The Life and Death of My Daddy

I wrote the piece that follows in response to a writing challenge issued by my friend Amy Hickman last year on the now-defunct writing website, thisisby.us. With Father's Day arriving tomorrow, I am reminded that this one will be the fifth consecutive one since my daddy died on January 8, 2005. Like most such losses, it does become more bearable, more capable of being accepted, with time. But I still miss him, and I thought that in his honor, since I won't be getting him a card or some dopey necktie again this year, that I would share the piece with all of you. Maybe there is something in it that will speak to you.

The Life and Death of My Daddy

Response to ahickpoet’s writing challenge: Whose death has impacted you most and why?

I have lived long enough so far to have had a good number of people that I loved and cared about up and die on me, and no matter how much of it one goes through, I am here to report, to those of you who do not know, that dealing with death does not get any easier with practice. I remember my dear father-out-law saying many years ago, as his childhood friends started dying off, that he was really not sure if he wanted to be the last one left, and the older I get, the more sense that seems to make to me. I keep meaning to ask him if he still feels that way every time that I see him, as he turned 88 last year, and is up for 89 in two months’ time. That should be an interesting conversation.

January 8, 2008 will mark three years since my daddy died at the age of 76. He had had a number of health problems in his later years, including becoming diabetic, which he was lucky enough to be able to manage with diet and exercise. Best I can recall, he died of a heart attack, right on the floor in the dining room of his house. I remember my mom telling me that he had gotten up to look for his glasses; why anyone who wore glasses all the time like he did at that stage in life would take them off and leave them somewhere where they weren’t remains a mystery to me, but that’s what happened right before he fell to the floor. Luckily, it was a good thick wool carpet, so I am fairly sure that the fall did not hurt him very much.

My daddy did much better than his own father, who died at 32, when my daddy was only 16. So generationally speaking, we continue to improve, as I was 50 when my daddy died, and my youngest daughter turns 16 next month. My daddy’s mother, Bertie Julia, died sometime in the mid-1960s, and I am not quite sure when, I would have to look it up, and it not being central to this story, I am not going to bother just now.

The report of my daddy’s death that appeared in the local newspaper two days later noted that he was married to my mom, but failed to mention that they had racked up 52 years on December 27, 2004. I remember December 27, 2004 pretty well because that was when I had the idea to fly up to Massachusetts with my three daughters to surprise my mom and dad for their anniversary, and make them dinner. So we did: rented a car, stopped at a grocery store, bought everything to make dinner, and just showed up at their house. I really do not think that either of them had been so surprised ever before, or at least not so as they said so. Looking back, it was one of the best trips that I have ever thought of, because 12 days later my daddy was gone. They might not have been each other’s first love, or only love, but they did it pretty much alright.

Gene Everett was born in Walker County, Georgia on May 14, 1928 to his daddy Everett and his mother, and he grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He joined the United States Navy when he was 17, and served during the waning of the Second World War and during the Korean Conflict. He left the Navy as a Petty Officer Third Class, and his service, like most young men at the time, was one of his proudest achievements. He moved to my hometown shortly after marrying my mom, and with the help of her dad and several others, added two bedrooms and a kitchen to a little house with one room, and the family homestead was born in 1956.

He was raised a Baptist, not atypical of southern Tennessee, but when he met and fell in love with my mom, he converted to the Roman Catholic Church, and remained faithful to it his whole life. He was an usher at church for years, and also sang in the choir in his later years. I think his faith was pretty strong, although tested at various times throughout his life, but then we all go through those things.

He worked for New England Telephone and Telegraph (later Verizon) for 28 years, until he was forced to retire on disability because of his back. He was a journeyman cable splicer, drove one of those big trucks with the bucket lift on it, and he worked very hard every day of his life. He never got rich, but he supported his family, and we never really lacked anything that we needed, even the year that he was on strike; he found other work to do when he was not on the picket line, and meals arrived on the table just like always. Of course, me being an only child, it was not that big a family to support, but still.

Daddy was a life member and former president of the Telephone Pioneers, a volunteer organization of retired telephone company employees (we used to only have one telephone company, but that is another story) that performed charitable work like repairing talking books for the blind, which my daddy did for the Perkins School for years. He was also a member and former King Lion of his local Lions Club, a former Cub Scoutmaster of Troop 53, to which the author proudly belonged, a pretty fair carpenter, and a master woodcarver. He also did a lot of volunteer work at the hospital where I was born, being cheerful to folks who always needed cheering up. He was a patient there himself more than once, and everybody in the joint knew Gene.

He had a brother, Bob, who died about a decade before he did, and a little sister, Martha, who still lives in Tennessee. He had two very close cousins, Johnny and Charlotte, both of whom live in southern Virginia now.

And he left behind scores of friends, including former co-workers, who came to pay their respects at the funeral home. The number of people coming in was a sight to behold, with the line at one point going out the room, down the hallway, and out the door of the place. He was well loved.

At his funeral Mass, we sang “Amazing Grace,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “All the Ends of the Earth,” and “Sing a New Song.” One of the readings, which said a lot about my daddy, was from chapter 16 of the Book of Proverbs, verses 1 to 9: “The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord. All the ways of a man are clean in his own sight, But the Lord weighs the motives. Commit your works to the Lord, and your plans will be established. The Lord has made everything for its own purpose, even the wicked for the day of evil. Everyone who is proud in heart is an abomination to the Lord; Assuredly, he will not be unpunished. By loving kindness and truth, iniquity is atoned for, and by the fear of the Lord one keeps away from evil. When a man’s ways are pleasing to the Lord, He makes even his enemies to be at peace with him. Better is a little with righteousness, that great income with injustice. The mind of a man plans his way, But the Lord directs his steps.”

My daddy taught me a lot of things over the years, and while he did not get all of the answers to life’s questions right, he got enough of them correct enough to get by, and to leave a mark on more than a few folks whose lives were the better, and the richer, for having known him, and having been around him. He taught me about working hard, and earning what you had, and he demonstrated that you should never get so proud, or feel so high-and-mighty with your opinion of yourself that you are afraid to break a sweat doing honest labor, or are afraid to get your hands dirty when necessary. He taught me that you can always wash your hands.

He also taught me that giving your word to someone else was your bond; papers might be required by lawyers, but your word was good enough for him. He taught me that my good name had value, and that treating others according to the Golden Rule was not only good for the karma, but that it was a good way to live, allowing you to sleep better at night. I learned from him that you should never find yourself so busy with other things that you cannot lend a hand to someone who needs your help; at the same time, I also learned that you have to know your own limitations.

The day that my daddy died, I wrote the following, which pretty well sums up how I felt about him, and which I somehow managed to read as a eulogy at his funeral:

For My Dad, January 8, 2005

I come to praise my Dad,
And to bury him.

For so many years of my life,
He was the strongest man on earth.

In the end, he was just like me,
Just a man.

But what a guy!

He died today,
But he lives on.

He lives on in the eyes
Of his three granddaughters,
Those beacons of light
That will go forward another generation.

My dad was a union man,
As am I.
I will never cross a picket line,
Nor would he.

My dad taught me the value of a dollar.
He also taught me the value of a person’s labor.
He taught me about the value of hard work.

Especially, my dad taught me about
Giving back.

Being involved with the Cub Scouts,
The Boy Scouts,
The church,
The community,
That was my dad.

My dad was a million things,
More than I can recount,
But more important than most
A man of some account.

Friends have asked me recently,
How do I do all that I do:
I answer them quite naturally:
It was what I was brought up to do.

I will miss my Daddy forever
But in my heart I know that’s not the end,
For someday, my Daddy,
Together we will be, and that’s true.

There is so much more to say,
But that will have to save,
For another day.

I love you, Daddy.

The impact of my daddy’s death on me was substantial in the near term, as it is for most folks when they lose a parent. Over the short years since, as the pain has eased, and the reality set in, I guess I miss him the most when I have a big decision to make, and when I would really like to have his advice. If he were here, of course, he would probably tell you that I never took his advice as often or as completely as I should have, and in many cases over the years, that is likely pretty much true. But I still find myself, on a fairly regular basis, of asking him what I should do, and I am not completely sure, but most of the time, I think he lets me know. I miss him being here to revel in the continuing success of his three granddaughters, turning into fine young women. I miss his laugh, his blue eyes, his sense of humor, and his love of all that is beautiful in this world and in this short life that we have in it. Mostly, I just miss the fact that he is gone, and I am reminded from time to time just exactly how much I really hated having to say goodbye. I am great at hello, but I am lousy at goodbye, just like my daddy was.

January 7, 2008

Copyright © 2008, 2009, Ricky A. Pursley. All rights reserved.

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