A Gallant Man
I’ll never get used to this death thing. You would think by now we should be buds, or at least on cordial terms, having lost both my parents, a baby brother, all my grandparents, uncles, cousins, friends, aunts, including my most adored one who was not really a blood relation at all, but like a grandmother, gifted to me from the universe to step in for the YaiYai and Nana I’d lost as a kid. Yet, the universe does step up when you need it, for me in the form of my father-in-law who passed away last week, surrounded by his family and secure in the knowledge that he was on his way to the best of parties at the Place To Be where things would be a lot less worrisome than here on planet earth.
About a month ago, my father-in-law spent a week in the hospital. He’d been taken by ambulance in the middle of the night when his oxygen levels dropped so low he could barely catch a breath. For the better part of the last year, he’d been battling this issue with his lungs; for the 84 years prior, he’d been healthy, happy, and full of life, creating beautiful tables, lamps and sundries out of wood, still doing some side work for a friend, still helping his kids with their home improvements, still cutting his lawn with a push mower, still going hunting, still showing up whenever you needed him, still doing everything he loved and then some. He’d been active in his church his whole life, until Covid, and was responsible for so many of the brick and mortar improvements at their church that it would be hard for anyone to walk in there and not feel his spirit just hanging about the place.
I think he could have dealt with most anything in life except the inability to be of service. That weighed on him — that and the leaky mitral valve that didn’t close properly so the tiniest bit of blood kept sloshing back and forth each time his heart beat. After awhile stuff like that catches up with you and at the end, there wasn’t enough blood moving through to keep the rest of the body, especially his lungs, working properly.
The day he died, my father-in-law said to my mother-in-law: “I don’t think I’m going to make it to your birthday.”
Her birthday was only five days away. Whether she expected him to say that or something else was unclear, but being the stoic woman she is, my mother-in-law reacted in a way I know I could not have.
She didn’t break down or cry or ask God why. (I maintain this is the difference between a Swiss/German ancestry and a Greek/Italian one.) She just took it in stride, probably said something like, “yes, well,” shorthand for, “none of us has any control over what happens anyway since it’s all in God’s hands,” and went about attending to his needs. “We’ve lived a good life,” she’s said again and again, and it’s true, they have.
Later that same day, my father-in-law asked Son 3 — there are four boys and one girl in my husband’s family — to get his car inspected, one less chore for my mother-in-law to do somewhere down the road is probably what he was thinking. The standing instructions were to sell both cars after he died and buy my mother-in-law a new car so she wouldn’t have to hassle with car issues. Even when he was dying, my father-in-law was thinking of others, especially my mother-in-law. They’d been married for 65 years so this transition was going to be a tough one. Everyone knew that. Son 3 did as requested and then asked his father if there was anything else he could do.
“Yes,” was the response. “Go get two dozen roses for your mother so I can give them to her for her birthday.” My mother-in-law loves flowers and my father-in-law has always gifted them to her on her birthday and other holidays. Son 3 bought the flowers as requested and snuck them into basecamp — the room where my father-in-law had been set up with a hospital bed and all his accoutrements for the three weeks since he’d been home from the hospital. It was a comfy room with a TV, a couple chairs for visitors, a pot of hydrangeas my mother-in-law had put on the table so he would have something beautiful to look at, and pictures of their family throughout the years on all the walls, and, of course, the oxygen tanks.
The only problem was the windows didn’t allow him to see enough of the outside world like the bay window in the living room did so he’d fought hard to get out of that bed and into his easy chair that was just down the long hall that led to the living room. A few days earlier, he had done it, done it so well, in fact, that all of us thought he was rallying, that maybe he could live for months or even longer this way. The couple days in the living room were like manna from heaven for him and the family, a gift like no other. He was talkative, animated, and full of wisdom he wanted to pass on.
Yet nothing of earth lasts forever.
“It all happened on the same day,” my mother-in-law said. Her husband had died half an hour earlier, surrounded by us all, forever at peace. Six hours before that, he had given her two dozen roses for her birthday.
With the instinct of one who knows they don’t have much time left to them, my father-in-law had dispatched Son 3 to buy roses for his wife. He knew he wasn’t going to be there to give them to her personally so that day would be his last shot.
Son 3 snuck two dozen roses into the bedroom. The living room chair where my father-in-law had sat and entertained family a couple days before now seemed like another lifetime. They called my mother-in-law into the room, and my father-in-law who now reclined in his chair in the bedroom motioned to the flowers and presented her with a card. I wasn’t there, but I watched the video his son took. The look of love on my father-in-law’s face was unmistakable and filled with such grace that my heart ached. It said everything he could not. The flowers were still there on her birthday, the day we buried him, not a consolation, no, but surely a symbol of his steady and undying love.
Losing a man like that is difficult for everyone who knew him. My father-in-law was wise, understated, amazingly creative and mechanically gifted — there was nothing he couldn’t repair or build — a talented woodworker, an exceptional father, grandfather and great grandfather who loved trying new things — he bought a boat, and took up cross-country motorcycle riding in his 70s! — and never met a challenge he wouldn’t embrace, “I’m ready,” his epithet.
He was always thinking beyond himself to the needs of others, and rather than ask how he could help, he just helped — the epitome of gallantry. As for me, I am grateful for the thousands of ways, big and small, that he touched our lives, nurtured our children, and was tremendously supportive of us and our family. When we used to keep bees he was there helping us with yearly honey extraction, and for me personally, he was especially supportive of my writing, a true gift to me.
Such a man can never be replaced, and really, there’s no point in trying. Instead, we’ll have to learn to live with the loss, but oh, how sorely he will be missed.
If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you’ll have read my posts about the book Sacred Commerce by Ayman Sawaf and Rowan Gabrielle, and my wobbly attempt to take up the challenge of writing about a different one of the 12 sacred virtues of the merchant priests each month. It seems a very long time since the last installment, but in truth, I’ve been perseverating over this one — Gallantry — for a while now. I honestly couldn’t come up with a single example of gallant behavior — neither the heroic kind nor the chivalrous kind. I don’t know why I didn’t see the pattern in my father-in-law before. My best guess is that sometimes it takes a tragedy to be grounded in the present.
“Yesterday I was clever. I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise. I am changing myself.” — Rumi
Thank you for reading.
pam lazos 7.26.20