October 4th, 2017
Today is your 95th birthday. I know you wanted to see it, and more after it. I can’t say that I wish you had seen it, not in the state you were in those last few months. But I wish you have lived as long as you wanted to, and that you could have enjoyed living. I guess that was the problem with those months—you weren’t enjoying them. I don’t think you were enjoying anything.
I took you to the doctor in January, after you’d spent three or four days of Christmas week in the hospital. We knew you had a failing aortal valve in your heart, a condition called aortal stenosis, where the valve becomes to stiff to open and close the way it needs to. We knew you were not a candidate for surgery. We did not know, until that day in the doctor’s office, that you had so little time left.
When your new doctor explained to us that your life expectancy was six to twelve months, I wasn’t sure what I felt. I looked at you. So often in the past I looked at you to give me the answer, to tell me how I should feel, to tell me how we were going to get through this. I knew that, this time, when I looked in your eyes, I wasn’t looking for those answers. I was only looking to see how you felt about being told you were about to die.
And when I saw you, I knew how I felt. I knew my heart was breaking. I had picked you up and driven you here. I had put on your flannel shirt, buttoning the cuffs exactly the way you liked them, tied your shoes, zipped up your coat and placed a step so you could get into the car. It was like getting a toddler ready to go somewhere. It was like bringing an innocent, frightened child to the doctor, to be told he was going to die.
Only that child was the man who had tied my shoes and zipped my coat and buttoned my shirt when I was the innocent toddler.
I forgot that you had made us an hour late for the appointment, because you refused to get ready. I forgot that the receptionist had told us you couldn’t come in that late, but the doctor had overruled her. I forgot that, like a toddler, you had pitched a tantrum and said we couldn’t leave until you had the blue jacket, not the tan one, and the blue hat, not the green one.
I forgot every bit of anger and frustration I had felt, and just felt sorry for you.
You only lived four more months. Your heart weakened every day, and you didn’t understand why (or believe that) you couldn’t walk unassisted, get out of bed without asking for help, or go get a chainsaw and cut down trees. You were bored. You were angry. You were impossible.
And I’ve never hurt so much for anyone in my life.
“I’m going to live to be a hundred,” you told me on that ride to the doctor’s office. You told people that often, and you always mentioned your Aunt Julie, who lived to be 108. I’m not sure she was that old. I think you added a year every time you told the story, but I do know Julie lived to be at least 100. And you wanted to do that too. You would have hated every minute of another five and a half years, but it still makes me sad that you didn’t get what you wanted.
You left the world the way you came into it—fighting. You were born, 95 years ago today, in a log cabin on the side of a hill on Rocky Fork Road, in Pensacola, North Carolina. Your father Charlie had been born in that same cabin. Your grandfather Jake had built it, but he was already dead when you were born. You came at night—typical for you—and the doctor was at another house nearby, delivering another baby. So when you came out with the umbilical cord wrapped around your neck, no doubt blue and unmoving, your mother and grandmother had to keep you alive without medical help. Granny (Rachel Elmira Rathbone, nee Autrey) slipped her fingers under the cord and held it away from your throat. She kept you alive until the doctor could get there and safely cut you free.
Your mother, Joan, (Ma) said that you were always especially devoted to her mother, running to the well and bringing her water when she was sick and dying. You were only three when she died. Your memory of it was a little different. You told me, “I never left the poor woman alone. I probably worried her to death.”
Today, when you would have been 95, we had a new furnace put in your house, to replace the 50-year-old one that never ran. That one, I’m told, is going to be used to heat an auto-shop. I’m glad it will be used, and I’m glad to finally hear air moving through the elaborate duct system you designed in 1967. I still have your drawings. We also put countertops in the kitchen you planned so long ago. You never finished building your cabinets. Now they’re in place and ready, even a few you didn’t build.
I told Mother I guessed it was the most expensive birthday present she’d ever bought you.
We all wish you were here to see it. I hope maybe, somehow, you are.