It was a year ago today that I got the call I never wanted to receive.
I remember it well — just like yesterday in fact. It was about 2:30 p.m. on what had been a cloudy day, but the sun came out just before I received it.
“He’s gone,” my sister said. “No more pain. He and Mom are together again.”
With those words, Dr. Paul Stuart Sell had completed a full 87 years, 4 months and 6 days of service as a servant of the Lord.
Maybe it was appropriate that the sun had just come out and the birds were singing. Heaven was welcoming its newest member who probably has given the place a shot of enthusiasm, not to mention one heck of a piano player.
They say that time flies. For me, the year without Dad has been a blur. I can remember making the lonely drive to Independence to join my sister in making the final arrangements for his funeral. I was having flashbacks, from the time he coached me in Little League basketball to him watching me hit a home run over the fence at Riley Grade School, to seeing the pride in his eyes when I won the Independence Junior College Invitational Golf Tournament in 1975 as the trophy was almost as big as me.
Fittingly, my last lucid conversation with Dad came on Father’s Day of last year. I was playing in the Swinging Bridge Golf Tournament in Independence and it was my ritual the last two years to visit him at the nursing home and report the details of my round.
But last year, my report wasn’t registering too much. I knew that Dad didn’t have much time, as he had cheated death a couple of times earlier in the year. The gleam in his shining eyes was dimming and I believe in his mind he knew he was about to rejoin his beloved Betty, who had departed 19 years earlier. He often had talked in the last year of his life that he was ready to be with his maker and see his wife, family and friends who no doubt were anxiously awaiting his arrival.
While I didn’t see Dad but five or six times a year, I always felt his presence. When he was still in relatively good health, we would talk nearly every day. “What did you do today Boy?” he would say. “Tell me what you shot. Give me hole by hole. Did you beat the Big Boy (Kurt Kinnamon)?”
Golf is what bonded us for so many years. Dad actually was more of a hunter and fisherman in his early days (something I avoided like the plague), but once I became serious about the game he shifted away from the nature sports and played more with “the big group” — a collection of about 20 who would play each Saturday and some Sundays. They would get into arguments before the first shot was struck, trying to determine the teams for that particular round and some would protest they were unfair. Once the round was completed, there was a gathering at the “19th hole” to settle up and replay the round. Sometimes the postgame took as long as the round itself.
I have missed Dad’s eternal optimism, his zest to live life to the fullest and the fact he held me in such high regard, much higher than I ever deserved. I’m not sure there’s been many fathers who ever have been prouder of their sons or bragged unabashedly to the point that it was somewhat embarrassing. Dad wanted everyone to know his son was a low-handicap golfer and that he was a sports writer in McPherson, Kansas. Little did he realize just how simple my life was and not really anything to brag about, but I wasn’t going to tell him that.
It was interesting after Dad passed away the comments I received from my friends. Many highlighted his piano playing, as he was truly special. It was that and golf that kept him going after Mom died in 1995, as he loved to entertain people, make them smile and be the center of attention, maybe one reason I don’t like the spotlight. But he tickled the ivories even up to a few months before his death as we had the piano taken to the nursing home, where he entertained the residents and played “mood music” for the lunch and dinner crowds.
It was so sad that Dad didn’t get much time to enjoy his retirement from his job as a dentist for 39 years in Independence. He and Mom had so many plans for retirement, but Mom contracted cancer right after they finally closed shop and didn’t make the destinations they had planned. That probably was his life’s biggest disappointment.
I’ve had so many people tell me what a wonderful dentist he was. When I was at my 40th high school reunion recently, classmate Debbie Mills told me she had the honor of being his last patient, something I never knew. I’m glad she shared that with me. Dad always said I was the worst patient he ever had as I think he took some glee in drilling a filling in me as I would squirm in the chair in fear.
Not too long after Dad had passed, I shot a 69 at Turkey Creek and as soon as I got home, out of habit I picked up the phone to call him and give him the details. But then the realization hit me that he was gone.
I thought of Dad all day Sunday — Father’s Day, my first without him. My golfing partner Craig Dancer and I were tied for the lead in our flight of the Swinging Bridge and I so wanted for us to win since Dad and Craig’s late father — “The Prince” as we called him — were probably sitting side-by-side, knocking down a Schlitz and watching us. We didn’t quite pull it off, but I’m sure they were proud of us.
Just like they always were.