My father taught me that men work. It was a regular theme of his parenting. He demonstrated it every day: in bed at 10, up at 5, off to the plant by 7, home at 4, rest with the family all evening. He did this week in and week out all through my childhood.
As my brother and I entered our teenage years he all but ordered us to find work in the neighborhood. We shoveled driveways in the winter and mowed lawns in the summer. We delivered newspapers in all weather, including one Christmas morning when the snow was up to our waists. Once we painted a neighbor’s privacy fence. A couple times I minded a vacationing neighbor’s house and took care of their dog.
During our college years Dad insisted we work to help pay our way. I was counterman at a Dairy Queen, a courier, a programmer, a gift-shop manager, a switchboard operator, and an administrative assistant.
While my brother and I were in college, the plant where Dad had worked all our lives closed. Manufacturing was in steep decline and jobs were scarce. Dad’s best friend ran the art museum at Notre Dame and had him make pedestals for sculpture and benches for people to sit on. Dad found he had a real talent for cabinetmaking. Well-heeled museum patrons began to ask Dad to make custom wood furniture for their homes. This kept the family going until Dad found another manufacturing job. He rose rapidly; by the time my brother and I graduated, he was plant manager. He worked hard all week at the plant and all weekend making furniture.
After my brother and I had both flown the nest, Dad quit the plant to make furniture full time. He designed and built beautiful original furniture for a wealthy clientele all across northern Indiana.
Dad hoped that word of mouth would build his business. I think he wanted to be sought out and chosen, and so he resisted making sales calls. He was advised to move downmarket, to hire a crew to make similar but simpler furniture in assembly-line fashion at lower cost, and to open a store. He resisted that, too.
The business never took off. After several extremely lean years, he found a job with a startup manufacturing company as plant manager. He found a building for the company to operate from, bought the equipment, hired a crew, and got the plant operating. But he had some difficulty navigating the politics with the company founders and was fired.
These two failures were a one-two punch to Dad’s gut. He gave up. Except when cabinetmaking work happened to find him, he never worked again.
I forget how old Dad was when all this happened. 55 maybe? 60? I was well into my adult life by then, was probably married with kids, and have lost track of the timing.
But I remember being deeply disappointed in my dad as he threw up every excuse for not finding a job, and instead donated his time to various social causes in my hometown. When Mom was forced to go back to work to put food on the table and provide health insurance, I became full-on angry.
I’m not sure that anger ever left. I just had to live with it. I broached this subject gently a few times but Dad wouldn’t let me go there.
I think for all these years I’ve lived with ambivalence toward my father. I loved him, but I lost respect for him and harbored, maybe even nurtured, a disgust for what he’d done. I yearned to be close to him, but I was repelled by how he let my mom down and by how he didn’t live up to the ideals he taught his sons.
Meanwhile, it turns out I have a knack for writing and photography and I’ve built this reasonably popular blog around my work. I deeply enjoy how people have found and follow my work here.
I am very aware of some feelings and desires within me. I imagine that my dad must have had much the same ones. He and I are more alike than I care to admit.
I believe Dad wanted to be well known and loved for his furniture more than he wanted to have a profitable business. I believe he hoped he would become the wood-furniture darling of the wealthy and well-known. I believe this because I want to be well known and loved for my photography and writing. I’ve gotten a taste of that through this blog and have considered, even dipped my toe in the water of, turning it into a living and leaving my career behind.
And I believe that when Dad’s business failed and he was fired from his last job, a voice in his head screamed at him that he was always a failure and a fraud. I believe that voice told him that his age was a disadvantage, that he couldn’t keep up with the younger crowd, that he was being pushed out. I believe his urge was incredibly strong to let his career go. I believe this because when I lost my job last year, these are the things the voice in my head was yelling at me.
I wish I could say that I thought about what my dad would have done, as a way of seeking guidance. But I can’t. Instead, I’ve doggedly, determinedly done the exact opposite of what he did.
I resisted the urge to double down on photography and writing, and have kept them as hobbies while I kept pursuing my career. At the same time, I’ve worked to promote my blog to put it in front of more eyes, rather than just lay back and hope people will find me.
Both times I’ve lost a job in the last few years, when the voice in my head yelled at me to give up I told it to leave me alone, to get bent, to fuck off. I’ve worked hard to stay employed in my field. I refuse to let my family down.
It’s given me some compassion for my father. However, that compassion has yet to overtake my anger and disappointment. I hope it does, in time. Perhaps that will finally unlock my grief. Dad’s been gone for two years today.
The family I grew up in, we’re dog people. We had a couple hounds when I was very young, but then we got a Labrador retriever and stayed with the breed from then on. The first was Missy, and then came Shadow. The last of them, Abigail, was a rescue. She died recently. It was cancer. She was 12.
Here are photos from the day Mom and Dad brought Abigail to my house so we could meet her. It was March of 2011. That’s my brother in there, also with my dear friend Gracie, who passed in 2013.
Abigail’s muzzle almost immediately began turning white. By the time she died, her face was largely white. Here’s a black-and-white film photo I made of her in 2014, her muzzle about half white.
Abigail was a quiet and gentle soul, a perfect companion for my quiet, homebody parents. Since Dad died, it was just Mom and Abigail at home. Now it’s just Mom.
My, but do we become attached to our dogs. We’ll all miss Abigail. Thanks for indulging me today as I remember her.
“Maybe you pre-grieved the loss of your dad,” my pastor said to me.
I sure hadn’t felt much grief since he died. It bothered me.
But my pastor has a point: we knew it was coming for a long time, and I was actively preparing myself for it.
I’d found a level of peace with my relationship with my dad. It would never be as close as I hoped it would be; he was probably not capable of it. But he had shaped his two sons into good men, and he provided well for us. From his working-class life he helped his two sons into upper-middle-class careers and lives. I have to call that successful fathering.
But it’s obviously not a perfect peace, because for many months I wondered why I wasn’t sadder over his death, one year ago today.
I won’t belabor the terrible year my wife and I had, except to repeat that it was terrible. The stream of hard stuff that came our way and the need to respond to it all surely got in the way of whatever grief I might have felt.
During my recent unemployment I had about a month between securing my new job and my first day at work. I worked on my blog, I made a lot of meals for my family, and I learned a little of the Java programming language. But mostly I was at loose ends.
In that downtime sometimes, seemingly out of nowhere, tears came. One rainy afternoon I was burning calories on our treadmill, watching an episode of Star Trek: Voyager. It was just an ordinary episode. The Vidiians had attacked and had boarded the ship. Routine stuff. But the emotional plot points brought me to heavy tears three times.
That was just the pregame show. On the afternoon of Christmas Day I could feel depression fall like a heavy theater curtain. By evening I was so sad that my body ached.
Margaret suggested we take an immediate impromptu road trip to help me cope. She was so right to suggest it. Road trips were a major way I coped with the grief over losing my first marriage. Being on the road kept me screwed together.
So up the Michigan Road we went on the day after Christmas, through Logansport to South Bend, my hometown. The afternoon was chilly but sunny, fine for photographing the old houses and charming downtowns of Rochester and Plymouth along the way. After we checked into our downtown hotel I rang up one of my oldest friends. He and his wife were totally down for meeting us for drinks. It was so good to see them. The next morning it rained, so we drove the Michigan Road straight to Michigan City and shopped in the outlet mall there. We took the long way home. The trip took away the worst sadness for a little while.
The next several nights were choppy. I alternated between bad dreams and lying awake processing. And crying, lots of crying. It seems like every night something different was on my mind: my dad, the job I lost, the challenges my wife’s elderly parents face near the end of their lives, the challenges several of our children have had, how disorganized our lives have been through it all, how it has challenged our young marriage.
It felt like all the deferred grief came all at once. Thank heavens I’ve built good skills at just sitting with my feelings — not wallowing in them, not denying them, just noticing them and letting them be, even when they’re uncomfortable.
By New Year’s Day the worst of it had lifted. I didn’t exactly feel light on my feet, but the sadness had returned to a low level and I started sleeping through the night.
What I know about grief is that it crashes in like waves. This was a tidal wave. I hope the remaining waves are gentler.
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.
My father died last Wednesday, one day after his 77th birthday.
I’m sure I will have a lot to write about my father in the months to come. My relationship with my father is a key part of who I am — for better, and for worse. I’ve had to do considerable work as an adult sorting out my childhood and my adult relationship with him to find happiness and good emotional health. Writing about him and about that process will help me grieve this loss.
Today, I want to tell his life story. Settle in for a long read, because even treating his life in thumbnail I wrote more than 3,500 words.
James Grey, Sr., with James Grey, Jr.
James Wilson Grey, Jr., was born January 9, 1941 in Handley, West Virginia, a small railroad town just down the Kanawha River from Charleston. His father, James W. Grey, and his mother, Bertha (Legg) Grey, were from that little town’s two most prominent families.
Prominence is relative, of course. In the remote hills of West Virginia, what qualified those families as such was that Dad’s grandparents owned the town’s two most important businesses. His paternal grandmother owned a tavern and boardinghouse that served the rail workers, and his maternal grandmother owned a general store. Dad’s parents lived in an apartment above the general store.
“Everybody in town owed money to my grandmothers,” my father said many times. “It let me go anywhere and do anything in that little town. I was the prince of Handley.”
But there is no way to sugar coat it: Dad had a difficult childhood. He was born while his father was away in the Navy fighting World War II. He remembers clearly his father coming home from the war: this man he did not know walked into the apartment and embraced his mother. It angered my young father, who ran to this strange man and started pounding on his legs in a vain attempt to protect his mother.
His parents’ reunited marriage did not last long: late one night, Dad’s mom suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. Dad, his younger sister Karen, and his parents all slept in the apartment’s one bedroom, and the commotion woke everybody up. My father, at four years old, watched his mother die.
At left, my dad in the arms of Bertha (Legg) Grey, his mother. Next to her is Rae Grey, wife of Dad’s uncle Tom; Ethel Grey, Dad’s grandmother, and Katy Hall, Ethel Grey’s half sister. Dad’s grandfather, John Eugene Grey, stands behind all the women. The boy at bottom might be Rae’s son Tommy.
Dad entered school that fall and refused to speak to his teacher. I’m sure this was in part because of his shock over losing his mother. But Dad said it was also because his teacher was an unkind woman who took pleasure in pushing children down the side of the hill when their backs were turned. Dad had to repeat the first grade because of his recalcitrance, but fortunately a different woman taught first grade the next year and Dad participated.
Dad’s dad was a laborer who had quit school after the 8th grade, and was also a drinker and a fighter. He had no idea how to raise small children, and he had to work. So Dad and Karen went to live with their grandmother, Ethel Grey. The whole family called her Mom. She was a tough, ornery woman, busy with her tavern and, I believe, still raising the youngest of her many children. While I’m sure she loved her grandchildren, the last thing she needed was more children to raise.
Dad and Karen
The stories Dad told me about living in his grandmother’s tavern, in a room directly above the kitchen, make me think he felt like he was a burden to his grandmother. And he missed his dad, whose work took him away for long periods. Sometimes his dad drove a truck, and he would delight his young son by making his route run through Handley. I believe one summer Dad even got to ride with his dad on one trucking trip. Other times his dad took factory and construction work in South Bend, Indiana, where some of his brothers had relocated. Other of Dad’s uncles and his one aunt remained in West Virginia and were involved in raising my father and his sister.
Dad as probably a preteen
All I have are Dad’s stories, which I heard over and over throughout my life, to have any idea what growing up in Handley was like. Through them my sense is that it was a scrappy place, one where you were expected to fight for your honor. You especially did not say unkind things about anybody’s mother. Casual words about Dad’s mother having passed on led to a few fights.
Handley was a place that the law could not easily reach. Mom Grey famously used to stand on her tavern’s front porch and kill squirrels with her shotgun so all would see she was a good shot and know not to mess with her. She locked the tavern door at 11 pm each night, and instructed all of her children that she guarded that door with her shotgun and that if they tried to enter that door after 11 pm, she would assume it was an intruder and would shoot them right through the door.
But for all her pluck and drive, raising two children may have become too much for Mom Grey as Dad and Karen got older. The story as Dad tells it was that the family liked to pick on Karen at the dinner table. Dad kept silent, but never liked it. His anger grew until one day he had quite an outburst over it. This upset and frightened Mom Grey enough that she immediately sent Dad and Karen to South Bend to live with their father. Dad was 11.
Dad learned quickly that while he might have been the Prince of Handley, he was considered just a dumb hillbilly in South Bend. His dad reinforced this thought, telling him point blank that he was going to have to fight the boys who dared call him that. But my father was anything but dumb. The schools in South Bend assumed they’d have to put this kid from West Virginia’s hills back a year, but Mom Grey insisted to school officials that he be tested for placement. He tested well and was able to stay in his grade.
Dad was tall and athletic, so he was recruited to the basketball team, his first time ever playing the game. He also played a lot of baseball and, at least by his stories, developed a pitching arm good enough that he was being scouted. His father valued work over baseball dreams, however, and insisted that his son quit baseball and get a paper route. By the time Dad reached high school, he had been recruited to the swim team.
Dad in 1958, a senior in high school
But as he moved through high school, he no idea what he’d do with his life. He felt sure college was out of the question. Even if it wasn’t, what would he study? Nothing really interested him. I think he was angry, feeling shortchanged in his life: having lost his mother, not having felt wanted by his family, not seeing a future for himself. And so his senior year he simply didn’t attend several of his classes for the first 23 days of the first semester. It earned him automatic Fs in those classes, cost him his place on the swim team, and earned his father’s anger. “You blew it, kid,” Dad told me his father said to him. The manufacturing plant where he worked was offering scholarships to employee children to attend Purdue University, and those Fs scuttled Dad’s chances.
Upon graduating, unsure what was next for himself, Dad disappeared for a couple days. Knowing he’d have hell to pay when he got home, he stopped by the U.S. Navy recruiter’s office and enlisted. Dad walked into his father’s apartment and, without a word, laid the enlistment papers before him. “It’s about damn time,” was all his father would say.
Dad home from boot camp, probably 1959
Dad said many times that while he was in the Navy, he was drunk as often as he could be. Yet he also expected to make a career out of the Navy. He became a radarman. He served during the Bay of Pigs Invasion; his ship raced toward Cuba as fast as it could but it was all over before they arrived. Dad’s ship also participated heavily in building US goodwill, possibly as part of Dwight Eisenhower’s People to People program. Dad’s ship visited many ports all over the East with the purpose of allowing sailors to meet and mingle with local people. Dad told stories of a state dinner in one obscure country where he got the governor’s son in trouble, of eating sushi in a dark Japanese pub where when he got to the bottom of the plate he found two fish eyeballs staring up at him, and of singing his best Elvis impersonation on stage in a small Philippine town.
Dad’s sister Karen was found to have ovarian cancer while Dad was in the Navy, and she died. He was granted leave to attend her funeral. The timeline is not entirely clear to me, but it was during this time that he lost his zeal for a Navy career and let his enlistment end, and that he met my mother.
Carole Ann Frederick, 1963
Carole Ann Frederick grew up in an upper-middle-class South Bend neighborhood, the daughter of an engineer who worked for the Bendix Corporation, a prestigious South Bend employer. There was no end to the men from her family’s social circles who were interested in her, but none of them drew her in. Then she met my father. She knew he was a drinker, that he was always out at bars hustling pool, and that other women hung loosely around him all the time. But she fell, and fell hard. And so did Dad.
Mom expected she would live a party lifestyle with my father. Her parents didn’t approve, and it wasn’t how she was raised, but she was head over heels for my dad and was going to live whatever life he made for them. But when they married, Dad turned his life around. He learned to weld and got a decent factory job, ending up at the Oliver Corporation, which made farm implements. He stopped drinking and insisted that they be asleep by 10 pm each night so he could be ready to work each day. Dad built his life around his work and his wife.
Dad was proud to work at Oliver. Here he is in one of the company’s tractors, in about 1968.
They first rented an apartment in South Bend above a real-estate office. Mom worked downstairs while Dad went off to Oliver’s.
But then in July of 1964, one month to the day after their wedding, Dad’s father fell to his death in a construction accident. It was an awful blow to Dad, who adored and idolized his father. Dad withdrew deeply into himself. It was a terrible strain on my parents’ young marriage.
Everyone to whom my father would have been closest in childhood, his parents and his sister, were gone. But Mom Grey was still alive and had retired to South Bend. Three of Mom Grey’s children, Dad’s uncle William and uncle Tom, and his aunt Betty, all lived and worked in town, too. And, in time, Dad remembered that he had his wife and was building his future with her.
927 Lancaster Drive, South Bend, our first family home
I came along in August of 1967. I was named for my grandfather, a man I never had the fortune to know. My parents moved from their apartment into a tiny ranch house. Dad made little money then; were they not able to assume a mortgage from a family desperate to get out, they could not have afforded even that basic house. We lived there, in a neighborhood we called Rabbit Hill, until 1976.
Mom Grey, my brother, and me, 1969
My brother Rick came in July of 1968 and then our family was complete. Dad kept on at Oliver’s, which became White Farm Equipment, and moved from the factory floor to be the plant’s quality control man. With increasing fortune we were able to buy a larger home in a nicer South Bend neighborhood. Our lives were typical for the time: a nuclear family with Dad working, Mom staying home, and the kids walking to school.
Dad and me, about 1970
We lived a quiet life. We weren’t joiners. We didn’t go to church. We were home a lot. It was by Dad’s design. His young life had been so chaotic that he absolutely insisted upon stability for his family. It was stability almost to the point of stagnation — yet there was real comfort in knowing that Dad would be home by 4, dinner would be on the table by 5, and we would spend our evenings quietly, with the newspaper, the TV on low, and our homework.
In the early 1980s, as manufacturing began its downturn in northern Indiana, White was sold and its pension fund liquidated. Soon the plant closed. Dad had nothing to show for 18 years of service. Dad spent a lot of time in bed. It wasn’t spoken of, but I assume now that he was deeply depressed.
Our family with Aunt Betty, Dad’s father’s sister, in about 1980
But back on Rabbit Hill, a couple had moved in next door in about 1966 who became my parents’ best friends. Dean Porter moved from New York state to South Bend with his wife Carol to join the faculty at Notre Dame and curate the school’s art gallery. My parents played Canasta with them almost every Saturday night for more than 40 years. Dean achieved his Ph.D. during those early years, and worked to fulfill the university’s goal of building a large, new art museum. He raised the funds and oversaw the construction, and when it completed he became its first Director.
Dad’s best friend, Dean, in our home at Christmas, 1984
This was about the time Dad lost his job. Dad had dabbled in woodworking as a hobby and had made a small wooden keepsake box for Dean as a birthday gift. Dean called Dad: “I need someone to design and build benches for patrons to sit on, and pedestals for art to rest on, throughout my new museum. I want you to do the work.” Dad said, “But Dean, all I’ve ever made are little boxes like yours! What makes you think I can make these benches and pedestals?” Dean’s reply was simple: “I know you can do it.” And with that, Dad went into the cabinetmaking business. It was a family affair: Dad designed and built the pieces, my brother and I did grunt work like moving lumber and sanding, and Mom managed the books. Mom also got a job as an aide at the nearby elementary school. It kept our family going. If you visit Notre Dame’s Snite Museum of Art today and sit down in a gallery, you will be sitting on one of Dad’s benches.
Dad alternated between cabinetmaking, including building furniture for private clients, and working in various manufacturing management jobs. These were the years my brother and I were in college. My father’s entire goal of parenthood was to see that his sons went to college. He always felt that his lack of education limited him. There was evidence for that: at one company where he rose to Plant Manager, when it came time to build a larger plant (because my father had increased productivity so much) they replaced him with a fellow with a master’s degree. But more than that, I think he was ashamed to have only a high-school education. A college education would prove to all that he wasn’t a dumb hillbilly.
My brother and I were both intelligent and did well in public school. Thanks to need-based federal financial aid and a large grant from the Lilly Foundation, which was then helping first-generation college students attend private colleges, I was able to attend Rose-Hulman, a top engineering school, and Rick was able to attend Notre Dame. Still, the portion of tuition, room, and board that Mom and Dad had to bear left them with next to nothing during our college years. But my brother and I both graduated, Rick with honors. My father wept openly when I graduated.
Dad kept making furniture and running various manufacturing operations after his sons had transitioned into their adult lives. Mom continued to work in the school system. They settled into empty-nested lives.
The Greys, in my home in 1995
But then Dad and Mom decided to make a go at building furniture full time. It turned out Dad was better at building than he was at sales. Moreover, he insisted on making only the finest furniture, bespoke, and there wasn’t enough of a market within reasonable range of South Bend. Cash flow became a serious problem. It drove Dad to look again for a manufacturing leadership job. He found one, helping build operations at a startup company. But it did not work out and he was fired.
These two failures flattened him. He never sought a regular job again. Mom found a job as a clerk in the county probate court to make ends meet. Dad took cabinetmaking work when it found him, mostly through word of mouth around Notre Dame. He also bought a mat cutter, and matted and framed art for the museum at Notre Dame.
Mom and dad with my sons in about 2005
Dad turned his energy to service. He became involved in the Republican Party in his county, serving as Treasurer of his local party office. He also sought to advance social concerns that would improve conditions on the impoverished west side of South Bend, where he lived as a teen with his father. He hoped to build entrepreneurship and encourage higher education in those neighborhoods. He worked hard to turn a vacant west-side K-Mart into a community market where locals could produce and sell wares, as a way of helping people find their way to brighter economic realities. His dream never came true, unfortunately, as he was never able to build a sufficient coalition of backers. He also joined the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Senior Men’s Club, a group of men who promoted social concerns in South Bend.
And my father began to actively practice Stoicism. He declared that he was a natural born Stoic, that the writings of Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus resonated so deeply with him that he felt they were kindred spirits.
Dad at my home in 2012
Dad had smoked for 50 years in 2007 when lung cancer struck. In the eleven years since he had his left lung surgically removed and underwent several rounds of chemotherapy and radiation.
We have all felt like most of these last eleven years with him have been bonus time. And he has been in reasonable health, all things considered; he was able to do most things he did before. His reduced lung capacity limited his activity a little. And we believe the chemotherapy affected his cognition; he struggled to make connections and once in a while even to form coherent sentences. It also made him grumpier, to the point where it was sometimes challenging to be around him. And macular degeneration was robbing him of his eyesight. Rick and I kept buying him vision-assistance gear so that he could see well enough to argue with people in Internet forums, which had become his second favorite pastime after he and Mom retired to Indianapolis in 2014. His favorite pastime was telling stories from his life. While I readily admit to being frustrated to hear the same story for the hundredth time, it was this repetition that made Dad’s life story stick so that I could write it.
Last summer Dad decided to drive Mom to South Bend for a family reunion. He had been keeping to himself that his eyesight had recently and suddenly gotten much worse. While on that trip he crashed his car into a median he simply could not see. Fortunately, neither he nor Mom was injured.
His rapid vision loss seemed suspicious to my brother and I, and we pressured him until he agreed to see his doctor. It turns out that not only was his lung cancer back, but it had spread to his liver and his brain. By this time, he was functionally blind. A scan showed a tumor pressing on the part of his brain that controlled vision. Radiation at that site restored enough of his vision that he could see to walk around, but his Internet-trolling days were over and he never drove again.
Me, Damion, Garrett, Rick, and Dad, Christmas Eve 2017
Dad’s doctors warned us that this would be the end of him, that he had weeks, maybe months, left. He received good care that kept him in the family game and in pretty good spirits through autumn and the holidays. He told his old stories to anyone who would listen at our Christmas Eve family gathering. But in the new year he took a sudden and rapid downturn. He lived to see his 77th birthday last Tuesday with his family around him, but on Wednesday he slipped away, quietly and peacefully.
Down the Road is on hiatus, returning Monday, 26 September. I’m rerunning old posts in the meantime. This is the story of Sugar, a wonderful dog I had who died eight years ago.
My stepson was over at a friend’s house twelve years ago, running around in the back yard, when the Rottweiler next door sailed over the fence and bit him on the leg. The puncture wounds were not serious and they healed without complication. The dog’s owner was mortified, apologized all over himself, and swore he’d keep his dog from clearing the fence again. We decided to let bygones be bygones.
Several months later my wife called me at work. “Jim, the people with the Rottweiler still feel so bad that they’re giving us one of their new pups! Isn’t that exciting?”
If the fact that they wanted to take the offending dog’s progeny did not prove that my wife and stepson were completely mad, the fact that we had a five-month-old baby most certainly did. But as usual I buckled and we got the dog.
Worried about the Rottweiler reputation, overblown if you ask me, my stepson named her Sugar so all would know she was a sweet dog. But when my brother inexplicably nicknamed her Buckethead, it tickled me so improbably that it stuck.
The oldest photo I have of Sugar, from about 2000
My little Buckethead was on the small side, having been the runt of the litter, but she was smart, gentle, and obedient. My baby boy used to crawl up to her and yank on her ears, and all she would do was look up at me with long-suffering eyes until I intervened. She favored my wife and followed her around the house, which provided good opportunity for my wife to play “head bitch” (her words, not mine!) so Sugar would know the pecking order and her place in it. Sugar did challenge for top spot a couple times as Rottweilers will do, but my wife put her back in her place swiftly and efficiently. Her care gave Sugar lifelong contentment and happiness. When my wife picked up a stray abused dog, to our surprise Sugar took her under her wing and provided, in her doggie way, much of the same kind of esteem-building structure for Gracie that my wife had provided for Sugar. While Gracie will always have issues, I think Sugar’s companionship gave Gracie a lot of security and kept her from being a basket case.
Gracie and Sugar, 2008
Our dogs’ job was to secure the back yard against the great squirrel menace, and they poured all of their energy into it. When they spied one in the yard, they tore after it relentlessly, to the unending detriment of the patio enclosure’s screens. One day, a squirrel trying to escape Sugar scaled the maple tree, and then Sugar made a flying leap and scrambled right up into the tree’s crotch – which was six feet off the ground. She momentarily forgot about the squirrel as she looked down at the ground, her body’s tension showing her puzzlement. We had to coax her to jump down from the tree. After she did that, she realized she could go up there anytime she wanted to, and so she did. We used to entice her to do it to amuse our guests.
As she aged, arthritis crept into her joints, ending her tree-jumping days. And then my wife and I divorced. The dogs were hers, and she kept them; I didn’t see either of them for a couple years. But nine months ago she asked me to take them, and what a blessing it has been to have them back! I enjoyed the quiet of living alone, but missed having someone happy to see me when I came home. The dogs have been excellent company, and as the new top dog in their lives I’ve grown much closer to them. Sugar accepted the change with the characteristic good humor and serenity for which I always admired her, and set about making new routines in her new home. (I wish Gracie had transitioned so easily!) But she was almost 11 years old, quite elderly for a Rottweiler, and her arthritis had grown worse and she lacked her old energy. Some days I couldn’t get her interested in a squirrel in the back yard, and even when she did chase one, Gracie would sail off the edge of the deck after it while Sugar went down the steps gingerly before trotting out. I could see that I would have only so much more time with her.
Old and tired near the end
Lately she has had some days where she lay around subdued, getting up only to eat and answer nature’s call. Then yesterday her legs gave out underneath her twice while I got ready for work. The second time, she just crumpled into the grass and I had to carry her inside. The vet diagnosed autoimmune hemolytic anemia (AIHA). He said that the treatment for it would be very hard on her, especially at her age, and he estimated only a 30 percent chance of success. He said that without treatment, she’d die within a week – and it would be a horrible death by suffocation as her body destroyed her red blood cells. Yesterday was the end of the line for my poor Buckethead. I scratched her ears and stroked her head until she was gone. Everybody who’s ever had a dog through its old age has a story to tell, and this one’s mine. Gracie and I are both grieving in our way, but we will get along without old Buckethead. I’m telling people that to help Gracie cope with her big loss I’ll be giving her extra attention and making some new routines – tonight, I put her on the leash and took her for a run while I rode my bike, something we’ve never done before. But the truth is these new routines will help me grieve and move on, too. Goodbye, Buckethead! You were an excellent dog.