He served in WWII in the Air Force; he managed a pecan orchard; he worked as the landscape architect and the building and grounds supervisor at a major university. He hunted quail and pheasant and deer (a prize-winning deer head is now in the Rockefeller mansion); he fished for trout and redfish and whatever other fish he could catch. He served faithfully in his church at every level, and participated in work trips to a sister church in Mexico, teaching them horticultural techniques and helping with building projects.
But most of all, he has loved his family. I never for one moment in my life doubted his love. At nearly 57, I am still the same daddy's girl that I was at 7, and if I could I would curl up in his lap again and laugh with him over the happenings of our days.
His body and mind are rebelling now. He lives in an assisted living home (and thank God for lovely people who love and honor the elderly), a difficult thing for both him and Mother, but necessary for the health and safety of them both. When I left after a week there last May, Mother went to see him and he said, "Maribeth was here?" But when I had arrived, he had known me immediately, and never wavered in knowing me during the entire week. His mind might trick him about when he saw me last, but it doesn't forget who I am when I'm there. And if it does in the future, if he looks at me and thinks I'm my mother or his sister or whoever -- I am confident that some part of him will still know me and love me, because nothing is stronger than that love.
Last year when I was able to visit for several weeks, he talked to me once or twice, when we were alone together, about his sense of failure -- he was of course upset over not being able to do the many things he has always done and being dependent on Mother and the rest of us, and was feeling useless because of it, but when I assured him that his lack of activity didn't change his value to us or his ability to love us, he teared up and said he "hadn't been as good as [he] should be." It startled me, but opened the way for us to talk about the love of Jesus in a way we rarely had before. He knew it, but the newly clear view of mortality was forcing him to think of it in more urgent ways.
Daddy has never been demonstrative about his faith, but I've never doubted its reality -- not because of his work in the church so much as because of that unwavering love for us. One of his few regular shows of faith was the mealtime prayer that he always spoke. It was a memorized prayer, which he would occasionally change a bit or add to in honor of special occasions, like a birthday or our visits after we'd grown and gone. At one time, in the hubris of a young belief, I scorned this -- but I have learned since then, thank God, that repetition needn't be mindlessness, that it can hold great value in so many ways. And last summer, as I first saw for myself the way his mind had begun to trick him, I prayed that he would never lose that prayer.
Mother called me last night (my late-sent birthday card had still not arrived; I'm a lousy daughter) and told me about the birthday dinner. My brother brought venison for the main meal, my aunt (Daddy's "baby" sister; she's only 81) brought cake; Mother brought flowers for the table. The staff set them up in a private spot. The meals of course are communal as a rule, and there is always someone who says grace -- so Daddy has had very few occasions to pray before a meal for over a year now. So when Mother said, "Let's say grace," she assumed she would need to do so -- but as she reached for his hand, she saw that he had already bowed his head, and he spoke his prayer, perfectly, without so much as a second's hesitation.
And she tells me that the last couple of weeks he's been doing something new: he sings "Jesus love me, this I know / for the Bible tells me so" -- and then says, in complete confidence, "And I know that's true."
Ninety years. I want him here for the rest of mine, and I fear the loss that will come sooner rather than later, but I will always think of him singing "Jesus loves me" as the inevitable approaches, and be thankful in seeing that, indeed, love can't be taken away.