The Best Man

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My stepfather was a very honorable man.  He thought he would somehow live forever, and I hoped that he could pull it off, but a month ago I listened as he took his final breath.  My mother was asleep in the room but I was sitting next to him as life left his body.  In the moments from that discovery to checking him for any sign of life, to waking my mother, I have never felt so alone.

I looked at him, his eyes closed, his mouth open when his last breath left him.  He was still; this man who embraced life, who lived on his own terms, and who brightened the lives of everyone he met.  He was the kindest, most gentle and supportive man, humble to the center of his generous soul.

The hole he left in our lives is enormous, and people who only knew him as customers of his hardware store approach his family to say how much they miss him.  He had time for everyone, unfortunately his time ran out sooner than we wanted.

He was still a bachelor at age 41 when he married my mother.  Instantly, he became a father of four (three of us were still living at home) and a grandfather of my oldest sister’s son.  He passed away at age 84, so about half of his life had been as head of our family.  Of all the things he treasured in life, his family was at the center.

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The last Christmas together as a family.  My parents, sisters and I.

At his celebration of life, my youngest sister talked about how he had changed our lives, and how he did for her what our own dad had never done.  She nailed it.  When I was looking for a best man at my wedding, I picked him.  How appropriate because he was forever the best man.

As a father he was always there for us. He was often called upon to help, but he never complained or failed to stand beside us.  He was thrilled whenever any of us came by, and lit up whenever one of his many grandchildren came by the house or the store.  He was an only child, who married late in life, but he became head of a large family.  He was known for wearing hats, and the hat that fit best was family man.

He was the third-generation owner of a hardware store, a remnant of times past, a small storefront that could not compete head-to-head with the large corporate box stores that sprang up as the city grew.  What he was known for was extraordinary customer service. As we discovered after his death, the store had not been profitable for years but he kept it open because he loved what he did, and it served as a gathering point for friends and local merchants who enjoyed his company.  As word of his illness spread, and after his death was reported, the outpouring of sympathy and support, and recognition of the unique place his store served in the community, became very apparent.  As his family, we knew what he meant to us, what the community was learning was what he meant to them.

His store was originally opened as a partnership with another family back in 1905.  The other family sold their interest in 1925, and a couple of years later my stepfather’s father joined the business.  In the early 1960’s my stepfather joined as a partner.    As my sister and I discovered as we were going through file cabinets, we found handwritten ledgers, order forms and merchandise catalogs from those early days; my stepfather saved everything.  Not just things of value, everything.

My stepfather was by no means a perfect man, he had his faults and one of those was managing his health.  Despite his health issues, he lived a long and full life; we just wish he could have managed to stay healthier and longer.  His imperfections made him more human.

The death of my stepfather was swift and difficult.  A fall brought on a rapid decline.  I had heard about the significance of falls from people who had lost parents.  One falls usually leads to others and that was our experience.  Two years ago he had been in the hospital from a fall where he was unconscious.  Since then, he had suffered other falls but none that required hospitalization until this latest one.  With this fall the downward spiral started, with loss of strength and slowness of faculties.  He tried physical therapy, but it did not really help, so he went to the hospital, and never came out.

The first day in the hospital he was paranoid and angry, and had to be physically restrained.  I did not observe it but the reports were heartbreaking; this was a kind and gentle man.  Within days he stopped making sense, only a few words here and there were understandable.  Then the hallucinations and reaching into the air started as his brain circuits seemed broken and connecting in nonsensical ways.  He had a tube giving him nutrition and only received moistening of his mouth as he lost the ability to swallow.  Despite conducting many tests, with no clear cause for the onset of my stepfather’s delirium, the doctor kept telling us it could suddenly break and he could improve.  Privately, I did not believe this would be the case.

Two days before he died, I was sitting with him while a nurse’s assistant was in the room.  I hadn’t understood anything he had said that afternoon, then the next moment he raised his arm, turned toward me and said “happy birthday.”  The nurse’s assistant asked if someone had a birthday recently.  I said my birthday had been a few days before.  Apparently he had overheard one of my sisters comment about it earlier that day.  Those were the last words I heard him speak.

The next day he was put in hospice and was moved to a different floor of the hospital.  My sister suggested that each of us have a few private words with him to say what was on our minds.  He was now heavily medicated as his organs were shutting down and this eased his pain and brought comfort.  He was no longer awake, but each of us wanted the opportunity to be with him.

When it was my turn, I knew what I wanted to say.  These were all things I knew I should have said before, or said more often.  The minute I sat down, took his hand and opened my mouth, a flood of tears rolled down my face.  My throat closed with emotion and my soul burst with sadness.  Slowly, with measured ability, I said what was in my heart.  The easiest words to think of, the hardest to actually say. The reality of his departure closed around me.

He was an encourager. If we wanted to accomplish something, he wanted it for us. I recall the time in college when I told him I was changing my major to incorporate more writing classes, he was all for it.  He didn’t know if I had any writing talent but he saw the passion that I had.

That night, my mother and I stayed with him, everyone else left to get some rest.  My mother finally found a comfortable way to sleep on a hard sofa.  I pulled a recliner next to his bed. I had the television on but the sound off.  I wanted to listen to his breathing.    We were listening for the “death rattle” as they call it, but it never came.  While I sat in the recliner, I worked on words I wanted to have read at his funeral.  As I finished the draft, I suddenly noticed the silence.  I looked over and he wasn’t moving.  His breathing had stopped.  I woke my mother and offered my comfort to her.  He was gone.  None of use had expected him to pass as soon as he did.

The days after his death, and the celebration of his life, were a blur.  It was hard to know what day it was.  During his illness and after his death, my sisters and I spent more time together than we had for many years.  The closeness with them helped with the pain radiating through my being. There are always decisions to be made and things to do, and as it happens, the adult children take over for the remaining parent.  In death, the roles reverse.

To honor him, each of us put on a t-shirt that advertised his hardware store, and wore one of his hats.  He had a lot of hats.  At the funeral home we stood in front of his casket for a photo.  A slideshow of photos of him played in the background and a picture of him is visible on the screen.

Family hats

For a man who was an only child and had no biological children of his own, he had a large and diverse family.

He was born and raised in the same town.  The only job he ever had was working in the hardware store.  He served in the Army and was stationed in Germany, where his family had roots.  He traveled, was well-read, and had definite opinions.  Over the forty-plus years that I knew him, I noticed him changing, he mellowed and some of his political views shifted as he got older and developed a wider perspective.  People loved being around him, he could strike up a conversation with anyone, and he looked for the best in people.  He was a lovable man, and each day we miss him more.

When he was in the hospital after his last fall, he told my sisters and I how much we had done for him, how we had accepted him and enriched his life.  It was he, who accepted us, and helped make our lives whole.  Humble to the very end.  The best man I ever knew.


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