Part Three: Who Will Change When You Die?
On July 28th, 2018, we had a living wake for my dad. None of us planned it that way…it just kind of happened. We planned a dedication ceremony with a reception at our house months before, and we pictured it this way:
My dad would be shocked/stunned/elated/full of happiness when he learned that the KC-135 at Scott AFB Air Park was dedicated to him. The 126th ARW was such an enormous part of my dad’s life, and he dedicated himself to making it an unstoppable, high-achieving unit full of capable, bright, and motivated individuals from all walks of life. To be named on the plaque in front of this iconic plane was an incredible honor that, frankly, he deserved. After the ceremony, everyone would come to our house and we would share stories of the 126th and our favorite things about my dad, and he would feel so full of love…which he also deserved.
Here’s how it actually went down: My dad suffered a stroke and heart attack two days before the ceremony, and he came home in hospice care the Friday night before. He was unable to speak, but was still alert and oriented so we thought it would be best to go through with the plans. I signed hospice paperwork to be his primary caregiver, and the next morning, we adjusted our plans to make it all work.
My boyfriend and his mom stayed with my dad and I so we could FaceTime with everyone participating in the actual ceremony at the air park at Scott AFB. My dad was able to watch the entire dedication, which was narrated by my brother, John, and organized by my mom, Ellen. He was so happy, even though he couldn’t explain it with words.
Afterward, more than 100 people came to our house to say their final goodbyes to my father, all of whom he recognized, knew, and heard. At times, his smile was so big that his face didn’t seem large enough to hold it. Other times, he cried. He knew. We all knew.
One of the most pivotal moments was when my Aunt Donna, who had recently lost her husband (who also happened to be my godfather and one of my dad’s best friends), said to my dad, “I know, John. Give him a big kiss from me when you get there”. I crumbled at that.
My dad died a few days later, and I started to realize so many incredible things about him. He never told us how much he meant to other people, because he was too busy caring about them. To say he was humble would be an understatement in the biggest sense. He changed people. He changed them permanently, and for the better. His death brought on an existential change in myself, as well.
Life is too short (cliché, I know) to be worrying about yourself all the time. I’ve thought of a few lessons that my dad’s life has taught me, and I hope you are lucky enough to learn them at some point. They’ve allowed me to become someone I never imaged, and I am forever grateful for it.
1.) You will be defined by your actions towards others. You can choose to be kind, helpful, and beneficial, or you can choose to be shitty. It’s always your choice.
2.) There will be a time in your life that requires you to teach a hard lesson to someone. You can choose to do so with dignity and courage, or with vindictiveness. Choose wisely, as it is always your choice.
3.) 99% of your problems can be resolved if you maintain a sense of humor. The other 1% requires all of your focus, and you need to be smart about this. Don’t sweat the small stuff, but don’t ignore it either. It can turn into big stuff pretty quickly.
4. A quote my father said frequently, “Prepare for the worst, and expect the best”. I try my hardest to live by this mantra.
5.) Never give up on the people you love. At times, you will be hurt, defeated, furious, and drained, but it’s all temporary. Love is forever. At the end of your life, no one gives a shit about what you look like, smell like, sound like, etc. They love you in every form you’ve ever taken. Cherish that. You are lucky to know that feeling.