Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Life Lessons: A Tribute to Dad

Billy Joe Scholes, age 72
Born May 5, 1927

Died November 17, 1999

I’ve been thinking about Dad quite a lot the past few days. That’s not so unusual this time of year. Last week was mom’s birthday. She would have been 79, but she died of lung cancer in August 1998. Dad was suffering from the same disease and was diagnosed just days apart from mom, but his illness wasn’t as advanced so he decided on the full course of chemo and radiation treatment. As a result he lived an additional 15 months, but it was an uphill struggle the entire time with only a few periods of reasonably good quality of life.

The memory of mom’s death in August and then her birthday in September sparks days of reminiscing about her every year. The intervening days between mom’s birthday and the anniversary of dad’s death are dotted with a shower of memories of dad. So in an odd way starting at the end seems appropriate; the end being the last few days I spent with Dad.

It started with an uneasy feeling building inside me on Sunday, November 7, 1999. A sadness enveloped me that evening, for no apparent reason. I was thinking a lot about Dad, and how nice it was to see him ten days earlier when he and Wanda came to Oklahoma City for an eye exam. I picked them up at Aunt Pat's house and drove them over to Dianne and Jim's for an evening with the family.

The Jantzen home that evening was filled with the fragrance of scented candles, happiness, and the sounds of years of familiarity among a family comfortable and content with itself. Dad appeared a bit frailer than the last time I saw him, toward the end of August. Aside from a brief tour of Jim and Dianne's house, which he had never seen, he sat in a comfortable chair in the living room, happy to let the family bustle about, catching up on current events in everyone's lives. Becky and her first husband Bill were there, and Julie and Steve with Kendall. Wanda's daughter, Debbie, and her family came too. Jim's folks, Elvin and Doris, who'd lived not far from Dad and Wanda near Lake Eufaula for several years, also dropped in. Denise and Justin were there as well, so the house was fairly full!

It was a fun evening. Everyone was entranced by Kendall, who roamed the living room floor, making it his personal play pen and inviting anyone who wanted to play. A look around the room revealed the pleasure and entertainment always provided by children, evident by the smiles on everyone's faces. Dianne, assuming her matronly duty of ensuring that no opportunity for family photos was allowed to pass (inherited from Mom, I feel!), herded us together for snapshots with Dad. There was an undercurrent of awareness of the uniqueness of the event. Dad rarely came to Oklahoma City for anything, and if it hadn't been for his eye exam he probably would not have come up at all. He much preferred to stay at home, on his and Wanda's property in Canadian, OK.

Dad dozed off occasionally, and the conversational hum diminished in an effort to not disturb him. He looked tired. His head was bald from the recent radiation treatments, and his breathing was labored, even at rest. He walked with a cane, which was a new sight for most of us. He could only go a few steps before needing a rest. He seemed unconcerned, or perhaps merely resigned, to how his physical appearance had changed. Conversation was difficult for him because of his breathing, but his mind was alert and he enjoyed visiting with everyone. He sat with the quiet dignity of the elderly. At the age of 72, he finally seemed elderly to me. I never perceived him that way before.

When I dropped him and Wanda off at Aunt Pat's later that night, I drove across the yard right up to the porch so he could get inside with a minimum of movement. In the not so distant past, he would have been upset at such a concession to his physical condition. But ever the realist, Pop made no protest and only nodded his approval when I announced my intention to drop him at the doorstep. As I drove home I reflected on his worsened condition, and wondered to what extent it could be attributed to -- anything but cancer.

And so it was a little more than week later, on that melancholy Sunday, when I sat at the computer looking at the photos taken at Dianne's and wondering why I was feeling so sad. In the back of my mind, I felt Dad wouldn't be with us much longer. That realization alone added weight to every moment we spent together. Knowing I would be off work for a week and a half in just a few days, after a brief trip to California to visit friends, I resolved to drive down to Dad and Wanda's and spend some time with them.

The next day, Monday, November 8th, I went about work as usual. I tried calling Dad on the way home from work, but there was no answer. I didn't think much about it, because I knew they occasionally went for a walk or a drive. I tried again several times that evening, and by 8:30 was starting to worry. I called Dianne to see if she had heard from Dad or Wanda, and she said no. I remarked that the last few times I was unable to get an answer this late in the evening usually signaled a problem. Within a few moments, Dianne called back to say Wanda had called. Dad was in Muskogee hospital, and the news wasn't good.

We flew into crisis mode. Dianne and Jim arrived at my house, Dianne with a bag packed, just in case. I too had thrown some things into a bag and loaded it into the car. After an hour's effort we reached Denise, who had been out shopping, and told her what was going on. I suggested she pack a bag, and told her Dianne and I were on our way over to pick her up. It was after 10 o'clock before we finally found ourselves heading east on I-40, faced with a two-hour drive to Muskogee.

We arrived after midnight. Entering through the emergency room entrance, we wound our way through the quiet, cold corridors to his private room on the second floor. We found Wanda, tired but awake, in the visitor's waiting room. Dad was awake, too, rearranging his pillows and blankets when we came into the room. He was surprised to see us, I think. He remarked that we shouldn't be driving so far this late at night. He didn't appear much different from when we saw him in October, except that his breathing was even more labored than before.

The next ten days were long, exhausting, and filled with a mixture of blessings and despair. The days and nights were spent in long shifts, each of us spending time with Dad and Wanda amid waves of test results, treatments, bad news, and the doctors' prognoses. I found I wanted to be near Dad, but not actually in the room. I suppose I was struggling to be strong while avoiding the emotional pit that loomed before me.

The days were incredible. I spent hours sitting under the trees in the park in front of the hospital entrance. Autumn presented itself flawlessly all around me, with cool breezes and rustling leaves. Sunlight ran in dappled circles, chasing the fallen leaves around the benches and planters. The air was warm with the sun, but threatened to turn crisp if you dared to venture out without a coat or a sweater. This small oasis was a welcome diversion from the stark reality indoors.

When I walked back into Dad's hospital room, I could see the brilliant yellow leaves of two of the most spectacular trees just outside his window. It seemed like a picture, framed on the wall in 3-D splendor. A few quiet moments sitting by his side, holding his hand and watching him sleep, was all it took to steal the beauty from the day. All the warmth from the fall scene turned cold as it came in the window. The light reflected in a silver gleam off the chrome fixtures in the room and the IV stand, ever-present by his bedside. Too clinical and impersonal, this room, for such a warm human being. I regretted the calming sound of the wind stirring the leaves outside was replaced by the low hum of the air vents, and longed to crack the window to allow the outside in. Instead there was the clicking of the IV monitors, and the occasional rustle of a professionally concerned hospital worker going about her duties.

Ups and downs. That is how we passed the days. No false hopes about him getting better, only a wish and ever-present desire to keep him comfortable. Wanda, Denise, Dianne, and I were constantly with him, taking turns so we could try to rest as much as possible. No one wanted to be away from the hospital for any length of time. We weren't the only ones there for him. Jimmy stood strong when the rest of us were tired, and Donna and Debbie were wonderful sources of strength for Wanda. There were a few visitors, a limited few who could get past a protective spouse.

I found my reluctance to be in his room suddenly replaced by a need to spend every possible moment with him. Not that there were differences to reconcile, love left to be expressed in some sad, final moment, or even to say good-bye. Just a simple wish to be with Dad, to let him know he was not alone during those alarming moments when he woke up disoriented from the morphine.

It was during those quiet hours that a flood of memories paraded through my mind. Not noisy with show, nor loud with color and sound, but a quiet procession of significant moments Dad and I had shared together.

Early memories are the warmest, I think. Fuzzy upon reflection, or maybe embellished over time, yet holding their depth and shape. I remember when Dianne and I were very young, one of my favorite things was for Daddy to wash my hair while I was in the bathtub. The bathroom was thick with steam, and I'd sit waist deep in the hot water chasing a bar of soap or a floating toy.

We added shampoo and water until I fairly toppled over with the weight of the suds, and then he'd tip me back into the water, supporting my head with his strong and gentle hands behind my neck. He'd then take a cup of clean, hot water, and pour it slowly at my hairline so it softly trickled back, rinsing the soapy cloud off my head. I remember how the water tickled as it passed through my hair and over my scalp. Not a giggle-tickle, but a delicious sensation of warmth and cleanliness while he held me in one hand and rinsed with the other. I laid there, totally relaxed, warm and safe in his hands, looked up and saw how carefully he poured so as not to get water in my eyes. I could see the look of concentration on his face even while he smiled at me. An adult view of a wonderful childhood memory.

I remember many, many winter nights driving home from Grandpa's house in Edmond, when I would be so cold and so sleepy that I would curl up in the floorboard of the car under the heater. The next thing I knew, I'd be in my room, carried in from the car and tucked into bed, all so gently that I seldom woke up. The transition to the cool bed sheets from the warmth of his embrace only a temporary discomfort for a 6-year-old boy.

There were times when I wondered how he could be so patient with me, yet he was. Ricky and Paul, brothers, were about the closest friends I had in the neighborhood when I was 9 or 10 years old. They lived two streets over, but there were few times I was able to spend the night at their place. I always got homesick, and sometimes it might be after midnight, I'd call home and ask Daddy to come and get me. He always would, and he never scolded me about it.

Ricky and Paul loved going with me to Grandpa's. He lived on the winter grounds of a traveling circus, in Edmond, Oklahoma. Grandpa was the caretaker of the property while the circus was on the road, usually from early spring to late fall. It was a wonderful place for a boy to visit. We could see llamas, camels, lions, elephants, and a lot of other exotic animals. We could ride Shetland ponies almost whenever we wanted, and watched the lion tamers practice their art. We marveled at the high-wire and trapeze performers as they went through their practice routines.

During the summer when the circus was on the road, there were few animals left behind; only a handful of tired old horses that had outlived their usefulness in the ring, and were allowed to roam the pasture in comfortable retirement. One day, Dad suggested I invite someone to go with me to spend a few days at Grandpa's. Ricky couldn't go, but Paul could, so we packed a bag and headed off with exciting plans to explore the acres of land that made up the winter grounds.

Not far behind Grandpa's house ran a creek which we loved to explore along with the surrounding area. It was filled with birds and squirrels, persimmon trees, and blackberries so juicy and ripe that we'd come home with purple hands and faces following an afternoon feast. Even on a hot day, the summer sun could not penetrate the canopy overhead, nor dispel the cool comfort of the water as it splashed over flat fieldstones and pebbles.

Paul and I had a great time that first day. We were dirty and tired after a full day's exploration, and Grandma Mary wouldn't let us in to dinner until we had had a bath. I was dismayed, because Grandma Mary was very conservative, and insisted on using bath water at least three times. Usually, Grandpa would have his bath, then I could have mine, and then Paul could have his. I never felt clean after bathing in water which I knew had soap, and the sweat and grime of Grandpa's day's work in it.

Somewhat clean, and finally fed, we were exhausted and ready for bed. Sound asleep by 10 o'clock. By 11 o'clock, I was wide awake and scared to stay the night. Grandpa tried to calm me down, but I wouldn't have it. Finally, he let me call Daddy. Within an hour, Pop was there to take me home. I remember driving off, watching Paul waving good-bye to me from the front porch, and feeling a little bit ashamed I couldn't stay the night. I slept with my head in Daddy's lap until we got home. Paul ended up staying a whole week at Grandpa's, and I went with Daddy to pick him up. Not once during that whole time did Dad ever chastise me for being afraid to stay away from home. I guess he knew I would eventually outgrow it, and I did, pretty much by the time I was 14 or so. But for the ride home, I had to listen to Paul relive his experiences on the circus grounds, which made me regret going home that first night, and resolve to overcome my fears.

There was one summer when my Aunt Ruth and her family all came to Grandpa's, and we had a family reunion. My cousin Jay and I were playing in the creek, on the thick, heavy rope swings that would take us from one high bank to the other. The ropes were old, salvaged from some circus material long discarded, and eventually wore down. Jay was swinging across when the rope snapped, and he fell flat on his back on the river bank. As he lay there gasping, I thought he was going to die because he couldn't breathe. I ran up the bank and called for help, and Dad and the others came rushing down. He picked Jay up and held onto him, telling me he would be alright, that he'd just had the wind knocked out of him. Sure enough, after a couple of moments, Jay was breathing okay. Jay was tough, though, and ready to find a replacement rope. I was ever more cautious of the ropes for the rest of the summer and preferred to avoid them.

Dad was one of the most patient men I've ever known. But when he lost his temper, watch out! We were moving furniture from our house on 8th street in Midwest City to our new house in Del City, in 1967 when I was 13. We had a bedroom's worth of furniture in the back of the pick-up, and a large mirror sandwiched between two mattresses. I remember climbing into the back of the truck, and Dad spoke sharply, telling me to get down before I broke the mirror. I said I would be careful, then promptly took a misstep and a long crack! shot through the mirror from top to bottom. I froze in fear.

Dad hauled me out of the truck by one arm, checked me over to make sure I wasn't hurt, and then sent me to my room. He followed a few minutes later with his belt, and gave me a pretty tough spanking. Even though I was hurt and crying, I could see the pain in his eyes overcome his anger, but it was a lesson I needed to learn. That's the way I've always thought of Dad. Tough when he needed to be, even when it hurt him to do so.

At the age of 12 or 13, I decided I wanted to learn how to shoot a gun. Dad occasionally went squirrel hunting when at Grandpa's, whether for food or sport I don't know. One sunny day, he took me down to the creek with a .22 rifle, and taught me how to shoot. We practiced a few times on some beer cans across the creek on the opposite bank, until I felt I was a pretty good marksman. I saw a squirrel in a nearby tree and said I wanted to shoot it. Dad said, "Go ahead."

I took careful aim at the squirrel, which sat patiently as if knowing I would miss. I shot. I didn't miss. The squirrel tumbled from the tree and lay still on the ground. Dad and I walked over to it, and I nudged it with my shoe. No movement at all. Dead. I looked up at Dad, handed him the rifle, and have never touched a gun since.

I doubt Dad knew this experience would have that effect on me. Some people enjoy hunting, but I didn't feel exhilarated by the kill. I just felt sad I had killed something that was doing me no harm, and I had no intention of using as food.

When I was 15 and a half, Dad taught me to drive. He insisted I learn to drive a stick shift. He said even though I might never own one, it was best to learn how the gears worked, and how you can control the vehicle better. He was a good teacher, and patient. I found that I preferred a manual transmission over an automatic, until a few years ago when my knee started complaining. Dad was always calm while I was driving. He never raised his voice or shouted commands, but instead would warn me well ahead of time of possible dangers or problems. I remember once being stopped behind another car at a traffic light, and gunning the accelerator as soon as the light changed. Dad calmly said, "Don't!" I stomped on the brake and barely avoided smashing the bumper of the car in front of me as it pulled away. Quietly, Dad said, "Always watch the car in front of you, not the light, Bud." Then, a moment later, "Now pull over and let me drive." There were no more lessons for a couple of days after that!

On my 16th birthday, I could see how proud he was of me when I passed my driving test with only one error. Not long after, he and Mom bought my first car for me. I guess that's when children first start drifting away from their parents; when they get their driver's license. It marks the beginning of independence for a child, and can either drive a wedge between families or draw them closer. I was raised by such loving parents that I never felt pushed away from the nest. I was allowed to go, and return if need be, whenever I felt I was ready.

One late night, Dad and I went on an errand; I forget what. On the way back it was raining and cold. It was late fall. We turned down a dark street and there was a car pulled over to the side of the road with a flat tire. Dad slowed and rolled down his window. An elderly lady sat in the driver's seat, cold and scared, clearly at her wit's end. Dad backed the car up, aimed the headlights at the flat tire, and we got out to change it for her. She sat in our car with the heater running, waiting patiently. I wasn't much help to Dad, but changing a tire is pretty much a one-person job. He got the tire changed in short order, but we were both completely soaked with the cold rain.

As he put the flat tire and the tools into the trunk of the lady's car, she got out to thank us. She reached into her purse and pulled out some money. I don't know how much, but I know I saw a $20 bill in her hand, among others. Dad refused to take the money, simply saying he was glad to help. She was surprised, I think, that he wouldn't take the cash. She thanked us again, and hurried back to her car, fumbling with an uncooperative umbrella.

Dad and I scrambled back into our own vehicle, cold and shaking, neither of us dressed for rain. We drove home in silence, watching the taillights of the stranded lady's vehicle disappear in the opposite direction, her forgotten flashers still advising caution. We both enjoyed the comfort of the heater set on high for the short drive back to the house, the stormy night splashing harmlessly off the windshield. I was so proud of Dad for his selfless act of compassion. I looked over at him and watched him light a cigarette in the harsh glare of the headlights from an approaching vehicle. When he caught me watching, he just winked at me and smiled, water running down the sides of his face.

Mark Twain wrote, "When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years."

Isn't that the way it always is? Children always thinking their parents are stupid? Well, not always. As I grew up, I was amazed that Dad knew as much as he did. He could do just about anything, from working on the car to roofing a house. I was never adept at such labors, although I was interested in learning. Some of the lessons were pretty tough, though.

Dad let me help shingle the roof once. He got me started and then set me to work, staying just a few feet away from me so he could monitor my progress. He'd offer a correction now and then.

Once, I was at the very apex of the roof, nailing down shingles with the total abandon of a kid who knows he has mastered a task he was totally ignorant of two hours before. I'd hammer down a shingle, scoot back, hammer down another one, and so on. Dad was moving along toward me, telling me to take my time and make sure the shingles were lined up properly. My concentration was fierce as I placed each shingle and brought the hammer down. Then, when he was two feet from me, Dad said, "Bud, don't move. Just look over your shoulder." I did, and suddenly got extremely dizzy, for over my shoulder was empty space! My feet were dangling over the edge of the roof, and with one more scoot backwards, I would have fallen 30 feet to the ground! My heart was racing, and he grabbed my elbow and steadied me until I calmed down. I wasn't the least bit amused by the grin on his face.

Another difficult lesson I'll never forget. I was mowing the yard one day, trying to prove to Dad that I could do it, because I wanted to mow yards in the neighborhood for spending money. He sat on the porch in the shade and watched me mow the entire front yard. It was hard work, but I managed it okay. When I was finished, I looked up at him and shouted, "How do I turn it off?"

He pointed to a short wire on the engine and shouted back, "Pull that wire loose."

Trusting his advice, I reached down and grabbed the wire with my left hand, and the electric shock that ran up my arm and into my chest was so strong it knocked me flat off my feet. I lay there, looking up at the sky, unable to fathom what had happened. Dad rushed over, chuckling to himself, and helped me up. I could feel the residual tingling in my arm, my heart thumping madly in my chest. I was light headed and started to cry. He hushed me, laughing, and said, "I'm sorry, Bud. But if you're going to use that mower, you need to know how it works and what you can and can't do with it. Now let me show you the right way to shut it off."

He showed me the choke for the gas and how to turn it down. If that didn't work, he showed me how to short the engine by touching the shaft of a wooden-handled screwdriver against the end of the spark plug and the tip to the metal, which made the engine die. Then he showed me how to put gas in safely, how to check and add oil, and how to push the mower up and down hills so it didn't fall on me. All the safe ways to use a mower, and how to take care of one. You can bet I paid very close attention! But you know what? To this day I think what he did was a cruel way to instruct me, and I remember being angry with him for days and days. I don't think he realized himself what the full effect would be when he told me to pull the wire off the spark plug. I have to admit, it was certainly an effective lesson. Not only did I learn how to use the mower, but I developed a very healthy respect for electricity.

I walked in on Mom and Dad once, while they were talking about adopting Denise. I hadn't heard all of their conversation and asked, "Why does she need us to adopt her?" Dad shook his head and said, "It's not that she needs us to. But we need her." I realized years later that doing the right thing as a family makes us stronger. Having the adoption on record did not make me feel any more like Denise was my real sister; I already felt that way. But aside from the legal benefits for her, I realized that we, as a family, needed the formal recognition of her, so no one could ever take her away from us. Mom and Dad were wise that way, and this is just one more example of how much they loved their family.

One of Dad's passions as a young man was playing the guitar and singing. I won't say he was a bad singer, but he could play the guitar pretty well! I remember many nights when he and Grandpa would play together, Dad on the guitar, Grandpa on the fiddle. Dad would occasionally sing a tune, and one I know Dianne will remember, and maybe Denise, is "Church in the Wild Wood."

It was one of his favorites. I have a photo of Dad with Julie and Becky when they were no more than 5 and 2 years old. Dad was playing the guitar and singing, and the girls were listening closely. I'm not sure if my memory is right on this, but I think he was singing that song to them.

I went to work at the Post Office in 1973, mostly due to Mom and Dad pushing me into it. I loved the job for the first year or so because it paid good money, then hated it because it was so dull. Dad encouraged me to get into management and was a constant help to me. He was proof that even if a man doesn't have a college education, he can succeed at a well-paying job. After high school, I was not interested in going to college. I don't know that I would have continued into management in the postal service without Dad's help and encouragement.

He was never easy on me. In fact, if anything, he was tougher on me than other postal employees. He didn't want anyone to perceive any favoritism there. But he was always fair. As I worked my way through those first difficult years, he was always there with just the right advice. I can honestly say he never steered me wrong. Now, I've been with the postal service for more than 36 years. I like to think I am continuing to serve as he taught me, with integrity and honesty.


There is a lifetime of memories in my mind. As I sat by Dad's bedside in those quiet hours during the darkest moments of the night, each memory drew my attention with its own unique sparkle, like tiny colorful jewels scattered on an infinite field of black velvet. Not like stars in the sky on a bright summer night, forever out of reach, but priceless little gems that can be touched, admired, shared, and cherished.

November 17, 1999, it was my turn. I sat with Dad as his feet dangled over the edge. I wanted to grab his elbow and pull him away from the precipice and hold him until he was calm. Holding him with one hand, I wanted to reach into my past and grab that lawn mower spark plug with the other hand and shock the sickness out of him. I wanted us to hug, to laugh, and to share the comfort of knowing you just experienced a near-miss. I wanted him to get out of that hospital bed and go home healthy, to keep making memories with me, Wanda, my sisters, my nieces and nephews, and the rest of his family.

That's what I wanted. That's what we all wanted.

Well, Dad taught by example, and I learned another one at his bedside. Be realistic and accept the inevitable. He taught me that it is okay to be scared, and it's okay to cry. It's okay to be sad. It's normal to grieve, and it's understandable to miss someone when they're gone.

But it is best to remember the good times, to recognize the love among family and friends, and to cherish the memories you make together. As Daddy slipped away in his sleep, he knew I was there with him, holding his hand. He knew I would remember, as we all will, the importance of continuing the lessons of life. They're harsh lessons, sometimes, offering a well-deserved spanking or maybe the tough realization that you must sometimes let go in order to go on. These are lessons that make us stronger. Pop finally moved on and left me prepared to continue the lessons, hopefully passing them on to others as thoughtfully and lovingly as he did to me.

Thank you, Pop, for a lifetime of memories and for making me strong. I miss you very much and I will always hold you in my heart.

1 comment:

  1. I worked for your Dad in the General Clerk office in the late 70s. I still think fondly of his memory. One especially that still tickles me was when he came bounding into the office singing at the top of his lungs. He seemed surprised to see me but winked and said, "It takes a clear conscious to sing that badly." Well, it wasn't bad - just loud! But I did always admire Bill and miss his honesty and fairness.