Dad. I'm your last kid- the one who was born after all your financial woes were behind you, that's what you like to tell me. That I never knew hard times. I was born after your three sons, your four daughters. I was born when everyone was sick and tired of babies, and the bedrooms were getting pretty crowded. But before the age of two, your eldest son and daughter left the farm to strike out into the world on their own terms. I don't remember sharing a house with them at all. I do remember sleeping in a crib in you and mom's bedroom until I was four years old. I remember that sometimes you would move my crib into my brother's lonely basement bedroom so he could have a little company. I loved those sleepovers, they were so special.
I grew up watching you farm. You were meticulous- never wearing your barn clothes into the house, always washing your hands, and arms, and balding head in the bathroom sink before sitting down at the table to eat mom's garden infused meals. Your head was so full of important things- the farm, your position at the insurance company, your job as deacon at our church, your responsibilities with the church run welfare committee. You had hogs to raise, fields to grow, kids to support, a house and barn to maintain, and people in your community to look after. Sometimes at dinner, you would cradle your head in your hands and we would know to be quiet- you were having a migraine.
When I was little I liked to climb on your lap after dinner and you would rub your stubble across my cheeks. We weren't a touchy feely family, and I valued those moments so much. I felt really sad when I grew out of your lap. But sometimes after getting off the school bus in Autumn, I would run over to the tractor you were driving and I'd climb in and squeeze myself onto the floor of the cab and ride with you. We wouldn't talk, neither of us knew how to navigate that. But it was comforting being there with you, dad.
You tell stories on Sundays now. You like to tell me that you were your grandfather's favourite. When you were little and frail, he would hold you on his knee and say (in German), "Abey, Abey, What will ever become of you? You'll never make a farmer. Maybe a fiddle player".
Now, your grandfather is buried in the cemetery right on the very land you farmed every year. And you like to describe how at harvest when you used to navigate your massive combine around that cemetery, you would envision what it would be like if great-grandpa could raise his head up above the grave and see you now! You always tell that story with a ridiculously big grin on your face, and I get it, dad. I get how good it feels to rise above what your relatives thought you capable of. And man! Do I remember you at harvest. Your body screamed excitement and joy, your pace became a sort of victory march, and your arms pumped rhythmically as you strode across your yard.
You are constantly amazed that you've outlived all your ancestors. So are we. As an anxious child, I used to do the math- if you were 46 when I was born, would my children ever meet you? Would I suddenly be left without a father? How much time did I really have with you at all? Well, now I have an adult daughter, and I'm 45, and you're here with us. You live in your house, you walk with a cane, mow your own lawn, pay your own bills.
I wish you would see yourself as I see you, dad.
You're not perfect, that's true. But perfect is no prerequisite for "just right" or "good enough".
You're my dad. I still have you. I super love you.
Yesterday when we spent the day at the cabin together, we had a little chat. You told me again how grateful you are for your wife, and for your family, for your good life. You used the word "Proud". Now, we all know that a Chortitzer Mennonite ought never to be proud, but you've never fit into boxes terribly well. You've always been about the heart of the matter, and you've always had a keen ability to see past black and whites to subtle and kinder shades of grey. I often am shocked into the realization of what I would have missed, had you not stayed with us to this unbelievable age of ninety-one. Then I feel sad for all my friends whose parents have gone ahead.
You've grown beautifully soft with your old age. Tears come easily to your eyes, and they are often tears of gratitude. But you often express your concern over becoming a burden, and I try so hard to find words that you will believe. That you are so loved, so valued, so precious that a burden would become a privilege. That the idea of giving a little back to a man who gave so much would be an honour. You're a stubborn man, dad. And you're pretty hard on yourself. Could I show you a picture of who you are to us? How easily we will rearrange our lives for you when the cane no longer holds you? How sometimes I look at your hands and I want to hold them for a really long time, rub lotion into them, not leave your side?
But we are careful not to embarrass you. You would feel like a burden, and you would be ashamed of your body for demanding rest and care. The body that handled chemicals long ago made illegal. The body sustained on hog fat, thick gravy, garden potatoes, instant coffee, lots of pie.
When your son was dying, we all had thoughts of you. That surely you wouldn't hold on much longer, and we'd be facing the imminent reality of dad dying too. But that was seven years, and a stroke ago, and still you insist on going for walks, cutting your grass, minding your own business.
Every August when we bring you to the cabin, it feels like it may be the last. And each September when the family gathers at Clear lake- a tradition you began in 1962, it all feels tenuous. Precious. Timed. Until we do it again the following year.
Dear old dad, there are things I will carry with me forever. The sound of your reverent voice saying prayers at dinner. Your reading of the scripture at Christmas before eating time. Your clear blue eyes. Your stories that we can thank the stroke for uncovering in your mind. Your laughter, your grace.
There is nothing in us that deserves your presence after all this time, dad and I know it surprises you too,
Dear old dad.