Life is a jest, and all things show it. I thought so once, and now I know it.
~ Lines from the poet John Gay, added to his epitaph
Over Memorial Day, my two sisters and I flew to Indiana to meet up with our two brothers and spend time with Dad, as we’ve been doing annually for about 10 years. It was a short visit, but it was similar to all the other visits: we sat around in a garage or in the gravel driveway eating good food and laughing and telling stories. The difference this year was that we met at my brother’s house and Dad drove the 20 miles from Linton, hung out, drove home, and one night he spent the night, sleeping in the loft of my brother’s barn (not a hay loft, not a farmer’s barn). The next morning we sat in the barn, big bay door up, drinking iced tea and talking as we looked out at trees and sky.
Dad: Life’s a joke, Verna.
Me: So you have said many times, Dad.
Dad: No, really. What else could it be?
I flew home that afternoon. The next time I saw him was in early June in a hospital in Terre Haute where he had just had emergency surgery to remove most of his colon. He died eight days later. I was holding his hand.
I don’t think life’s a joke. I think life can be very funny, just as I find it mysterious and serious and sometimes downright silly. But Dad was wrong: it’s not a joke. One evening during that last visit over Memorial Day, I looked around at all of us and I looked at my thin, frail father holding court while leaning on a cane that he used for effect - he didn’t need help walking. Five of his kids were there and a slew of his grandkids. We made a crowd, this family that he started when he married my mother in 1944. They were 18.
Our family is grieving for the man my father was over a a lifetime that (in terms of what he loved most) started with the Model A Ford and ended with the Hummer. We’re grieving for our individual losses of the father he was to each of us and the father we wished he could have been. My greatest grief for him was that he never let himself see how much we loved him, these seven kids who heard his stories and who created our own to pass on to our children.
My brother was with him the night he went into the hospital, and they talked while they waited for the surgeon. That night Dad was not calling life a joke. He was saying things to my brother that - I’m guessing - he probably wished he had said to all of us when he still had time. The jokester was gone, the cranky old man left far behind. He must have known that he may not have another chance to speak those words of appreciation that came from deep within the folds of a life that had not been a joke at all but an accomplishment of love that eluded him and anointed us: his five remaining children are very close.
Tonight I’m thinking about something that never occurred to me before: Dad’s seven children watched him and our mother grow up. He was 19 when I was born and only 33 when my youngest sister was born. We knew his childhood from his stories, but we knew his adulthood from ours. And as time passes, our stories will change with our own passages through however many years are left to us.
Next Memorial Day, we’ll meet at my brother’s house and we’ll each bring Dad with us. We’ll tell stories and we’ll laugh and we’ll cry and we’ll move on. What else could life be?