Goodbye Dad, until we meet again

By Steve Sell
June 26, 2014

Maybe it was appropriate that my last meaningful conversation with my Dad was on Father’s Day.

For me, every day was Father’s Day when I would be around him.

I was in Independence for the annual Swinging Bridge Golf Tournament. I partnered with him for many years in the event until the drain of playing three days in a row from the back tees was too much. We played together until he was almost 80, as he was generally one of the oldest players in the tournament. It was always held on Father’s Day weekend, which is why it was so special to us. One year we actually won our flight and Dad took the scoresheet after the tournament and gave it to me. I still have that sheet at my house and will treasure it forever.

I was in town for five days and I knew his time was getting short because of failing kidneys, not to mention being ravaged by dementia, which was in the process of transitioning into Alzheimer’s. He was in really good spirits when I first arrived that Wednesday, but progressively worsened each day. By Father’s Day, he just kind of nodded as I spoke, just occasionally saying one of his favorite phrases, “how ‘bout that!”

When I left Independence after the final day of that tournament Sunday, I had a feeling I would be back soon. As I was playing in the McPherson City Golf Tournament this past weekend, I was prepping for the final round on Sunday. But then came a call that Dad was getting worse and the end could be near.

I talked with my sister and she said Dad’s history had been to hold on to allow us to complete whatever we were doing. I thought about playing on Sunday in his honor and then going down Monday, because I knew it would make him unhappy that I left a tournament that I was leading in my flight.

The point became moot less than 2 hours later when the call came that we had better hurry. My sister and I both left about the same time and arrived in Independence about 3:3o p.m. Sunday.

We were told by the nurse that he probably had only a few hours to live and to spend our final moments with him. But she obviously didn’t know Dad like we did and that he had a heart as big as Montana.

We stayed at his side before deciding to go to the hotel for the evening. He did not die on Sunday as predicted. He did not die on Monday. But this man with seemingly nine lives finally died peacefully on Tuesday afternoon after living a happy 87 full years plus a few months.

When the final call came, I immediately thanked God for giving him peace and allowing him to return to Mom. Dad has been in a wheelchair for the last couple of years, something he despised. This was a guy who played golf three times a week until he was 83 before his longtime balky knees finally gave up the ghost. He used a walker for a time before it became too much of a strain, finally relenting to be in the wheelchair, a device he adapted well to as he was like speed racer going down the halls of the nursing home.

I’ve written a lot of remembrance columns in my nearly 40 years in journalism and several people quickly asked me Tuesday what I was going to write about Dad. I told them never had I felt so much pressure to do a good job. I know in heaven he would be waiting to see what I said.

What I would say most is how proud he was of me and my sister. Things that didn’t seem that important to us would make him immediately want to tell his friends. I’m sure they wearied of his tales, as they all had kids who have equaled or surpassed what we had done. But that was Dad. He loved to brag about his kids.

He was an amazing father and husband. When my Mom passed away in 1995, I really thought his world was going to end. She was his one and only love. She did everything for him and he for her. They were married for more than 45 years and honestly when I was a kid I always thought he’d be the first to go, because I couldn’t believe God would leave Dad on this planet without her.

But she died far too young and Dad had to learn how to do a lot of new things for himself, which for my sister and me was a scary proposition. But he learned how to adapt on his own and fended well. However, when Mom died, she took a big part of his heart with her and he never truly recovered.

Dad went into the Navy in 1944 when he was 17, served for two years, then was discharged after serving his country. He went to Pittsburg State and then the University of Missouri at Kansas City to become a dentist. It was an occupation he was devoted to for 39 years and he never turned anybody away. He didn't see color in a town that included a lot of ethnic groups. I always said he was a "dentist for the people." Also as a dentist, though, he always said I was the worst patient he ever had. When he would fill a cavity, that drill would cause me to leave the room screaming. But he always did everything he could to make it as painless as possible.

When I was a kid, Dad and I really didn’t have that many common interests. I loved to play baseball, golf and tennis. He did play golf, but fishing and hunting were his passions. He loved to get in the boat with my grandfather and they could fish for hours, even if they never had a semblance of a bite. They were both named Paul and were two peas in a pod. Grandpa Paul taught Dad everything he could about the outdoors. When Dad tried to pass on the tradition to me, I claimed my big toe hurt and that I couldn’t get in the boat or that it was too hot. He soon realized golf would be our bond.

I didn’t really play much with him growing up as he had his own group and I played with my highly successful junior high, high school and junior college golf teams. When I got into my adult years, I would come down and play with what was called “the big group.” Dad and about 20 of his friends would throw up balls or pick teams. Being the proud pop, he would tell the gang, “my boy should be a captain.”

“Boy.” That’s how Dad always referred to me. The older I got, and after Mom was gone, he would call almost every day because he was lonely. He always called about 6:00 and when I would answer the phone, he’d say, “Hey boy, what did you shoot today?”

Dad had to know every shot I hit. Having played Turkey Creek, he knew all the holes. I would have to read him hole-by-hole and he would say, “now what’s that hole? Can’t remember.” 

I had a stretch one year where I made three of my hole-in-ones. I would call and say, “guess what I did today?” And he would respond, “not another hole-in-one!” It got to the point where he expected me to make one. He always like to brag that there weren’t many father and sons who had combined for 11 aces, as he made three to go with my eight. When I left his room this past weekend, I took with me his trophy of his first ace. I was playing with him and the late Milton Lowmaster. Dad made a 1 on the hole, Milt a 2 and me a 3, a story he always liked to tell. Then he’d add that he made a birdie on the next hole. What he didn’t mention, though, is that he finished that nine with a 38 despite an ace and a birdie.

Of course, his first order of business after I’d make an ace was to run down to the donut shop the next day and tell the coffee klatch. There was a group of about 10 or 12 of them that met every day to catch up on world events, talk KU sports, gossip about what was happening in Independence and banter about how the country was being flushed down the toilet by those in Washington. Dad, of course, would have to start the day by saying, “my boy made another ace.”

The guys would tolerate him and his prideful boasts, knowing that his kids were all he had in the world. Then they would go about their business.

Another memory of Dad was when I was in grade school, as I could see him watching me before the first class playing softball. He thought I couldn’t see his car as he was on his way to work, but he always stopped to watch me bat. Once he saw that, he would go on.

When I was at KU, every time I left Independence after visiting to go back to Lawrence he would stand in the driveway and wave until I reached the corner of the block. I would then look at my gas tank and see that he had filled it without telling me. He did that for my sister as well on her visits from Lawrence.

One year, Dad helped coach Little League basketball even though he really knew nothing about the game. I was in the fifth grade and fortunately he was just the assistant. It always amused him how uber-competitive I was, literally throwing a childish temper tantrum if our team would lose, which we did only twice that year. He would laugh at me and say how embarrassed he was that I acted like that. He was right.

When I was a junior at KU, he once came up for Dad’s Weekend. There were several of us from Independence and nearby Coffeyville who lived in the ATO fraternity house and, naturally, he was the center of attention when he arrived. Once he saw the piano in the living room, it was all over. He started jamming and drew a huge crowd.

After a long night of quaffing cereal malt beverages and going to Paul Gray's Jazz Place, we all had the munchies and decided to get something to eat. Dad was going to be one of the boys and go with us. While I didn’t really want him to, I told him he could. I told him I would come to the room and get him in 10 minutes, but when I returned, he was sound asleep. But he could hang with the best of them. Anyone who knew Dad knew he was the life of the party and quite often was the last man standing. He also was a jokester, learning that trait from his father, who was the master jokester of all time.

Dad's love of music came from Grandpa Paul, who was an amazing pianist. Both of them played in bands for decades, as Dad was part of various groups and even cut a CD with his good friend George Jones under the heading "Paradox." On my last day with Dad, I plugged in his CD and I could tell, even though he couldn't say anything, that his mind was at peace.

Music was omnipresent in our house. Dad played every day and what was so amazing is that he played by ear and did not need to read music. He also could belt it out on the clarinet and craved jazz. His love of music rubbed off on my sister, who also was a pianist and played the clarinet. Me? I couldn't carry a tune and was allergic to piano keys. I did love music growing up, but it was rock-and-roll, from The Beatles to The Who to Lynyrd Skynyrd. Dad thought it was all noise, preferring jazz and the classics. He had an amazing collection of vinyl albums and never was it quiet in our house. He would either be on the piano providing mood music before dinner or have the record player on.

On Wednesday, when I got out of bed, I realized that for the first time in 57 years, 3 months and 22 days, my best friend was gone. The feeling of emptiness was haunting and the room was eerily quiet. So I turned on the radio and the first song that played was Billy Joel's "Piano Man." How appropriate.

When I said what amounted to my last goodbye while he was alive, I told him my goal in the remaining years of my life is to do everything that he would be proud of. That would be to do the best I can in my job, treat people the way I would want them to treat me (something he always told me to do) and dedicate every round of golf I play to him.

So Dad, until we meet again in heaven to play another round of golf, I just want you to know that I love you and I’ll miss you. Terribly.

Signed,

Boy (Your Son Steven Craig)


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