He was sitting in a well-worn recliner, head rolled back, dozing in the sunshine slanting through the tall window. The room was standard institutional bland but he made it look almost classy with his dapper, baby blue sweater vest, pressed pants and shock of wavy white hair. He had shaved and dressed early in anticipation of our lunch date. The rehab schedule was light on Sundays and we planned to break up the long, tedious day with lunch at his favorite steak house. His eyes fluttered open as I tiptoed into the room.
“How’re you doing, Dad?”
He smiled that gentle smile. “Mighty fine.”
Nearly 90, with failing vision, a weak heart and decreasing tolerance for walking even short distances, he still managed to find something positive to say each day. On good days, he was mighty fine. On less than good days, he was “Coming along. It’ll take some time.” If I had to deal with all of his health issues, I might simply pull the covers over my head and never get out of bed. Yet there he was, mighty fine and ready to hit the road for a good steak with his middle daughter.
Our world had tilted in so many ways since the death of my mother the previous year. Lately he handed me the keys to his car and almost trusted that after 40 years, I finally knew how to drive. My mother’s walker, which we folded up and tucked into the back seat, was now needed by him for anything more than a few steps around his living room. His pace, our pace, had slowed to nearly a shuffle. But still, he was mighty fine.
As the hostess showed us to his favorite booth, I watched the charming man who never missed the chance to flirt with the ladies. Everywhere we went that day waitresses, nurses, and even the checker at the grocery store, indulged him as if he were their very own grandfather and seemed to genuinely enjoy his company.
The sun was shining as we headed back to the car. Even though it was close to his nap time, I decided to keep our special day going a bit longer with a ride along the waterfront, a ride he had taken countless times with my mother over the years but not once since her death. I popped one of their CDs into the player and, as tunes from WWII filled the car, he crooned along to the songs of his youth. His mellow voice transported both of us back to happier times when he was young and strong with years of endless possibilities ahead.
One song, The White Cliffs Of Dover, resonated with me that day as never before.
There’ll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover tomorrow just you wait and see
There’ll be love and laughter and peace ever after tomorrow when the world is free
It was a song of hope, made popular at a time when our country was fighting an evil force threatening to destroy the free world.
“It must have been so scary during the war, Dad. Weren’t you afraid all the time?” I asked.
“Not really. We knew Hitler wouldn’t win”, he said.
“How were you so sure?”
“FDR told us it would be okay and we believed him”
He made it sound so simple. He had grown up at a time when the world was turned upside down, yet he had believed it would all be okay. And it was. The same generation that never lost hope as bombs fell on London, Pearl Harbor and around the world, was now the generation living into their 90’s and still finding a reason to get out of bed in the morning. The Nazi army had goose stepped across his formative years. Rather than break him, that time in history had turned my father into a man of strength, hope and endurance.
Did that explain his optimism as he faced down the cruelties of aging with courage and grace? How he managed to adjust to the steady chipping away of his independence and still give it his all at the rehab center, proving to the naysayers that he could indeed live out his remaining years in his own home, on his own terms? His missed his wife of 65 years with a sadness that was constantly just below the surface. Countless tears were shed when he was alone in his bed at night. But each new day brought that gentle smile and the reassurance that he was once again mighty fine.
No one lives forever and my father gave up the good fight not long after his 90th birthday. It’s been a long, dark winter as I adjust to a world without our daily phone calls. There are days when I resent what aging is doing now to me – the wrinkles, the aches and pains, the sense that I am becoming invisible.
But spring is in the air, the birds are returning and I’ll never be younger than I am today. I’m grateful to have come from such solid stock. When I play his CDs, I can still hear him crooning and will forever cherish that day cruising along the waterfront of North Carolina. So as I think of my dad, and the lessons he taught me, I too am feeling mighty fine.