I have something very special to put right here. I am going to move back and forth in time to share something so important that it needs to be said all at once. I hope you like it. This one is special. Trust.
I met Homer in a little town right outside of Houston. This was Jim's father. He was tall and lean. He had a profile that could be called Roman or even Native American. It was noble. A strong nose and high cheekbones. His hair was white. Combed forward just like Caesar. He had me cut it once and I was so nervous. That was his way. He would set you out a task not asking if you could do it. He simply stated that you would. I never argued with Homer. He cast a long shadow and even in his later years he had a little something extra about him. He must have been 85 or so when we first met. If he liked you he called you babe and doll and if you ran afoul of him, then he called you PAL. He had a quick wit and a charming smile. He was smart. I could see a lot of Jim's traits came from his father. His father was his idol. Jim thought his father hung the moon and rightly so.
He grew up poor in the Fox Lake area of Illinois. A remote area even now. They lived in a small house down a dirt road. His mother was a scrub woman. His father had played some baseball, but was hit by a car while crossing the street and that put him into a wheelchair. These were hard working people. Homer was salt of the earth. He had a heart of gold, generous to a fault. He was well read. In his later years his youngest daughter took care of him. He loved her so. He loved all his children with all he had, and that was an amazing thing. He was having trouble with his balance that first time we met. So he would put his hand on my shoulder and we walked slowly making our way. He was a war hero. Serving honorably in WWII. He was a paratrooper on the beaches of Normandy and was there at siege of Bastogne They recognized his years of service and bravery and rewarded him with a Purple Heart. It left a deep mark on him. He had more than his fair share of struggle and yet he did not complain. He just got whatever needed to be done accomplished.
He met Jim's mother while she was sitting on a hotel's front steps reading a book. He drove by in a brand new car and he chatted her up. He told me later that she had had seven suitors all those years ago and that when he asked her, later after they had been married, why she chose him, she said it was because he never cussed. She was beautiful. They had seven children in quick succession. He worked two and three jobs to keep those kids in private school. He was a mechanic by trade and a grade A tinkerer. He could fix most anything. He was a thinker of deep thoughts. He had a succinct command of the English language. It says a lot about this man that my children knew many famous stories about this man, who lived half way across the country, well before they ever met him. He was a legend. I will tell you two stories...He had started by trying to fix a running toilet, this was in the little house that his large family shared on the South side of Chicago. He fiddled and fussed and got frustrated with this porcelain foe. He was waging a battle with it and he was losing badly. He went out to the unattached garage and came back with a sledge hammer and murdered the damn thing. And then his sweet natured bride gently pointed out that he had indeed fixed that toilet. And another time while he was fixing something with the dishwasher he ended up pushing it down the back steps into the yard evicting it from the premises. Legend.
He loved cars. He never tired of fixing them. He understood the mystery of any motor. He drove well to almost 90. He picked us up from the train station once and when he stepped up to greet us from our long journey, there were tears in his eyes. We asked what was wrong. It distressed his son to see his father cry. He gave us a hug and said he was happy. He had missed his son and was happy he had come home. He came to visit us just once. He was beginning to have mobility issues. He and I would pull out the sofa bed and watch old westerns to pass the time. Snacking and chatting as we watched. We took naps in the afternoons together in the living room. He was a wonderful guest for our slumber party. He loved to eat this giant of a man. I would cook a lot of pasta and things with tomatoes. I noticed he seemed to get an upset stomach shortly after he ate. I talked to his daughter. Now this was about half way into his two weeks with us. She said that tomatoes bothered him. That he did not eat them. He had never said a word. He ate whatever you put in front of him with not one complaint. He suffered in silence. The one thing he was never silent about was the love of his life. I have only seen her in pictures. She had passed on long before I came along. I never heard a whisper of a negative word about her. I grew to miss this woman I had never met. We went to visit once again, Jim's sister had been married. They had pushed up the date and she was wed in the hospital. She had cancer. It was heart breaking to see this beautiful woman suffer. Homer sat beside me at the dinner. The one that was to celebrate that which was destine to be a short marriage. He took my hand and held it and talked about his beautiful wife that he missed so much and his lovely daughter, named for her mother who was leaving too soon. My heart was filled with sorrow. I could not think of the words to bring comfort. The secret ones that would take his hurt away. I just held his hand and listened. Before they served the cake, the waiters started handing out champaign. Right before our table was served, one of his daughters came over and whispered to keep my glass away from Homer. I smiled but I was preoccupied by this sad man. In wonder brought by his open, loving heart. As soon as our glasses were set down he scooped his up and downed it. In one long gulp and then he reached for mine and repeated the action. What could I do? I was not going to be the one to deny him. He flagged down a waiter and got us two more and we toasted the beautiful bride and groom.
He stayed with his daughter while she was battling cancer. He held vigil. He took a sentinel position in a wing back chair across the room from his daughter and he watched over this child he loved so well. The sadness had fallen on him and he wrapped himself in it. It was no comfort. I would sneak him marsh mellows. As he sat watching. It was our secret. He was diabetic, but I could not turn him away. We had it down to a science. He would catch my eye and turn his hand palm up and rub his thumb across his fingers. I would palm them into his hand and no one was the wiser. He would reward me with a smile and a wink. It was well worth the risk for that payoff. We stayed together in a big house. That whole great family came together to be with her. She was strong and tough and she fought a good fight. But in the end cancer won out and she left to find her well deserved peace. I sat with him again waiting before the funeral. He was worried we would be late. Again we held hands and talked about the people he loved. Many of them now gone. He out lived a Grandson, a Daughter, his Wife. We stood together during the services. It was cold in Illinois . A record setting chill had crept into midwest. There was a stillness in that biting cold. Everything seemed to be muffled. Everything seemed stark and barren. We stood together outside. Under a covered area. Before a beautiful casket, that proclaimed someone special was now gone. It was a somber time. He took his hand out of his pocket and reached once again for mine. We stayed that way, holding hands in the cold. Paying homage to a beautiful soul. It seemed I always found him in sadness.
I never heard him raise his voice. The loudest thing about him was his laugh. He had a endless supply of grand gestures for any occasion. He was snappy. He had style and pizzazz. He was a great showman. But time was marching along and every time we visited him, he was more and more in decline. He went from having to be guided while he walked, to having a walker and later a wheelchair. He went from his own apartment of rooms downstairs at his daughter's house to a room on the main level closer to his child. Jim was sad. He would call his father and try to talk to him, but Homer could not hear well. It frustrated them both. I worried. My grandfather had died suddenly and I mourned him well over twenty years before I made peace with the emptiness he left. It was the closest I could get to the feelings Jim had for his father. I worried it would break this man that I loved, when the day came that only one of them woke up. The call came too soon. We were not ready. Homer was not eating. Homer was an eater. He loved pork chops and he loved his youngest daughter's cooking and yet he would not eat. He was weak. He had fallen again recently. They took him to the ER. The doctors wanted to send him home. But Homer had brought a secret weapon, his second youngest daughter. And she would brook no argument. She stood her ground and told them something was wrong. That they needed to find it. The doctors relented. They stood no chance against her.
It was cancer. Again, it was cancer. It did not matter where it started, they were too late. It had come too far. It was just a matter of time. We flew to Chicago. He was put into hospice and it was our turn. We had planned to stay a few days. We were there for weeks. We held our own vigil. He was never alone. His children and grandson stayed in his room. Sleeping on the floor beside him at night. We took over the retirement home he was placed in. We came like locus to that lonely sad place. Fifteen at a time in his room was to be expected. In the beginning we would go outside to the court yard. Homer in a rolling chair and all of us like soldiers following behind him. The sun came out for him. It was June. Ducklings had been hatched and we watched them scramble after their mother. Quacking and splashing and running amuck. We had all our meals with him. First outside and in a little room off the patio. But Homer faded more and more everyday. His second oldest daughter and his granddaughter had t -shirts printed up that said TEAM HOMER and we all wore them when we visited him. One of his grandsons made a fb page. And we all added pictures. They told the story of Homer and the family he made. Because Homer was above all, a family man. His family was grounded in love. We stayed in different houses as our numbers changed and grew. We worried about leaving him at night. Worried that that would be the night he would leave us. We were torn between a bone numbing tiredness and the desire to stay with him. We watched him breathe while he slept. It was as if he had become the small child and we were now the parents. I would put lotion on his hands. The ones I had held through so much and send up silent prayers. For what I was not sure. I knew he could not stay. We drove over in the morning, picking up coffee on the way. Relieving whomever had stayed with him through the night. Someone would run out for lunch and someone else would get dinner. We had it down to a system. We snuck in wine and toasted to the past. To each other. To Homer. His family came to see him from all over the country. They laughed and shared more stories and cried. It was brutal, that wait. Yet another counting game had begun. But unlike the others I prayed for more time. I needed a delay. Time went so slowly and yet it was coming at us so fast, Homer's end. He got to see his family, he was aware they were all there. His oldest son and daughter came from Texas to sit with him. We were laughing, sharing memories in those first days. Before the awful truth hit home. When we still pushed reality away. He sat up surveying the room and asked us if we had come to see him or each other. That was Homer. He had some great nurses. He loved to flirt with them and they took wonderful care of him.
He had already stopped eating when we got there, but the human body can live a long time without food. He was gaunt when we arrived. He shrank more and more each day. I had never seen that kind of devastation. His long bones were so thin. When we pulled him up in bed or turned him, we would see how small he had become. It was impossible to be that small. His skin was pale and so thin, We learned so many terrible facts about cancer and dying. It was like a crash course in death. When he gave up water, we knew we were running out of time. He lost his words somewhere on that last journey and we went to hand signals. For water, to raise or lower the bed, to relieve himself. His clever daughter made a flip chart with different pictures so he could point to what he needed. Towards the end the only thing he wanted was to be relieved of his pain. He had taken nothing in those first weeks. He gritted his way through it as he had every battle in his life. He was always a good soldier and he was not one to complain. He fell into a semi conscience state. He was slipping away from us.
It was a Saturday evening. Someone from hospice had come. She was wonderful. She set up a work station in his room. We all gathered in chairs from different parts of that retirement facility. Forming a semicircle around this lovely man. We waited. They said it would be soon. We huddled together in loose groups each whispering to the others "how do they know? What does it mean?" The staff all lifted his sheet and looked at his feet when they came into to check on him. It was a sign. It meant something. Those little purple/red bursts like small bruises which appeared without fan fair on the bottom of his feet. We all stood together to say good bye. I took my turn, holding his hand one last time. We told him it was okay. That he could go. And he did. One day before Father's Day, just after 6 pm he left us. Alone. We were in a shock. We had been building up to this moment, Knowing it was coming, but still we were stunned. We trickled out of the facility never to return. The pattern was broken. After coming and going for so long we were lost without the touchstone it had become. The services were planned quickly. More people came to honor this man. To show him the respect he so richly deserved. They played Taps for him and handed Jim the flag that draped his casket. It was fitting. He was not alone. He went home to his beloved Wife, his Daughter, his Grandson and so many others. We carried him with us. In our hearts. I see him all the time. In Jim's gestures, his voice his kind heart and I send a silent thank you to that glorious man. Who made so much out of so little. I am thankful to have known him. He is a legend.