Dad never raised his voice, never swore and folks said there was never a person Perry didn’t like. Mom would always threaten us girls and say, “Wait until your Dad gets home!” Of course, that didn’t put a hint of fear in our little girl hearts!
Dad and Mom were high school sweethearts. Then World War II changed everything. Dad lied about his age and enlisted at 17. He looked 10, but the country needed men to join up. Mom left their little town to get a job selling magazines in Indiana. She met someone else, got married and got pregnant with me. She was not quite 19 years old. My birth father exhibited some violent tendencies, and she left him before I was born.
I spent my first birthday in California. Mom and I were staying with her aunt. She took a job cleaning houses so that way she could have me with her all day. She later moved back to Illinois to be closer to her mother. Mom would go back to their little Iowa town to visit her grandparents, and after the war, she and Dad reconnected.
Mom and I rode the train to Iowa, and when we got off the train, Dad fell in love with us that very moment. I was three years old when they married. Even though they didn’t have hardly any money, Dad adopted me before I started kindergarten. He wanted me to start school with his last name. I didn’t learn that he wasn’t my birth father until I was 18 years old. He was always just my Dad!
I toasted Dad and Mom at their 50th anniversary. My toast: “They say blood is thicker than water, but Dad has taught me that love is thicker than blood.” Dad had tears coming down his face.
One of the most important lessons I learned from Dad was how to live fully each day.
When Dad was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer at age 75, he and Mom were wintering down in Texas. My husband flew down to drive them home because my sisters and I decided we would be crying all the way home and didn’t want to upset our parents until we had a grip on our emotions.
Dad came home and saw an oncologist. He decided to fight the disease and fight he did. He underwent 27 different rounds of chemo and extended his life 18 months. During that 18 months he never spoke of cancer or dying to us girls.
We drove him to Iowa to his 60th class reunion. While in his wheelchair, he had a wonderful time. Friends of Mom and Dad came up to our house in Minnesota several times. He was able to ride on a pontoon on the lake a month before he died. My husband and I drove to Illinois every Friday and back on Sundays for that 18 months. Mom would crash on the couch in the living room. My husband would check in at the local river boat to play cards, and I would give Dad a haircut if he needed one, make popcorn and watch his favorite westerns on TV with him. It was those quiet conversations that meant the world to me.
At the end, Dad’s doctor came to the hospital and said, “Perry, we have done all we can. It is your time to go to heaven. Would you like to depart from the hospital or would you like to go home?”
Dad came home.
My company where I worked was kind enough to let me work from Illinois and stay at my parents’ house to care for Dad. During his final 10 days, he talked to each of us girls about dying. He had a dream about his mother, and we talked about it. I told him they were waiting for him and not to be afraid.
He asked me to promise to take care of Mom. I said, “I will if you promise to be waiting to meet me in heaven when it is my turn to go.” We promised each other.
While I was at the house, I was the daughter to sit with him during the night and help with medication as needed. Sometimes I would just sit on the side of his bed when he was sleeping and sing him songs that I sang for my boys when they were babies.
Dad not only taught me to live each day but how to be brave at life’s ending.
Helping someone you love make that passage and soothe their fears helps us to experience and embrace our beliefs and the good news. To sing the quiet songs in the middle of the night to our parents like we did for our children is a gift – it is hard to describe.
It is putting that person’s fears ahead of yours.
I was fortunate to share this with my Dad. And I do expect him to keep his promise and be there to greet me someday.
Jill Ballard was a caregiver for her late husband Bob, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2010 and passed away in October of 2015. Jill was named Caregiver of the Year by AARP in 2015. She lives in Cannon Falls, a town of about 4,000 people in southeast Minnesota.