Chapter

He’s Gone…But Never Forgotten

After a full life spanning 90 years, my father recently passed. We were very close and it was difficult letting him go. At his funeral service, I asked John Hairston to deliver my remarks as I knew I would be unable  to maintain the necessary composure. He did a splendid job.  I’d like to share those remarks with you also:

In my first book, The Keys, there’s a scene in which the main character is haunted by dreams of an incident that happened when he was a small child. His drunken father threw a can of condensed milk, striking his mother in the head, while he stood trembling on the blood covered kitchen floor. Unfortunately, that was not fiction. It happened to my father when he was a small child.

Though raised in a home where this type of physical abuse was common, my father rose above it when he finally had his own family. He worked hard to be the type of father that he wished he’d had and to give me the childhood he desperately wanted.

He was a good father. He was a giving father. He was a good man. He was a proud man. One who asked little from anyone, save the love of his family.

My father suffered from a severe case of stomach ulcers but never let that deter him from chauffeuring me around in those early teenage years before I could drive. Or from working long, hard hours to provide the type of life he felt his family deserved.

As a high school aged teen, I always sought to avoid buying gas with my meager funds. As a result, on numerous occasions I would be headed home from a date and run out of gas. My dad never complained about the late-night rescue calls. He would always come bearing a can of gas, never chastising me for my foolishness.

My parents lived in Key West during the final two years of his Navy service after the end of World War II. He truly loved it there. In turn, I fell in love with the Keys the first time I visited with my parents while I was still in graduate school at the University of Miami.

On one of my many trips, I bought a khaki, fishing-style shirt embroidered with “Key West” and a billfish over the logo. A few months later, my father and mother were down in Florida camping in their beloved Airstream trailer. I happened to be down there driving back from a business trip and we met for lunch. During the meal, he commented several times about how much he liked my shirt.

So afterward, I snuck out, changed clothes, and left my shirt in his car. He loved it, and would often tell the story of how his son gave him the shirt off of his back.

I noticed that while he wore the shirt several times over the next few years, eventually it disappeared. I later learned that he was saving it for his “big day”; he wanted to be buried in it. And he was.

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My dad in his favorite shirt with his granddaughter, Brittany

My dad was a patriot. He believed in this country and risked his life to defend our Constitution and freedom.

Like the Constitution, the 10 Commandments were sacred—not open for negotiation. They represented beliefs that you stood for and if need be, you defended with your life.

My dad believed in the classic ideal of a man. A man was someone who stood strong. He was someone who put the interests of innocent women and children above his own. My dad was a real man. My dad was John Wayne tough.

When he was well into his 80s, he resisted using a cane and refused a walker. “Those are for old people,” he explained.

My dad never saw himself as old until one of his many trips to the hospital in his final years. He was waiting in the emergency room when he overheard the nurse refer to “that elderly gentleman” on the gurney. Later he mentioned this to me.

“I’m old, aren’t I?”  he asked, never truly accepting that fact.

He wasn’t perfect. None of us are. But he lived his life as a Christian, respecting and helping others.

He loved God and was generous in his giving to the church his entire life. On numerous occasions, he would do random acts of kindness like slipping a few dollars to the young mother in front of him in the grocery store line who seemed unable to pay for all of her items on the counter.

He always wanted to do something special for me on my birthday. Of course, like all of us, as I got older there was very little that I wanted or really needed. But last year, in response to his constant questioning as to what he could do for me, I suggested we take a trip to Panama City, Florida and spend a couple of days in a condo on the beach. Of course he insisted on paying, and I let him.

It wouldn’t be much, just a simple long weekend trip. But he was thrilled and so was I.

We had a great drive over. When we arrived we went to his favorite oyster bar for dinner, where we ate a couple of dozen.

That night, he began to have problems breathing. He refused to go to the hospital but the next morning I convinced him to go to a local clinic. They immediately sent him to the emergency room, and he spent the next five days in the Panama City hospital.

Though he had fluid on his lungs and was quite sick, his main concern was that he had spoiled my birthday get-away. I wish we could have had one more trip with him in good health, but that would be our last road trip together. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was the beginning of the end for him.

His final weeks in the hospital were a roller coaster ride of hope and despair. One day they would tell me that he could recover and have a little more quality life. The next, we were having an end-of-life conversation when he took a turn for the worse.

He fought so very hard. There was no quit in him. But when he got pneumonia for the third time, his breathing became labored, forcing him back onto the ventilator. I knew the end was near.

The next day, the doctor made it official when she said that my father’s organs were shutting down. I went to his bedside and looked down at him where he lay with a breathing mask covering his mouth and nose. Before I could say a word, his eyes met mine in a knowing look.

“I’m not going to make it, am I?” he asked. I couldn’t voice the words but the tears that fell on his chest were all the answer he needed.

He gave me a sad little smile and said, “I’m going to miss you.”

My dad then made the choice that no one ever wants to face. With no chance of continuing with anything remotely resembling quality of life, he made the heart-breaking decision to come off the ventilator, to remove all of the tubes, and place his fate solely in God’s hands.

I can tell you that there is no pleasant way to experience the death of a loved one. But I suppose that I was lucky in that I got to have several conversations with my dad in his final weeks, as did my wife, our daughter, and son. By the time he passed, none of us felt that we had left anything unsaid.  On his last day in this world, I got to tell him one last time that I loved him and he understood. Then he got to tell me one last time that he loved me and as the final tears fell from my face, I understood.

I pray that God will help me to come away from this to live as a better person in honor of my father’s passing. I pray that in the years before me, I can live a life that makes me worthy of all he tried to do for me and the wondrous things God has provided in my life.

I pray that my father has now found eternal peace in the arms of Jesus and the arms of my mother. He was a good man. He was a good husband. He was my father and I will always miss him. But perhaps he was smiling when he went to meet God dressed in his beloved Key West shirt.

Disclaimer: Frank Wilem is an author, speaker, and all around funny and entertaining guy. On this blog, his stories are based on his real life experiences, often with a satirical twist.

Invite Frank to speak to your next conference, corporate retreat or club meeting. Ask about having his speaker's fee waived when you purchase his latest novel for each of your attendees!

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