wonder how much of what he said was completely accurate. Not that it mattered; he was always entertaining.
Being a true Miller, he had a high boiling point and was very slow to anger, but when he did blow a fuse, he could be frightening.
As a father, he tended to be standoffish, delegating parenting to my mother. I’m not sure if he meant for it to be that way, but with his poor hearing, engaging in conversation sometimes left both parties confused about what was said and why.
He was a silent enigma for most of my childhood, working all day, every workday, smoking his pipe, and tinkering all weekend. He was also the disciplinarian, not because he had rules and expected us to follow them, but because that was what Mom required of him. So it was that when he came home, one of his first chores was to beat his children for all the crimes they had committed (real or imagined) that my mom had meticulously documented during the day. His approach was very matter-of-fact and usually punctuated with an attitude of “let’s get this over with.” Even so, I came to fear him and cringe whenever I heard his car come up the driveway.
He had little use for religion, no doubt influenced by watching the KKK have rallies on the steps of the Baptist churches in St. Albans. The irony in this is that, in the Army, he was considered a Baptist, but only because he had to pick a denomination, and Baptist was at the top of the list. Overall, he cared little for church, though he did tolerate it when he had to. Without spirituality, he cultivated a philosophy based on pragmatism and interest. If something had no tangible use nor held his interest, he simply didn’t think about or worry about it.
One interest he had was sailing. He loved being on the water, though not necessarily in the water, as he had almost no interest in swimming. But, plying the water with a sailboat was true love. He was never happier than sitting at the rudder, listening (I would presume if he wore his hearing aids) to the wind rippling through the sails. I always wondered how this hillbilly son of West Virginia ended up with a love of sailing. It never quite made sense to me, but it didn’t have to; it made sense to Dad.
His opinions were solidly formed and, for the most part, unchanging, but Dad never felt so chained to a moral hitching post that, if circumstances dictated, he couldn’t break away from it.
He was a veteran but a quiet one. Sometimes I could weasel a story out of him based on his experiences, but more often than not, he simply couldn’t or wouldn’t remember. I know he had seen things that bothered him, and dredging up the past, particularly as he got older, did not interest him, even for sentimental reasons. He once hinted at the difficulty of leaving experiences behind, how when he came back from Europe after WWII, all he wanted to do was sit on a mountain with a rifle and be left alone.
He was a self-admitted hillbilly, an ex-patriot of West Virginia, and loved the mountain state. He often visited his sister Lillian and brother George in St. Albans. But when they passed away, he lost interest in traveling.
When I moved away to live my own life, I tried to stay in touch, but time and the elements worked against us. Family and work demands left me with no time or money to travel. Dad’s hands curled, making writing and typing too much of a chore, and his hearing, always bad, got worse, and his refusal to consistently wear or use a complete set of hearing aids made for tiresome shouting over the phone. He’d occasionally write about something that caught his eye, usually on an index card or scribbled onto a newspaper clipping. He also sent cards in celebration of Wyatt Earp’s birthday. Why? Who knows…?
During our years apart, he remained healthy and active. But old age catches up with everyone, and my father was no exception. He collapsed Dec 31 and went to the hospital. Had Thrombocytopenia been the only problem he had to deal with, he might have recovered, but he also contracted MRSA and a skin fungus which caused him severe pain and ultimately made surgery impossible. Even so, he was 91, and, as it was, the margin of error for health-related issues was extremely limited.
When it became obvious he was not going home, he decided (being the pragmatist he was) to “check out.” I visited him one last time before he went; he looked at me and said, “I love you.” He also winked at me just before I left as if to say, “You’ll be fine, sport.”
So now he is gone, and despite the long lead-up to his passing, the loss still hurts terribly. But maybe that is as it should be, as hinted at by none other than Nanny McPhee:
There is something you should understand about the way I work. When you need me but do not want me, then I must stay. When you want me but no longer need me, then I have to go. It’s rather sad, really, but there it is.