Today is my Dad’s birthday and he is 87 years young.
To be honest, I always wonder anymore when he has a birthday if it’s going to be his last. It’s been God’s decision to take away his ability to walk and, for the most part, to remember the wonderful life he made for Mom, my sister Susie and me. He’s basically a shell of his former self and it pains me so much everytime I see him what the ravages of age and dementia can do to a human being.
It was always the family joke that Mom was so much older than Dad. In reality, she was born on Feb. 14, 1927, and he was born four days later. Maybe that’s why they were meant to be. They were nearly born at the hip.
I’ve always had an interesting relationship with my Dad. Growing up, our interests — other than golf — couldn’t have been more different. He was an amazing musician (he played in a number of bands for about 50 years), while I couldn’t carry a tune. He loved to hunt and fish. I’m scared of guns and you won’t catch me in a boat. He was always interested in business and politics, my mind was on nothing but sports.
He helped coach my Little League basketball team when I was in the fifth grade, even though he didn’t like basketball. He just wanted to do “Dad things,” with me. He would give me a hard time after we lost because I wasn’t a good loser and he told me I had better learn in life there were going to be times like that and learn to accept them.
He always liked to bring up the story about when I was playing a game of Chutes and Ladders with my sister. After I lost, I turned the board over and stomped out of the room, probably crying. Such a petulant child I was!
Dad also liked to always bring up the time when I was forced to pitch in a Little League baseball game because it went extra innings and we ran out of pitchers. Now I was no Sox Hiatt — the Cy Young of Independence — but I brought the heat for one inning and even got Eric Layton out, the one batter I retired. He knew how disappointed I was when I didn’t make the LL All-Star team that year, as apparently there wasn’t room on the team for a good-field, no-hit third baseman with a rag arm who relied more on cunning and guile — not to mention the ability to steal signs, like the Jaycees’ third base coach’s bunt sign.
Dad always took care of his family. He was a dentist for more than 40 years and once he retired, he and Mom were going to travel. But shortly after that, she learned she had cancer and was gone far too young.
I’ve learned a lot from Dad. In work, he was a dentist of the people. It didn’t matter if they were white, black or brown. He didn’t see color. He saw people and always wanted to help them. He always treated people with respect, no matter who they were, and maybe that’s why I do the same, never thinking I’m any better than anybody else. If you treat people with respect, they’ll do the same.
Once I went away to college, things seemed to change for the better. The farther we were apart, the closer we seemed to get. I can remember when he came up to Lawrence for Dad’s Weekend at my fraternity, Alpha Tau Omega, and he was the life of the party — which he always has been. If there was a party, he was in the middle of it.
Of course, when he saw the piano he couldn’t resist and he had the joint jumping. I still have a picture of him sitting at the piano and all of my buddies there around him, obviously enjoying the music. I just ignore all the empty beer cans in the picture. He went hard that night, as I remember it was about 2 a.m. and we were going to make our frequent run to The Hole in the Wall to get something to eat. Dad was all gung-ho, wanting to be with us guys. He said he would get ready, but when I went back to the room, he had crashed for the night.
What I always loved most about my Dad was how proud he is of me and how much he bragged to his friends about what actually are pedestrian accomplishments, but to him they’re earth-shattering events.
Dad would always tell anyone who would listen that his son had made eight hole-in-ones in golf. One of the things I always did was call him after each round, because he wanted to know what I shot and if I was able to beat Kurt Kinnamon. I always complained to him how pure ball striking sometimes was trumped when a guy would knock it off a tree and it would somehow end up on the green. When I would call, he had two questions —“What did you shoot and did you beat the Big Boy (that’s was he always referred Kurt as)?"
Once he retired, Dad and his buddies would always hang out at the local doughnut shop and, of course, he would brag to his friends about his son. They were kind enough to indulge him, knowing he was so proud of me. To this day, I’m thankful they put up with him. It’s not like I’ve found the cure for cancer or been a hot-shot real estate mogul. I’ve been nothing more than a local sportswriter who loves what he does, even if the financial rewards are minimal. I’m sure the sons and daughters of my Dad’s friends have accomplished a lot more than I could ever imagine.
I have watched Dad suffer through the loss of my mother (nearly 20 years) and he’s done so wonderfully well without her. I really thought once she passed, he would go downhill quick. She was his life and everything he did was for her and his kids.
I also have watched Dad suffer through losing his closest friends. Don Dancer (who always called my Dad ‘Little Britches’ because of his short legs and wide body), Dale DeVore, Bill Chappuie and Jerry Webb all have moved on to a better place, but it’s left such a void in his life. He has outlived nearly all of his friends, one reason he is spending his twilight days so alone.
I so wish I could be in Independence to celebrate his special day. In my recent visits, he sometimes doesn’t totally realize who I am, yet other times he can remember the days when he hung out as a kid in my grandfather’s hardware store on the Girard square in Southeast Kansas. Even though it’s all foggy for him, I can tell in his eyes that the wheels are turning and he’s trying to remember.
If God would grant me just two more wishes in my life, it would be for Dad to be able to walk again and for his mind to return intact. That would be the best birthday presents I could give him.