Sharp, searing pain consumed my 8 year old body with each labored breath. “I don’t wanna breathe” I whispered in the darkness. A warm, yet calloused hand gently held mine. “Sugar, squeeze my hand when it hurts. Squeeze hard.” I do not remember how long Daddy sat beside my bed while I squeezed his hands, but I do know – he never left my side. A few years earlier, he taught me how to fight. I mean literally how to punch a guy in the face and break his nose fight. I just so happened to live next door to the neighborhood bully who made it his daily routine to taunt me in true David/Goliath form. Daddy had had enough. So one night after dinner, he called me into the garage to teach me to fight. His 6ft3 frame knelt down to my eye level. Holding his massive hands up in submission, he instructed me “make a fist and hit my hands as hard as you can!” I refused. “No — I don’t wanna hurt you.” I cried out. I remember seeing Mom peering through the door with a slight smile on her lip. Daddy was the real giant in my life – a gentle giant. He kept encouraging me to hit his hands – finally —smack, smack, smack filled the tiny one car garage. “There you go sugar, you got it!” The next day, my Goliath called me out and shoved me almost to the ground. Both our daddy’s were standing in the background. I pushed him back but I might as well have pushed a wall. He pushed me back and to the ground. “Get up Suzy – you can do it!” I pulled my tiny self up, shut my eyes and swung. It’s hard to describe the sound I first heard, it almost sounded like twigs breaking. Yet, the next sounds I heard were a combination of someone in pain and a chorus of cheers. I slowly opened my eyes and saw my fallen foe covering his nose as blood poured out and mixed with the tears streaming down his face. I’d won. I didn’t become the new bully of the block, but the bully (Terry) and I actually became friends. I learned you can defeat anything if someone believes in you.
My daddy wasn’t perfect and had his own demons he battled. He was a quiet, soft spoken man who was a walking sports almanac – all sports. He was brilliant and the only man I knew, beside my husband, who could look at a math problem and tell me the answer in 5 seconds. No pencil working out the problem; no calculator. It amazed me and infuriated me at the same time. He taught me how to play basketball, tennis and baseball. He also taught me the insides and out of my first car. I spent nearly every weekend and summers in his transmission shop answering phones, filling out repair orders, and cleaning the bathrooms. When I made “that face” – he’d just smile and say – this is why you will go to college. I never remember Daddy being sick with a cold or flu. Only occasional allergies would plague him. So when we learned of his secret doctor’s appointment he’d made of his own volition, we were stunned. He quietly told us, Mom and I, that he was forgetting things and he wanted to know why. He then handed us a multiple page document with the title – Organic Brain Syndrome neatly typed across the top. The document contained hundreds of possible diseases that fell under the category – from hardening of the arteries to Alzheimer’s. I was only 19 years old and it dawned on me that someday I would have to be his champion as he faced his battles, his new demon named Alzheimer’s.
This disease almost stole everything from his brilliant mind. His sports stats, his mathematical ability, his ability to read. Well – everything but his ability to read and comprehend the Bible. He would wander up to complete strangers and quote John 3:16 to them and ask if they were going to heaven with him someday. I had moved away to Austin after I married and came home one weekend with my husband. I heard Daddy up in the kitchen making his coffee, all of the pieces carefully laid out in order of assemblage the night before by my mother. I quietly said “Good Morning Daddy.” He slowly turned around and extended his hand – “I’m Jim, who are you?” Tears spilling down my face, I couldn’t speak. He then raced to my old bedroom crying out “Margo – where’s the baby?” The commotion woke my husband and as he came into the room and stood beside me, Daddy returned with Mom by his side and stared at us both. “Hey – when did ya’ll get here?” and embraced us in his enormous arms. Daddy didn’t remember me.
In just a few years, we placed Daddy in an Alzheimer’s Unit, buried my mom, become guardian over dad and became pregnant with our first baby. Then one afternoon I received a phone call from the head nurse at the nursing home. “Darlin – I can’t explain this over the phone. It’s just something you need to see.” I found myself later sitting at my Daddy’s bedside. He was staring out the window, but from his smile and the line of sight – he was not focused on the tree outside his window. He was looking at something, or someone invisible to me. I then took his enormous, less calloused hand in mine. “Daddy – it’s me. “ The nurse had told me this is the state most patients enter into before they pass away. He turned away from the window and locked eyes with me. He could no longer speak, but the expression on his face I could tell he remembered me. He then looked at my huge pregnant belly and smiled. He reached out and gently laid his hand on it. The baby began kicking which made Dad smile even more. I told him it was okay to “go home” that Momma was there waiting on him as was my older brother. He squeezed my hand, smiled, then turned back to the window. The next afternoon found my husband and I by Daddy’s beside watching his breathing becoming more labored. I knew he was already gone and his body only remained. Still, I took his now frightfully cold hand in mine and told him to squeeze hard.