By Reba J. McMellon, M.S., LPC
Matthew 11:30 – For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
I have a photograph of me taken several years ago on Memorial Day. I am wearing my father’s army shirt from the Korean War. The medal around my neck has the emblem commemorating 50 years since the Korean War. I know I’m supposed to call it a conflict, but it deserves the word war, in my book.
I don’t even know how to describe all that in a way that it makes sense to non-veterans. That is because I tuned out most of my dad’s war stories while he was still living. Since his death, I feel like a custodian for what he stood for. The good that he stood for.
Korea is in the news again. I find it fascinating now. I feel proud of what those young men did. How many even know the dates of the Korean war? Was it North Korea or South Korea? What was the conflict about? Now, I know. Now, it matters to me.
That’s just an example of how my father’s death has affected me. He was a man’s man, to say the least. He was a gruff, take no prisoners man and was the head of a family of women.
He wasn’t the peace maker but the policy holder. I find myself in that role. I’m not trying to fill his shoes, but I am wearing his army shirt.
Can you believe it fits me? My Dad was always a large man, in my eyes. Now I realize, at the age of 18, he was my size. For those of you who don’t know me, that’s 120 pounds soaking wet. If I exaggerate.
Much of my father’s agitation and gruff demeanor was attributed to being a war veteran. That may or may not have been true. The point is, as he began needing more care due to his health, he showed a side to him that I will admire for the rest of my life.
Talk about a hero. He went out of this world with the dignity of a war hero for sure.
It was a five-year stretch, after his last by-pass surgery. When he couldn’t walk far enough to get to a doctor’s office, he let me push him in a wheelchair. That took dignity on his part. He remained cheerful and complimented me constantly. Sometimes he liked to call me Charlie, for reasons I never understood.
Managing him, his chair, myself and sometimes my mom wasn’t for the faint hearted. It really did take skill. I’d push the door open, swing him around and catch the door with my foot or backside, in time to pull him in backward-all while managing to keep my purse from falling off my shoulder. I wasn’t always successful. Asking my dad to hold my purse was never an option, in my mind. I would not compromise his dignity in that way. Thank goodness cross-body purses became popular. I never had to stoop to a fanny pack … Besides, a fanny pack is too small for the inevitable mound of medical paperwork.
My father went into hospice care in November 2010. He remained in his house of 46 years. He had congestive heart failure and COPD. Many diseases linger. This one is certainly no exception.
We went through many stages. The day we came home from the emergency room with a hospital bed in his living room was big. But that did not stop his dignity.
He always welcomed visitors. He moved the two feet from the bed to his place at the table every day, even when we cautioned him not to. If the noise from his oxygen machine got on his nerves, he attempted to get out of bed and turn the thing off himself. That was not always a successful decision, but he did not let that keep him from what independence and say-so he had left.
The last few months were winter. It was a very cold winter for our region. Many after midnight calls came. It was always a fall (or slide) to the floor. It never failed that he greeted us with a strong and welcoming voice. See what I mean about dignity. A war hero. A vet. We would greet each other like two soldiers.
The next day he would brag on us a lot. He’d say, “I don’t know how you get me up off the floor so easily.” To which I would reply, “I’ve had training, Daddy.”
Maybe that is one reason why it was so hard to see him go. How do you close the chapter on someone like that? How does anybody watch as they close the casket on a loved one-much less your Daddy?
My father’s legacy did not end when they closed the lid. As a matter of fact, that’s when it really began.
This will be the tenth Father’s Day without my father. It hasn’t been ten years since he left. It has been ten years and three months.
On Father’s Day, Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day, I wear my father’s Korean War shirt. Much of his role in the family passed to me. I thank him for showing me how to soldier on with dignity.
My father’s last words to me were, “If you can get me comfortable, I’m going to go on out of here.”
He did. I thank him for trusting me and letting me love him in ways that were not possible before his health declined.
Caregiving does not have to be a burden. If you will go with it, it can be quite healing.
(Reba J. McMellon, M.S. is a licensed professional counselor with 35 years of experience. She worked in the field of child sexual abuse and adult survivors of sexual abuse for over 25 years. She continues to work as a mental health consultant, public speaker and freelance writer in Jackson, Mississippi. Reba can be reached at email@example.com.)