As this Father’s Day approaches, I’ve been thinking a lot about my dad. He died in December of 2014, and time has been doing its work, to the point that thoughts of him have shifted to a mix of many happy memories, to go along with the pain of his loss. I’m a father to two daughters, and have known hundreds of other fathers as friends, relatives, co-workers and acquaintances, and off the top of my head, I can’t think of anyone who carried out that role any better than my dad.
He was born into a family of four boys and four girls to working class parents in Illinois in the late 1930s. He married my mom not long after high school, and had me and my younger sister, and raised us while working at the Northern Illinois Gas Company, until he was forced into an early retirement at the age of 57 by injuries. He operated a variety of heavy equipment, and he took great pride in his work. When I was little, I can remember him pointing out subdivisions or houses that he’d run services to, and whenever we’d pass a parking lot with heavy machinery, he’d claim that he could operate anything on that lot. My mom had to explain to an excited young me (at maybe age 5 or 6?) that no, she was not going to let dad scratch my back with a backhoe. (He’d assured me that he could do so, no problem.)
He was not perfect, as none of us are. He could be short-tempered and impatient, for example. But even then, he was the most unusual of people: he was a short-tempered man whom I never heard swear. Not once in my life. Not when he bounced a hammer off his thumb. Not when the Bears or the Cubs went O-for-a-month. Not when a Democrat got elected. He used ridiculous euphemisms to avoid cursing – “son of a buck,” “dirty rip,” and the like – but as a grown man who rarely makes it across town in heavy traffic without dropping at least one trenchant Anglo-Saxonism at one of my many brain-dead fellow citizens who cannot seem to master a turn signal or figure out which lane is for passing, that’s almost more than I can comprehend. People are freaking idiots all the time — I am too — and my dad was surrounded by them his entire life, but he never swore in front of his son!
In the summer of 2014 dad had cancer surgery that we initially thought had been successful. But a month or so later we found out that it has metastasized, and a month after that we learned that it would be fatal. I spent much of the fall of that year with my mom and dad in Tennessee, and I’ll always be grateful for that time. I recorded dad sharing a lot of memories from his life, and I saw the evidence of how many lives he had touched in the form of a steady stream of visitors who came to see him, and to see what they could do for him and for my mom.
He kept his sense of humor throughout his final illness. One of my cousins was visiting not too long before dad died. That cousin is known for sarcasm and smart-assery – even by Simpson standards – and he has some Scottish background on one side. Dad was sitting in a recliner and drifting in and out of the conversation, and the cousin was joking that he was going to try to learn the bagpipes. He promised (tongue-in-cheek) to play them at dad’s funeral. Dad delivered his line with a perfectly dry tone: “That’s it. I’ve changed my mind. I’m not dying.”
Dad died on a Sunday evening, and he told me his last joke two days earlier. He and I had both been Chicago Bears fans for life, and the Bears really stunk in 2014. (Not just then, I know. Knock it off!) In the last couple of months in that season, they were on tv unusually often for a team that bad. On the final Thursday of dad’s life they were on Thursday Night Football, and dad and I watched from our dueling recliners. He was pretty heavily medicated and drowsed on and off; each time he woke up a bit, he’d ask me the score, and I’d report that the Bears were down by another touchdown or so, and he’d roll his eyes and make some comment before sliding back to sleep.
The next day, he asked me for a favor. He had been unable to make it to church for a while by then, but his church made each week’s services available on DVD for members who had been unable to make it on Sunday. Dad had several of those stored up to watch, and on that Friday, he asked if I could put a DVD in for him. He seemed a little drowsy, but I put in the DVD and handed him the remote, asking if he thought he could stay awake for the sermon.
“I’m not sure,” he said, “But I don’t want the last tv I ever watch to be that stinking Bears’ game last night.”
To end his good life, he died a good death. He had hospice care in his home, and my mom, my sister and brother-in-law and I spent some time with him every day in his final months. He had the chance to tell everyone he knew how much he loved them, and that he was ready to go, and he was solicitous of others at a time when most of us can focus only on ourselves. Because of great hospice workers and morphine, he was able to die at home.
He slept for most of his final day. In the evening, mom and I arranged a schedule; I would stay up with him, and give him morphine twice, and then she would get up early and administer the morphine while I was sleeping in. She spoke to him the last time, kissing him and telling him that he had been a great father and husband, and that he could go. Then she went to bed, and he died before she could fall asleep.
Ronald Lee Simpson was born on January 22, 1938, and died on December 14th, 2014. In between he lived a loving and generous life. I think it is hard for some people to come to faith in a loving heavenly Father if they have an abusive, or neglectful, or absent earthly father. I am a Christian because of both of my parents, but my path to God was made much easier by the example of a father’s love that I witnessed all my life. I can’t wait to see him again.
I wish for you all that you have had a father like mine, or that you marry a father like mine, or that you are a father like mine. Happy Father’s Day!