“Son, Someday You’ll Be A Man”: The Day I Lost My Dad
In the wee hours of November 15, 1976, my dad died in his sleep. He was just 68 years old. I was a month away from my 22nd birthday. In the blink of an eye, I went from a freewheeling, not-a-care-in-the-world, got-some-money-and-a-car guy to the head of the household. That morning is burned into my memory.
Both my younger brother and my mom worked the night shift at different cotton mills. Mom rode the bus to and from work in Ranlo, NC, some 15 miles from our home near downtown in Gastonia, NC. My brother worked about 15 minutes from home.
Shortly after 6:00 a.m. I was awakened by knocking and yelling at my bedroom window. It was my brother telling me to open the door and let him in. This was highly unusual.
The front door had an ancient lock that didn’t work with a key. Every morning, before mom and my brother got home, dad would awaken and unlock the door so that they could get in. Since it was still locked, there was something very much not right that day.
I got up, putting on a minimal of clothing, and opened the door. My brother said he had “pounded” on Dad’s bedroom window first and had gotten no response.
We both approached dad’s bedroom door and tried to open it. It was latched with a ‘screen door’ eyebolt latch from the inside. It didn’t move but an inch or two. We called to dad. There was no response.
I stepped back, and took a charge at the door, hitting it with my shoulder. The latch broke and the door swung open.
There was dad, on his side, bed covers not disturbed, facing away from us. His left hand was visible, fisted near his chin.
I touched him on the face and said, “Dad?” His face was cold. Very cold.
I looked at my brother. He looked at me. I don’t think there was any emotion on our faces at that moment.
“He’s gone,” I said.
My brother said, “Oh, god….” And he looked away, pondering what we should do next.
“We need to call someone,” I said.
He said, “Police? Emergency squad? Funeral home?”
There was a prolonged silence as we pondered what people are supposed to do when someone dies unexpectedly at home. Then I had a moment of revelation.
“Mom…,” I said, reestablishing eye contact with my brother.
“Oh man!” he exclaimed. “How do we tell her about this?” He looked like he was bordering on panic.
“Here’s what we do NOT want to do,” I said to him. “Mom will be getting off of the bus in a few minutes at the end of the street.” I continued, “The LAST thing she needs to see is a bunch of blue lights and red lights and ambulances and people in front of the house.”
He agreed. After spending a few minutes ourselves saying our good-byes to dad, we went out on the front porch and waited. It seemed an eternity. But, in what was probably something near 10 minutes, she stepped off of the bus just three houses away, as the sky began to lighten to the coming sunrise.
She was walking up the street, singing, smiling. To this day, neither I nor my brother can remember the song she was singing. But we do recall it was a hymn. And it was a happy hymn.
Though we had decided to wait until mom was at or on the porch, my brother couldn’t resist. He stepped from the porch and met mom just before she reached the walkway to our front door. As she looked up and saw him, she glanced over and saw me standing on the porch, fully dressed by now, and knew something was not normal.
I don’t know exactly what my brother said to her. In a few, short moments she was in tears and saying “Oh no!” I left the porch and joined my brother as we both put our embracing arms around her as she approached the house.
As we stepped upon the porch, I said to mom, “We haven’t called anyone yet. We want you to have your time with him before we do that.” She smiled, through her tears, that smile that proud mothers smile for their children when they do something special and right.
We took her into the bedroom, hugged her, kissed her and walked out. My brother gently closed the door behind us.
I’m not sure how long it was before we went back into the room. We gave her lots of time to say good-bye, in private, in their room.
While she was in there, my brother and I gathered phone numbers of our other grown siblings. We gathered phone numbers of other relatives, our pastor and a family friend who owned a funeral home. We debated which civil authority to call, and decided on the rescue squad, since they had ambulances and probably knew what to do with a dead body properly and legally.
When we went back into the room, we told her we had to make some calls to the authorities. She asked that we call the relatives first, especially our half-siblings from dad’s previous marriage. We honored that request by calling them at some time around 7:30 a.m.
I recall my brother in law, Bob, answering my first call. “Bob, this is (me). I don’t know any other way to say this, but dad died in his sleep last night.” Bob, suddenly jolted fully awake, said to his wife, my half sister, “Esther….Hon? Wake up.” There was a sound of someone awakening with a moan and “what is it?”
“Hon,” Bob said, “(me) is on the phone. Pops (his endearing term for my dad) died in his sleep last night.”
All I heard was a deeply muffled, spontaneous weeping.
“We’ll be there soon,” he said.
My brother made the next call to our sister “Tootsie” (a family nickname she picked up as a child for being the neighborhood gossip). She cried out, “Oh no!” and hung up the phone immediately.
I then called our brother “E.Z., or ‘Easy’ – another nickname played on his middle name. He, being much like dad in his reserved manners said, “I wasn’t expecting this. May he rest in God’s eternal peace….I’ll be there as soon as I can.” ‘Easy’ lived in Davidson, NC, so his commute would take a couple of hours to get to the house in Gastonia.
I then called Faye, dad’s youngest daughter and got her husband on the phone. They, too, were still in bed at that hour. After he told her the news, I heard from her a wail of emotional agony that still haunts me to this day.
We went into the bedroom where mom was caressing dad’s head and weeping softly. Yet, she was smiling.
We knew the smile was one of realizing how blessed she had been for all of those years to have had such a good man as her husband. “We have to call the authorities,” I said to her, with my hand resting on her shoulder. “I know,” she said. “Did you call Buddy?”
I looked at my brother and realized we both had forgotten to call our undertaker friend. My brother darted for the phone and made that call. Then I took the phone and called the rescue squad. “My dad died in his sleep last night. I don’t know who to call, so I called you guys.” I gave the address and the man said they would be there shortly.
About 10 minutes later, all hell broke loose. Two police cars, with lights flashing, came roaring up in front of the house. Two patrol officers literally jumped from their cars as if they were chasing down a fleeing criminal. My brother was with mom in the bedroom and I was on the front porch, smoking a cigarette as the wheels in my head were spinning and whirling, trying to gain some rational pattern of thought.
As the two officers trotted up to me on the porch, two more police cars came up, and the rescue squad ambulance arrived almost simultaneously. From one of the patrol cars stepped a tall man wearing the silver bars of a police captain. He saw the two patrol officers trying to push past me into the house and called out, “Hold on a minute, officers.”
The captain was a member of the church we attended. Captain Gene Posey took command of the situation right away. He called out for the officers to turn off the flashing lights, except for the cars at each end of the street. As he approached me at the porch, he said, “I’m so sorry,” with genuine sincerity.
He explained that when someone dies outside of the care of a physician, the coroner would have to be called to examine the body before it could be moved. He apologized for the ‘intrusion’ into our grief.
The two patrol officers, now joined by three others, two EMTs and Captain Posey, moved to enter the house. Captain Posey, in a commanding voice that bordered on anger called out, “Take off those hats!” The young officers complied immediately before entering.
The first thing Captain Posey did as we directed him into the bedroom was, with his hat under his arm, to walk up to my mom sitting on the bed beside dad and put his arm around her shoulders. He bent down, almost kneeling, and said, “I’m so sorry for this. But, we have to do a few things. I hope you understand.” Mom forced a smile, gave dad a kiss on the forehead, nodded and got up to be nearly carried from the room by my brother and I.
We took mom to the living room, across the hallway from their bedroom, and sat her down on the sofa. By this time, dad’s sister who lived next door was there, awakened by the lights, cars and commotion going on. She sat with mom as other family members began arriving and trying to get into the house.
My brother and I made ourselves available to the authorities to answer any questions. And there were a lot of questions.
They wanted to know if he used any drugs and we showed them his dresser drawer with his high blood pressure pills and migraine headache medicines. They asked odd (to us) questions about if he drank or smoked or used illegal drugs.
The coroner arrived and was given access to the room with just Captain Posey there as they closed the door to examine the body. After a relatively short time the coroner came out and said to me that since dad had a history of coronary artery disease, and had been seeing a doctor regularly and recently, and there was no sign of foul play, that an autopsy (usually automatic is such situations) would not be required. He ruled on the spot that the cause of death was arteriosclerosis.
He gave us – mom and my brother and I – great solace as he described how dad died. “He went to sleep,” he said. “As his coronary arteries closed off, his heartbeat kept slowing. He went to sleep, then a deeper sleep, then a coma. Then his heart slowed to a stop. It is perhaps the most peaceful death one can hope for.”
Though an ordained Wesleyan minister, My dad was a kind, gentle, level-headed, even-tempered, insightful, thoughtful, spiritual man. Not a bible thumper, nor a critic of the sins of others in a condemning way. Saint or sinner, drunk or teetotaler, dad treated everyone with dignity and respect. He lived a gentle life, making no enemies that anyone could ever remember. His faith was something he would share with others, but only if they asked or implied they wanted to hear it. He never was one to try to beat his beliefs into others. He simply lived a life of faith, with his way of living and the way he treated others, no matter their status or situation in life, as his ‘testimony’ of his faith.
In many ways, I’ve elevated him to sainthood for the way he lived his life. A finer example could no one ever have had around them. He set a standard that I, and all of his children and the grandchildren who knew him, have made into a lifelong goal. And this simple standard, to be kind to one another in all ways and at all times, is perhaps the most difficult of the goals of my life.
I think I have failed more often than I have succeeded in the pursuit of that goal. But, I do, to this day, always remember. And I do what most of us do. That is, I keep trying to be like that.
As humble and unassuming as dad was, if he were to read this he’d probably say to me what he said many times in his lifetime:
“Son, I am no saint. Just try to do what is expected of you. Do your best. Kindness to others will bring kindness to you. And leave the rest to God.”
And all that I can think that I would say to him today is “Thank God that I had you for a father.”