Happy Father's Day, Everyone!
I hope you all had a restful and enjoyable week. I've been thinking a lot about my Dad, it’s only normal. Who wouldn't be thinking of their dad on Father's Day? I recently lost my father. We all knew he was in his last years, but it was sudden and very unexpected. I gain comfort knowing he is in heaven with Christ Jesus and I will see him again someday. I still miss him terribly, as does my step mom, Diane. To him, she was a gift that he had waited for all his life. It was mutual, they brought out the best in each other and his death has left an empty hole in her life and all those close to him. The 16 years they shared together were precious and their love touched all of us, their family, friends and co-workers alike.
He was an amazing man and lived well into his 60's, which given his circumstances was a miracle in itself.
If you have been reading my stories, you know that my Mom and Dad were both confined to wheelchairs in their teenage years. As a small girl, I recall my mom was the one to explained things to us about their physical circumstances. You know all the little questions we had like "How? What? Where?" and of course, "Why?" Dad's answers were never clear to us, at least not at that time. He would always say things like, "So what? Why not?" or "What does it matter?
One beautiful Saturday afternoon, while riding horses at my uncle’s place (I was about 8 or 9 years old), Dad asked if I wanted him to ride with me. I quickly responded with "But, you can't." Whoops! Dad asked me "Why not?" He was persistent...he repeated that question at least ten times until I started opening my mind to the possibility. Then I asked him the right question: "How could we do that?" He then gave me his ideas of how it could be done. I think he could have done it, too. No doubt in my mind. Let’s just say it involved a pulley system to get him up there, ropes to help keep his legs in place and some very imaginative ideas!
But, Dad didn't really want to ride that day. I was afraid to ride bareback and after galloping back across the pasture, I had asked for the saddle. He was trying to teach me something more important. In less than ideal situations, I need to look for other ways of overcoming challenges and doing things. Not assume that I can't do it because it might be hard or frightening. I needed to challenge myself.
Why not? So what? What does it matter?
You could sum up Dad's level of determination by those few short questions.
Dad never talked of his accident. What little detail of Dad's auto accident that I can recall (as it was told to me by mom) is that he fell asleep while driving his car (or truck...I never knew) on the rural highways that wind through far Northern Montana. He was apparently traveling into town when this happened and drove off the road and down into a steep ravine. I'm not sure if he remembered it, but he was trapped in his car for hours, upside down, with a broken back. He would never walk again and lost all feeling from the waist down. Dad never spoke of this experience with me. The one time he came close, he instead spoke of my grandmother, his stepmother, the woman he considered lovingly, Mom.
I recall Dad saying that if it wasn't for her, he would have given up and never done anything more with his life. She was the one that kept pushing him forward. She never allowed dad to say he wanted to die, although he felt like it at times. She said he had a future. She said, "There is nothing you can do about it now, it can't be changed, so don't waste your time worrying over it."
She was so right. No amount of worry or regret can change yesterday. We have precious little control over what happens next.
Like Grandma, Dad didn't give up either. He didn't stop living and waste away as a recluse inside the same log cabin in which he was born. He spent well over a year rehabilitating. A lot of that time was spent far away from home, away from the large family and the ranch life he was comfortable with. He eventually learned to accept the life that had been given to him. After rehabilitating and getting his High School Diploma, he went onto college and received his degree in accounting and business management. He wasn't going to sit by and take disability and never do more with his life. That wasn't good enough. He wanted to LIVE his life, not have it handed out to him or decided for him. So as his life began to unfold, when challenges arose, it was clear why he carried the mindset of "Why not?"
He eventually married my mom and together they purchased their first home. Now we had some unusual things in our home to assist in keeping mom and dad independent. We had what we named "reachers", nothing more than an oversized pair of salad tongs to reach the things on the top shelf of the cabinet. We had ramps in the front of the house, the garage and out the back porch. My dad's car (yes, he was a licensed driver) was lovingly named the "Green Lizard". A 1969 green two door Ford Fairlaine. I loved that car, hated the black leather interior in the summer, but we took many family vacations and road trips together in that car. Now dad had to make the normal and necessary changes. He built a sheet metal ramp to help get his chair in and out of the back seat. The ramp made it easier to pull the chair out so it wouldn't get stuck in the foot well. My sister and I fought over who sat on what side. If you got the driver’s side, you sit with your legs crossed during the entire trip. If you get the passenger side, you can get your feet on the floorboard. It worked well until we started getting to big and then it was time to make a change. We then graduated to a family van, which of course had to be modified to allow dad to keep as much independence as possible.
Now to modify the van in those days meant taking an empty cargo van, moving the seats into the back for the kids, attaching hand controls, an extended steering wheel and wheelchair locks. Our neighbors backed the van into the front yard, my parents wheeled into the back of the van from off the front porch, transferred into the van seats that were factory equipped, we loaded up the wheelchairs and headed for St. Louis, the closest place at that time where we could have a wheelchair lift and the rest of the modifications installed. At that time, we were talking about a six-hour trip in the hottest part of the summer. Dad was convinced everything was in order, all would be well and we would stay in a nice hotel off the Mississippi River while the modifications were made to the van. Modifications would be a cable supported lift off the side of the van, allowing my parents to ride up and down into the van with ease. From now on, there would be no need to transfer from their chairs to the car seat. Back then they did not have the motorized chairs they do today. They would be able to ride and drive from their chairs. Ah yes, Dad's ultimate machine would allow him even more independence! He named it the “Copper Coupe” because of it’s brown copper color. Dad named all of his cars, I never found out why.
There were a few "concerns" the neighbors had before we ever left the house. First of all, dad and mom would be stuck in that van until they reached their destination. Dad reassured our good neighbors that we had people waiting for us to arrive and they were supposed to help them get out of the van, check us into our hotel and then take the van to the shop for modification. No sweat, right? We had a brand new van, new tires, and a CB radio if heaven forbid something did go wrong. That way we could call for help. He reassured them that we would be fine and off we went. Fully armed with lunches, snacks, water jugs and Dixie cups. We were ready for the adventure!
Sounds like a piece of cake, right? WRONG.
Everything that could have gone wrong on that trip did.
Problem No. 1: Well, we hit St. Louis at high rush hour. I remember sitting in one place on the highway for what felt like hours. It had to be 100 degrees outside and at least 110 in the back of that van. We were late getting to our destination. Hours late. This meant that the shop closed before reached our destination. And it was closed for the weekend. So Dad decided the best course of action was to go to the hotel and see if we could check in and find someone kind enough to help with our problem.
Problem No. 2: Well, on arrival at the hotel, my sister and I were tasked with going to the front desk for a manager to come out and speak with our dad. The hotel had lost our reservation and they were booked. So we then had to find new accommodations and fast. Remember, this was back before cell phones, or even roadside phones that you could use while still in your vehicle. I started wondering myself how dad was going to get us out of this one! We drove around and found a nearby hotel. Dad caught the attention of a passerby who went into the hotel and asked if they had rooms available, he returned with the good news that yes; they could put our family in a room. So we had a place to stay, but this brought up the next problem.
Problem No. 3: How to get mom and dad out of this van. With our help we brought dad’s wheelchair out of the side door of the van and around to the driver’s door. Remember, this was a 70’s model full size cargo van. It was a LONG way to the ground. To my mother's horror, he jumped from up on high, down into his wheelchair. Hit his target, no harm, no foul, no problem. He was quite pleased with himself! Then it struck mom, she would have to do the same. In tears she cried out that no way was she going to do that. NOT. GOING. TO. HAPPEN. The next twenty minutes were filled with a lot of words I'm not supposed to use and was told to cover my ears. I could still hear what was going on and let's just say she let my dad know that she was displeased with him and sick of all his adventures and ideas. In between the "I hate you for doing this to me" and the "I'm not doing it, I'm not!" My sister and I sat on our suitcases thinking about how much fun the pool would be and how hungry we were! Then my dad had enough and finally said calmly, "You don't have any other options, you will be fine, the kids are here, now get your ass out of the van." She gave him one last cussing and then landed square on her backside in her chair. After catching her breath and getting settled, she didn't talk to him for the rest of that night. But for the rest of us, it has made for an entertaining story and a fond memory that I will share with others for years to come. Ah yes…my dad and his determination to be independent, his idea of comfortably “normal”.
We spent the rest of the week at the hotel, watching the boats on the river from our 12th floor balcony, swimming every day and spending time as a family. It was a really great vacation. Filled with the type of relaxing moments that you hope you can have with your children, once you have grown up enough to look back and realize just how good you had it as a kid.
This is just one of many examples of how my dad took the every day normal tools of our life and modified them to work for his life. So he could have that same freedom of choice that all able bodied people are entitled to have. I have mentioned that dad had many gadgets to accomplish this. One of my favorites was his lawn mower.
Now, there were so many things that Dad did that you just would not expect a paraplegic to attempt. It would be too hard, take so much more work...just pay someone and save your energy, right? Nope, no hired hands for my dad. Yard work and mowing the lawn was one of those things. My dad had a green riding lawn mower that yes, he modified. He ripped off the seat and replaced it with a regular bucket seat from a car. Never mind the bucket car seat was bright burgundy leather/vinyl material, it worked for him. He took off the steering wheel and replaced it with bicycle handlebars, carefully welded to the shape he needed to reach. He added foot rests for his legs, designed a "stop and go" bar that attached to the throttle so he could control this function by hand. It was the most ugly lawn mower known to man, but it worked. Every Saturday he was out in the yard, without fail.
We had a system when Dad mowed. Take water out to dad often and listen for the mower to stop. If it stopped anywhere but in the garage, time to go rescue dad. It did break down and often, but he would doctor it back up and get it through another season. Mowing the lawn wasn't the end of the job. Dad would then rake and bag his entire front and back yard. Why? When for a small amount of money someone could do it for him? Well, he wanted to be independent. Just like everyone else. It was his perception of "normal" that he could be happy with and accept. A well tended yard, complete with the trimming, done by his hand. What a sense of satisfaction he must have had at the end of the day!
Eventually my parents divorced, Dad moved away, eventually landing in Denver many years later. Dad and Diane purchased a nice home together and gave the yard work over to a young boy down the street. But, Dad’s green thumb prevailed so he also hired someone to build an elevated garden complete with irrigation systems, so he could grow his tomatoes, carrots, green beans, squash, you name it. His garden was his pride and joy and each time we visited him we loved going out to see what veggies were ready for picking. He had a gift for gardening and grew some of the sweetest baby carrots I've ever eaten. It had become part of our trips to Denver that we all looked forward to.
Finally, I want to share one of my fondest memories that I have of my Father. It was dancing with him at his wedding reception after marrying Diane. Yes, DANCING! He would get out there with his chair and "get down" for lack of a better adjective. Now, I'm a horrible dancer, but that night at the club he said to me; "Please honey, I want to dance with my daughter on my wedding day." How could I refuse? I had the time of my life. Once our dance was over and the slow dances began, Diane took her place on his lap. They shared a very special moments on the dance floor that night, and all the people in the club took notice that there was something different and very special about him, about both of them. Not having legs that worked did not mean anything to him or her. He showed the world that his disability wouldn't stop him from having the life he dreamed of. I cried tears of joy for my father. I was both incredibly proud and happy for him that he had found his place in this world and found someone equally as special to share it with.
The last years of his life I think were some of his happiest. He and Diane shared such a wonderful relationship. Together they shared many experiences that he may not have had if they never met. They went hot air ballooning, snowmobiling in the moonlight and took many more trips across this great country. The last time I saw him was when he came to visit for my oldest son's high school graduation. Their van had broken down and needed to stay at the shop for repairs. Problem? How were we going to transport my dad two miles from the dealership to the hotel, without a wheelchair accessible van. Not to fear, Dad had a plan. He told me on the phone, "No problem, I have a ride, I'll meet you at the hotel." Okay. My family hoped in the car and headed toward the hotel. All of a sudden, in the dark I see this image on the back of a flatbed truck. Just behind the cab, holding onto the light railing, was proudly perched my Dad, in his wheelchair, happy as a clam. He was waving to people, there were people honking and waving back, he was having the time of his life! He said the breeze was great and the view was even better! We got him to the hotel and unloaded Dad the one man parade and then I laughed all the way home. It was typical Dad. No fear, ever. Just go with the flow. There is nothing you can't overcome by God’s Grace and a set mind!
What an inspirational human being he was. I was the luckiest daughter in the world, because I was able to share his life!
Even if you don't have a disabling disease, Dad's life lessons were far reaching into all areas of life. We just didn't know it as young kids. Every person who met him, liked him, respected him or loved him. He was always outgoing and full of humor.
On a personal note: Dad, I miss you terribly, but you have left me with so many positive memories and examples of courage and strength. Sometimes when I'm down with my own disease, I wonder how you managed. It’s then I remember that I have to keep going and I CAN keep going. I have choices. I need to make them and go forward, even if it's just a little bit everyday. Although I miss our long talks, I'll never be without all those wonderful memories that you have given to me and your grandchildren. I know we will be together again someday and I want you to be proud of what I have accomplished, too. I won't give up; I'll fight this disease every day and get my life back in balance.
To my readers, I hope that you will gain strength from what I've shared of my father. There is so much more to tell. I could write for hours. Even in his death, he never lost his sense of humor or his practicality. He wanted his ashes spread on the ranch in Montana, under the same tree that Grandpa and Grandma asked for their ashes to be spread. At his memorial brunch, held in his home last spring [April 2009], Diane took my hand and walked me to the pretty oak box containing his ashes. It was engraved with the following: "Now wasn't that cost effective?"
Save me a dance in heaven, Dad. I'll be there in God's time.
Your Loving Daughter
© Robynn “Bobbie” Dinse / Bobbie’s World Blogs