There’s a gag from the early seasons of the Simpsons where Groundskeeper Willie – needing to enter the school vents for reasons that aren’t worth getting into – goes to the lunch lady, tears off his shirt, and orders her to, “Grease me up woman!”. Without his shirt we can see the cantankerous but otherwise unassuming groundskeeper is absolutely ripped.
This joke always reminded me of my stepfather Dave, and vice-versa. In 1985, I was distracted from my programming by a steady thumping sound coming from just outside. I looked out the window to see Dave, shirtless, axe in hand, vigorously slamming away at a low tree stump. He’d accidentally grazed it with the mower one too many times, and he’d decided to get rid of it. I’d known him since 1983, but it wasn’t until this moment that I realized how fit my stepdad was.
Dave died yesterday, in the early hours of Sunday morning, after a long battle with emphysema. He was 68.
It took me a long time to figure out why his decline was so scary to me. My biological father died in 2000. My grandmother helped raise me, and she died about that same time. While upsetting, neither of those deaths filled me with the existential dread I felt whenever I saw Dave in his sickbed. Eventually I realized it was because I always thought of him as invincible. It always seemed like my father Jim had one foot in the grave since his stroke in 1971. Grandma was already old when I met her. But Dave is the first person that I’ve known in the prime of their life, who has since died of old age. More than anything else, this drove home just how fast the clock is running.
He was a hard worker and a man of few words. He was a machinist at the steel mill, and he took his work seriously. For over a decade he worked rotating shifts. For a couple of weeks he’d work daylight. Then his schedule would switch to afternoon shift for a few weeks. Then he’d work midnight. Then back to daylight again. He never complained in front of us kids. If he had Sunday morning off, he’d always make it to church. Even if he was currently living on midnight time and he’d just finished a double shift, he’d still be there on Sunday. He worked when he was sick. He worked when he needed sleep. He worked when his back was hurting. He worked, and then he’d come home and take care of the house and his other duties.
He was not one for displaying affection. Or emotion of any kind. I think he only said he loved me once in our 37 years together, but he showed it on a regular basis. He worried about his kids often. Once I moved out, he’d come around the house to fix something I couldn’t, or give us money when my family got into trouble. In 1999, he saw Heather struggling to stuff our two kids and the groceries into the compact car we owned at the time, so he bought us a station wagon. Nobody even asked him for help. He just did it.
I watched the years heartlessly grind this superman down to a frail grandfather. It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever seen.
A week ago I sat at his bedside and read him the bit from my blog / book, where I talked about the positive influence he had on my life. I thanked him for the hard work and let him know he did a good job. He gripped my hand and gave me a firm nod, which counts as an emotional outburst by Dave standards.
I know we were lucky. 68 isn’t a bad age, and it’s pretty good for a guy who worked in a steel mill and smoked for 40 years. He kept his wits until the final weeks, when the morphine made him distant and drowsy. We got to say goodbye.
You can’t ever say that losing a parent is easy, but this is probably about as gentle as death gets.
The Smoke Out
When I met Dave, the world was full of cigarettes in a way that you just can’t see from watching Mad Men. The gutters of every street corner were peppered with orange butts. Same goes for the stoop of every building and anywhere else people might stand for more than 30 seconds. Every table and every countertop in every public place had at least one ashtray. Every public space had a drifting haze that circulated at head height. Every poster or handbill hanging indoors was eventually stained yellow or brown. The paint on the walls needed to be refreshed every few years to hide the jaundice discoloration. The ashy odor of cigarettes permeated clothing, carpets, cars, drapes, blankets, and people’s breath. It felt like everyone was always smoking all the time. Cigarettes were everywhere.
Over the last 37 years – in the time it took Dave to go from Groundskeeper Willie levels of fitness to a man who no longer had the strength to breathe – all of that vanished. It’s been weeks since the last time I saw someone with a cigarette in their hand and I haven’t seen an ashtray in years.
I’ll always wonder how much longer he could have lived if he hadn’t smoked, but there’s comfort in knowing this self-inflicted plague is nearly over.
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