A man needs to feel useful

My dad’s last words to me were about my son, Garrett.

My dad and my son Garrett in 2005, before the cancer.

It was Dad’s birthday, his 77th, and we had planned a quiet celebration. Mom called me that afternoon to warn me that Dad had not gotten out of bed all day. More than that: he had taken a turn over the weekend and was in real pain.

As I stood at the foot of his bed Dad experienced several spasms. First his face clouded, and then he grimaced and grunted low for the few seconds each one lasted.

I tried to wish him a happy birthday, but Dad had something to say. “The younger one,” he said. “The younger one,” his voice strained, wobbly. Weighted down.

“Garrett? You mean Garrett.” Mom hovered anxiously.

“Yes, Garrett. He asked about the knives.”

My middling-quality knives always cut beautifully because Dad kept a perfect edge on them.

Several years ago my father taught my sons how to sharpen knives. He was extremely good at it. When I was a boy Dad made a friend at work, a fellow of his father’s generation named Pat, who taught him how. Dad and Pat used to spend their breaks at their whetstones in friendly competition to see who could get the best edge.

When my brother and I were young, Dad tried to teach us, too. But his patience was terrible. When we didn’t get it right away he lost his temper. It pushed us away

But a man mellows with age. Time and life burr off his rough edges, much like the whetstone burrs off metal splayed along a dull blade. Dad taught my sons with a level of patience that, while still not perfect, was greater than anything I ever experienced from him as a child. I envied my sons, who learned it readily and were and happy to present me my knives, sharpened.

I can only assume that Garrett had lately asked his grandpa for a refresher. And here was Dad, concerned about it more than his pain.

“Garrett wanted me to show him again about the knives.”

Or at least that’s what I think he was trying to say. Morphine slowed and slurred his speech. Pain spasms interrupted him every fourth or fifth word and caused him to lose his place. He kept trying again to say it. Finally, exhausted, he fell asleep.

Dad stayed asleep. No candles were blown out, no cake was eaten. My gift to him, two pairs of new Levi’s 505s, the only jeans he would wear, went unopened.

Early the next afternoon I was at a coffee shop with my brother discussing some matters of our mutual employer. Mom called: “Your father stopped breathing about an hour ago. He just quietly passed away.”

A man needs to feel useful, to know he’s offering something valuable and meaningful. In my dad’s cancer years he seemed less and less sure what purpose he served.

Actually, his search for purpose went back farther than that. Dad had been all about his family while my brother and I were under his roof. After my brother and I grew up and moved away, Dad went into business for himself making custom wood furniture. After that venture failed, he returned to manufacturing management. But it was a kick in his teeth when that job encountered surprising difficulty and ended involuntarily. He seemed simply to lose his will to work.

My father drilled into his sons that a man works, period. It was extremely challenging for me to see my mother have to return to work to put food on the table.

Dad threw himself into building coalitions that might revitalize South Bend’s economically depressed west side, where he lived as a teen. He had admirable aims but seemed only to want to be a catalyst for something happening. He simply would not roll up his sleeves and do the hard work to make something happen. None of his initiatives bore any real fruit.

When their home became too much for Dad to care for, he and Mom sold it and retired to Indianapolis to be closer to their sons and to the VA hospital where Dad got all his medical care. But with that, Dad withdrew from everything. He had only his Internet forums and his family.

When my brother or I visited, Dad mostly wanted to hear how our jobs were going. We’d share our frustrations and challenges and Dad would always offer his advice. Unfortunately, his 1970s-1980s manufacturing experience seldom informed my brother’s and my modern software-development reality. It frustrated and sometimes agitated him; more than once I had to deescalate his anger and change the subject. Sooner or later our conversation would remind him of one of his on-the-job stories, such as how he ended 300% annual employee turnover at one plant, which improved productivity so much they soon needed to build another plant. We’d just lay back and let him tell it again; it seemed to let him feel better.

During these years I always had some major home-improvement project underway. Mom and Dad were always eager to come and help. But by this time Dad’s health limited the physical work he could do.

Destroying my front yard to connect to city sewer.

I have one especially good memory of Dad from those project days. Four years ago the city forced me to fill in my septic tank and connect my home to the sanitary sewer. It destroyed much of my front yard. Dad and Mom and my sons and I spent an entire Saturday spreading topsoil, grading, and planting grass. I issued my sons shovels and stationed them by the giant mound of soil I had delivered to my driveway. All day long they’d load the wheelbarrow and Dad would push it into the yard, where Mom and I waited with rakes. Dad would dump the dirt, Mom and I would spread and grade, and Dad would go back for another load. It was a very good day, the five of us working together. Dad did go inside twice to nap. He probably needed two or three more naps that day. But he pushed through because he wanted to be in the action. He was happy to be in the action.

My kitchen on the day I last saw my old house, the cabinets still aglow from Dad’s expert waxing.

But that was the last time he was able to help much. As I got my house ready to sell last year, Dad and Mom came over frequently to do what they could. I found jobs that his terrible vision allowed him to do. The best of them was waxing my kitchen cabinets. He had perfected a wax-finish technique in his custom furniture days and could make bare wood glow. Even with his poor vision, his work on my cabinets deepened the dark finish and made them look almost new.

But no matter the job, Dad could work only for minutes at a time before his breathing became too labored and he had to stop. He spent a lot of time sitting on the deck, watching his dog run around my fenced back yard. Whenever I needed to run to Lowe’s, he always ran along. Eventually he’d nap. He tried not to show it, but he clearly hated being sidelined.

I’ll probably never understand why he gave up on working when his last job ended, or why he wouldn’t go all in on his economic improvement initiatives, or why after he moved to Indianapolis he gave up on almost everything.

Because when his life came to an end, the thing that was on his mind was being useful, giving something of value. And it was too late.


21 responses to “A man needs to feel useful”

  1. Vic Avatar

    Jim, thanks for sharing. Heart wrenching, evoking and then heart wrenching again.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks so much Vic.

  2. Jason Shafer Avatar
    Jason Shafer

    Wow. A very touching story that rings so true.

    My wife and I see similar with her father who is 79 and is still suffering the results of a broken back in 1974. Like you, we’ve done what we can in regard to soliciting advice and asking for help, but for us it just doesn’t always seem like enough to overcome what he seems to be experiencing.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I find that we all need coaching to get through the stages of life. Generally that coaching comes from someone older who’s been there. But when you’re old, who’s there to coach you?

  3. J P Cavanaugh Avatar

    Thanks for this tender look at your father’s later years.

    It is so hard watching a parent lose independence. I have been getting a refresher course lately as my mother deals with the after effects of a stroke on top of her dimentia. These are the people who could do absolutely anything when we were young and who come to struggle with the most basic tasks.

    I wish my father had lived longer as my kids were very young when he died. I would have liked to have experienced their relationship as you were able to do.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      It was harder for me to see my dad give up on things before he lost the ability to do them. I just don’t understand why he did that.

      I was saddened to see him decline, and I hurt for him the few times he expressed frustration with it. When Mom bought her car last year, Dad really, really wanted to drive it. But his eyesight simply wouldn’t allow it, not even around the block. I empathized with him.

      But overall Dad faced his end stoically, and I think all things considered it served him well.

      My sons were fortunate to have their grandparents into their young adult years, to be sure. I had my grandparents that long. I wish I had them a little longer of course, but at least I was old enough to see them as real people before they died.

  4. Heide Avatar

    What a heartrending post, Jim. Although your dad may have given up for a time after moving to Indianapolis, it sounds like his will to help — to be of use — never really left him. How beautiful that his lessons now live on through you, and through his grandsons.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Being of use was, I think, what he wanted most. He just didn’t figure out how to make it real in his later years.

      1. Heide Avatar

        I think it’s something we all struggle with if we live long enough — because we will inevitably lose some capacity or other that is central to our sense of competence and self. But I think this process was especially hard on men like your father and mine who prided themselves so much on being capable and resourceful, and who were raised to not talk about such things. But you’ll show your boys a different model for aging well, because you’ve learned so much from you dad.

  5. Gregg Avatar

    absolutely great stuff. as a dad and as a son whose father passed 12 years ago, every piece of this resonates with me. I’ve shared it with other men who are both fathers and sons

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thank you for sharing it!

  6. DougD Avatar

    Another great one Jim, love how you can weave these moments into a compelling story. The desire for usefulness runs strong in my family too. I sharpen knives on my grandfathers whetstone, which is extremely worn. Too bad he never showed me how, he was a carpenter and sharpened all his tools every Saturday. As kids we were instructed to not touch his potato peeling knife, which was razor sharp.

    We are now going down the same road with my mom. Luckily my 15 year old daughter got it into her head that she wanted to go to “Granny Pie School” and pestered her last fall until she was allowed to sleep over and they made some pies together. Good thing she did, mom can’t do it anymore. Erin sent some pie over to granny and grandpa this week which was much appreciated.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      My grandmother told me several times that she wanted to teach me Depression cooking. Holy cow do I wish I could have actually learned it from her!

  7. Rick Croop Avatar
    Rick Croop

    So sorry to hear about your Dad, Jim. Reading this story really brought tears to my eyes. So sad. That was very touching how he wanted to show your son Garrett how to sharpen then knives again.

    He’s in a better place now.

    You don’t know me, but I was directed here from the Chrysler Newport post over at CC. The handle is Retro-Stang Rick over there. I hope I didn’t seem insensitive blathering on about the Newport/Impala/Delta-88 connection, but when I saw your comments to the same effect, I got excited and scrolled down to post and didn’t see the sad news about your Dad. Both you and Jason posting the same day about loosing a family member… a CC Effect that was sad for once. 😢

    ~ Rick

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Rick, thanks for coming over. No worries – enjoyed your comment over at CC. Nice to know someone else sees that car as I did!

  8. Lynd Avatar

    Jim, thank you for the post…. so touching, and it was compelling reading…..thank you for opening up your heart to us….
    Kind regards


    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks for stopping by, Lynd.

  9. Dale Avatar

    As I set here with an eighteen year old mind in an eighty two year old body thinking how to express ones value in life. I See my ability failing but not my desire to have a worth. Persons like our fathers and a little of my generation from an early age were taught to work and to be a producer and that all work was of value. My children became teachers and electricians done with pride.
    Today’s youth are taught to believe you are a failure without a college degree and electrician, plumbers and to work with your hands is not dignified.
    But in truth being able to hone a knife for the sharpest edge is equal to all other endeavors without exception.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Agreed. I wish we didn’t stigmatize the skilled trades.

  10. Ronald Press Avatar

    I really loved this story. I have never been a writer and just recently started a free site on WordPress, NorssecretII. I have only put up one post. I have many ideas in my head and just need to dedicate some time to it. I see in your posts references to the Indianapolis area. My son live in Noblesville. I currently live in Florida, but I’m from the Chicago area. I will be visiting my son in May of this year. We are going to his graduation with a Masters degree from Michigan State. He did his degree online.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Ronald, good luck with your blog! If you keep writing, soon you’ll be a writer.

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