For Roger Ingram on his 80th birthday.
Last weekend I made something of a flying road trip from Dallas, Texas to Owensboro, Kentucky for my dad’s 80th birthday party. For a teacher in a district that struggles to find substitutes, that meant taking just one day off for a trip that meant an 11-hour drive each way. Like my dad, I have always enjoyed road trips, despite what could be seen as a mind (and butt) numbing number of hours in the car. Among other things, at this time of year an 11-hour time span means being in the car for both sunrise and sunset.
My preferred route to Owensboro runs through Nashville, Tennessee, up I-65 and then West across the Natcher Parkway, which connects Bowling Green and Owensboro. In December, when the days are growing ever-shorter, driving West on the Natcher around 3-4PM means driving into what is often a breathtaking sunset. The uncluttered countryside through which the Natcher runs has far more trees than billboards, a plethora of beautiful little farms and acres and acres of cornfields along the rolling hills. One can almost imagine this is the same view that might have been seen from a perch atop a covered wagon making its way along a similar path 100 years ago.
The drive home on Sunday offered an equally breathtaking view, with the sun creeping up over the eastern horizon, the warmth of the sun turning morning dew into mist that settled over the hills and lent a ghostly hue to the landscape. I couldn’t help but draw some parallels to the landscape of my beloved dad’s life as my mind returned to the hours of celebration from the day before.
My dad has always been the brightest person in the room, but it wasn’t important for him to let everyone know about it. He has read more books than anyone I know, mostly non-fiction, and so growing up there was really no question I could ask him for which he wouldn’t have a wealth of information. A captain in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, Dad has also traveled around the world, has seen issues from many different perspectives, and developed a deep empathy for others as a result. He never insults anyone to their face, and unless the discussion turns to Republican politicians, he rarely has a bad word to say about anyone, even privately.
Unfortunately, his time in Vietnam involved being exposed to Agent Orange, and the long-term effects of that exposure have taken a devastating toll on my dad. It started gradually with physical issues like gout and neuropathy, but has now all but debilitated him both physically and mentally. The warm, brilliant, intelligent man has almost completely disappeared, like that bright, sunny landscape lit up by a stunning Kentucky sunset. Now, with his 80th birthday dawning, there are still hints of the man he was, but his brief moments of clarity are hidden more and more behind a layer of thickening fog.
My dad has spent his life finding the silver lining in every dark cloud, making the best of every situation and never complaining about things which cannot be changed. I have tried diligently to follow his example, and feel that I am successful more often than not. That said, I can’t help but grieve the father I am losing despite feeling incredibly grateful for having him in my life for all of my 50 years. When the sun peeks through, his moments of clarity are still beautiful to see, but the increasing fog forces me to wonder…. is this what awaits me when the veil of old age drops?
In the mean time, in honor of my dad I will enjoy every sunrise, every sunset, every moment of clarity I have in life. You just never know when the fog will roll in.