TBT: Lessons learned in his last days

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Monday would have been my father-in-law’s 75th birthday. I wrote this about five years ago, a few months after his death.

Lessons learned in in-law’s last days
Nov. 12, 2008
The Republic

A typical hot July day in Indiana, and after celebrating my father-in-law’s 70th birthday, we’re all ready to go home. It’s been fun to have my wife’s side of the family together again — it’s usually only a few of us at a time — but it’s been a long day, and it’s a long drive home for both my wife and I and my in-laws.

Bob, my father-in-law, is already sitting in the van while the rest of us mill about in the driveway of my brother-in-law’s house, site of the birthday party. Bob calls me over. We make some small talk about the day, then he says something that sticks with me.

“I try to love everybody, you know,” he says. “There’s no point getting mad at people about small stuff.”

I agree with him, all the while thinking how appropriate that I be the one he says that to. He’s seen my short temper, although it’s been awhile since I’ve really snapped at some other driver with my in-laws around.

His words stick with me on the long drive home to Columbus.

Ready to walk

Early September, and Bob’s granddaughter from his first marriage is getting married. The wedding will be on the beach at Michigan City, and there are two big concerns for my mother-in-law and my wife: one, how will Bob, who has trouble walking these days, get down to the beach; and, two, will his health even allow him to make the trip?

My wife and I meet my in-laws in Michigan City, and the first thing my mother-in-law says to us is, “You won’t believe it.”

Bob’s looking better than he has in a long time. He walks down to the beach and back up with minimal help from another grandson. At the reception, he even dances — albeit a slow, shuffling dance next to our table — with his wife.

Most notably, he gets along just fine with his ex-wife. I’ve heard some of the history, but I’m still amazed at his patience in dealing with her.

Afterwards, as my wife and I drive north to Michigan for a brief getaway at our friends’ cabin, I think about how important it is to be there for moments like that.

Time to go

A month later, and the family’s come together for much less pleasant circumstances.

There are almost 20 of us in a room at the VA Medical Center in Indianapolis: me and my wife, my mother-in-law, my brothers-in-law and their wives, children and grandchildren from Bob’s first marriage.

Bob is dying. First came the broken leg, a spiral fracture he suffered not long after the wedding on the beach.

Surgery kept getting delayed, then, a series of strokes debilitated him to the point where there’s no real hope of rehabilitation.

He’s been a do-not-resuscitate for years, and the family has made the painful decision to let him go.

We talk to him, although he can’t really respond. We talk to each other about things other than what will happen in the next few days, when he’s gone.

I think about who will be there at the end for me. My wife and I don’t have children and don’t plan to have any.

But we have nieces and nephews, and I make a note to myself to spend more time with them, be their favorite uncle so that I have someone to watch over me when I can no longer watch over myself.

Oct. 11. Bob’s funeral.

After the ceremony, we all go outside to the funeral home parking lot for the 21-gun salute.

I hold my wife with one arm and my mother-in-law with the other, both of them crying, and a comforting peace takes over. As the shots ring out, I’m reminded of the words I said to Bob a week before, words I’m not sure he heard, but words that I took great comfort in saying.

“It’s OK. I’ll take care of them now, Dad.”

Share your words of wisdom.