"My name is James Bernard Lee, and I grew up in New Castle, Indiana, during the Great Depression."
Perhaps the smartest thing I did — when it first became apparent my father was losing his memory — was rent a video camera to record all of his stories about the Great Depression, Korean War, and meeting Mom. For the most part, they were stories I grew up with, but I wanted to hear them being told in his own words one last time.
"At one point, 13 people lived in the same house, and we only had a single bathroom."
Of those 13 lucky people, my grandfather (and the man I named my dog after), Wilbur Lee, was the only adult male and the only Republican in a home filled with opinionated women. At least I'm guessing they were opinionated, since I grew up with stories of knives being thrown — both figuratively and, on occasion, literally — and heated arguments among the women. I was also told of how grandpa dreamed of being a baseball umpire, but grandma demanded that he keep his "real" job at Chrysler. Then, as if to make it up to him, she would put on her best bathrobe and slippers, and drive down to Chrysler every day at noon to bring him his lunch.
"Bottle of pop, Bic Banana,
We're from Muncie Indiana ...
That's a lie, that's a bluff,
We're from New Castle, that's the stuff!"
That was my father's favorite cheer in high school, and one that he repeated numerous times throughout his adult life. Jimmy Lee, as dad was known back then, was the senior class president, as well as the captain of both his football and basketball teams.
Dad was also blind as a bat. As the quarter back of his football team, that meant memorizing where everyone was supposed to be for each of the plays, and throwing the ball towards the out of focus blob that looked most like his wide receiver. As a man who wanted to serve his country, it meant attempting to cheat on his eye exam.
Dad asked the guy in front of him what the last three lines were on the eye chart, and managed to memorize them before his turn. He then started out confident and proud, "E" followed by all of the letters he just memorized moments before. "I'm sorry, what did you say the first letter was?" "E, sir!" "Step forward, please." Dad kept stepping forward till he was almost nose to chart, where he was able to see that the first letter on the eye chart was an S or a K, or some letter that did not look anything even remotely close to an E.
Three years later, the army was desperate for people to fight in Korea, and the fact my father was both blind and flatfooted no longer mattered. He quickly became sergeant, and spent most of his time building bridges. Dad's cousin, who grew up with the unfortunate nickname of Toad, was a fighter pilot at the same time. The family joke has always been that someone from Toad's unit "blew up" one of my father's bridges by accident.
Toad grew up in the same house with my father. Since they were only six months apart, they were much more like brothers than dad was with his own brother, who is 14 years younger. Health-wise, though, they couldn't be any more different. Dad never smoked a day in his life. But he grew up in a home filled with smokers, and they had a coal furnace, so he never had a chance when it came to having the emphysema he's living with today. Toad, on the other hand, grew up in the same smoke-filled home, smoked like a chimney most of his adult life, and his lungs are fine. Since dad's sister (who I miss now more than ever) died from emphysema 22 years ago, and his brother has asthma, I'm guessing genetics plays a partÉ and chances are pretty great there is an oxygen tank in my future. Joy!
"The reason I became a Presbyterian is simple: They had the best basketball team!"
Growing up, my father's parents didn't care where they went to church, just as long as they went to church on a weekly basis. Dad's sister switched back and forth between going to the Methodist church with her father, or the Christian church with her mother and grandmother. His little brother went to the Baptist church for all of the pretty girls. And Dad became a Presbyterian because they had the best basketball team at the time. Or so he says ...
It was in the Presbyterian church where he met my mother when he returned home from the Korean war. Their first date was at the local swimming pool; and after dating for all of three weeks, he asked her to marry him. Dad wanted to get married right away, but her parents managed to postpone the wedding for at least a few months. Their excuse? They had to make mom's wedding dress, as well as the dresses for all of the bridesmaids, and take care of all of those pesky details that Dad didn't like to think about. He's much more of a big picture kind of guy.
My sister and brother were born a year and a half apart, and it wasn't until five years later, when they moved to the big city of Indianapolis, that Mom became pregnant with me. Dad was a life insurance agent, and soon became executive vice president of Indianapolis Life. But first, he had to take some time off work to clean up my mother's vomit, and help care for my brother and sister while she was pregnant with me. Rumor has it I was in an oxygen tent the first year of my life, as I had both asthma and a couple of bouts with chicken pox.
Even after this fairly intense beginning to my life, it wasn't until I was in high school that my father and I started to bond. I was horrible at sports, and I loved the theater, so it's not like we had a lot in common. When I was in the sixth grade, I did however get the "Most Improved Player" award at basketball camp. During our very first game they saw how tall I was, so they made me the center. A guy who was half my height jumped up and over me, and hit the ball before I even knew what was happening. During that same game, I scored a single basket for the opposing team. By the end of the week, I managed to score two baskets for my own team, and was the proud recipient of the only sports-related trophy I have ever received. Dad was oh so proud.
"Every man gets his girl, but only the ice man gets his pick!"
In addition to sports, Dad LOVED his jokes! Really bad, corny jokes that made you roll your eyes and begin to wonder if perhaps my brother was telling the truth when he said that I was adopted. The ice man joke came from the fact he delivered large blocks of ice to people's homes during the Great Depression. It was also his way of letting us know that he had his pick when it came to choosing Mom to be his wife. Of all of the jokes he has told throughout the years, my personal favorite is one he brought up any time I started to talk about my photography. In fact, he kept telling me this joke for YEARS after I switched from a film camera to digital, and it was funnier each time, "I just don't know about photographersÉ they're so NEGATIVE!" Like I said, his jokes are corny, but they still make me laugh.
When I was in high school, we had a fundraising campaign at my church. The campaign went on for well over a year, and every week someone would stand up during our "Minute for Mission" and drone on about why we needed to give more money to the church. It was about a year into the campaign, long after members cared whether we ever built a new Fellowship Hall, that my father was the designated speaker. In less time than it would have taken me to sneak out of the church, or to die from teenage embarrassment, he had the congregation laughing at one of his corny jokes. And within moments, he had people caring about the campaign once again. As I looked around at people laughing, and paying attention to what he was saying, all I could think was "Wow! He's really good at this!" That was quite the revelation for someone who "hated" his father during his early teenage years.
Still, it wasn't until a year later that we learned to communicate with one another, and how to get along. I was a senior in high school when we decided to go on a silent retreat together. For a 36-hour period of time, the leader of the retreat was the only one who was allowed to talk. The rest of us were asked to think about some of the things he talked about, and to refrain from talking with one another by writing notes instead. The purpose was to break down barriers, and to actually listen to what God, and those around us, were saying in their silence. Before the silence was actually imposed, Dad said something that has stuck with me ever since, "I love being 54! Ever since I turned 40 I stopped caring what other people think of me, and it's been great!" Dad and I spent the next 36 hours writing notes to one another ... most of which included some really bad jokes that I couldn't help but laugh at. And by some miracle of God, we actually looked each other in the eye for the very first time.
Our relationship was tested when I came out to my father in college. Both my brother and sister said not to tell either one of my parents; but if I felt I must tell one of them, to tell Mom because "Dad will have a heart attack and die, and it will be on your shoulders." My sister was a flight attendant, and she went on to tell me that whenever he met a male flight attendant that he thought might be "that way" he refused to look them in the eye, or shake their hand. He was executive vice president of marketing, and made his living shaking people's hands and looking them in the eye. Besides, I knew that he kept trying to ask me if I was gay, and mom would shut him up.
On the day my father drove down to Bloomington so I could tell him my "big news", we went to Chi Chi's where we had the most flamboyant waiter I have ever laid my eyes on. I was mortified, and almost chickened out, but then my father looked at me and said, "If you don't tell me whatever is on your mind, don't ever expect us to have this conversation again." So I told him. And to this day, his reaction STILL blows me away! He told me how proud he was of me for being so honest, and that it was the first time he ever thought of me as his son.
With that very simple response, my father taught me the true meaning of unconditional love. It's the way he lived his life, and it's the way I'm trying to live my own life now. This past year and a half has been an emotional roller coaster, but it's one that I don't regret for a moment going on. He may not be the same man he was seven or eight years ago when all of this began; but every now and then, when I look him in the eye, I can still see the same man who was proud to call me his son...