(Written for Veterans Day 2015 in memory of Command Sergeant Major, U.S. Army Retired, Audie “Neal” Davis, 1932-2011. He was a bold and effective leader!)
THE FIRST GIFT OF HOPE
My spine felt extra tall the day I, a first-grader, rode by Dad’s side in his pick up truck. His words struck my heart like an arrow: “you can do anything that you put your mind to.”
In adulthood, when I put the puzzle pieces of Dad’s life together, I realized these words held such power because he had demonstrated them. He had journeyed from the life of a tenant farmer in Arkansas to creating a future that offered his kids and grandkids a foundation of hope.
THE SECOND GIFT OF RESPECT
Many years later I would sit by Dad’s side in another truck. This time, I had returned home for a routine visit after spending five years away in college and beginning my own first steps toward a hopeful future.
The excuse to ride by his side on this particular day was an errand into town for one of his many work projects. While some projects were real maintenance needs, most just kept his mind busy.
Dad’s truck smelled of sawdust, work gloves covered in oil, and his distinctive aftershave. An Army sticker memorialized his first career in the military and celebrated his pride in country, service and devotion to family.
He was also devoted to his farm. He had spent almost forty years tinkering with every square inch of his forty-acre hobby, which grew more beautiful every year under his care.
Dad had purchased the farm as a midlife experiment to be engaged with something larger than civilian jobs that never fully met his desire to continuously make things better. Dancing with the elements of nature satisfied his soul. Owning this acreage was the capstone to his life’s work.
As with most trips, that day we said very little. In true man-to-man fashion, we revealed our thoughts best when sitting side by side. This was true whether it was fishing, sitting at the local VFW bar for a drink or as we found ourselves today, driving into town.
Dad’s words were as disciplined as his actions. It’s as if he had scripted his thoughtful phrases for a line of soldiers waiting for inspection. In as few words as possible, Dad let me know that he had heard from family members about me coming out as a gay man. His message was clear: It was okay with him.
Dad was not offering to teach me anything about the unknown chapters to come. He was there to do the one thing that really mattered: to extend his unconditional acceptance and love
Love, I’ve come to understand, is something deeper than the sentimentality that flows out of meeting someone who thinks and feels the same as we do. True love is born only after the glow of meeting a new friend or forming a new romance has faded. It only comes after we extend ourselves beyond the borders of our own mind and lean into the adventure of understanding another human being who is different than us, and yet strangely the same. It’s grounded in mutual respect.
Despite accessing our own sources of self-esteem, don’t we all hope to be greeted by acceptance and love when we return home to share the results of following our own path in life? Even when we come to hold our own spirit, nothing can replace the acknowledgement of a parent.
Dad gave us all the gift of respect. We didn’t have to be like him to be respected by him. Sitting by his side in his truck that day, he gave me respect as a man with different thoughts, feelings and preferences than his own.
THE THIRD GIFT OF HUMILITY
Years later I would approach my own midlife. On a fishing trip I interviewed Dad for a veterans oral history project. When the recording was turned off he shared some things that were “off the record.” More important than his war stories, were the vulnerable truths he revealed about his own limitations. Far from seeing him as weak or feeling sorry for him, I saw in him a new strength.
Isn’t that the paradoxical gift in being vulnerable?
One morning, he sat by my side in a fishing boat on a lake in Canada that refused to offer up any fish. Left to wait and be still on the water, Dad answered questions I had about his post-military career. I was curious how he made his way in the world when he approached midlife.
Dad reflected on how his young brain was trained to think and work in a specific way after twenty-plus years in the army. From his point of view, he would never approach the same level of success in any civilian hierarchy. No matter how hard he worked he never felt acknowledged by the rules of the civilian game.
It’s as if Dad spent years playing baseball, and when life invited him to play basketball, he compared his performance in the new game to the game he had already practiced for years. Nevertheless, Dad was well respected in all of his civilian endeavors. The weight of comparison with his younger self had caused him at times to judge himself. How human of him.
When I flirted with comparisons in my own head, I remembered dad’s humble admission of not feeling successful in all games of life. It helped me to know that he faced his limitations, too.
Dad gave us all a way to be humble. As I sat by his side in that fishing boat, Dad taught me that I, too, could be stronger at certain games and gentle with myself when I’m weaker at others.
THE FOURTH GIFT OF GRACE
For most of his life, Dad’s body was stronger than most men. Muscled limbs defined him. Nearly eighty, he had spent most of those years looking vital and feeling healthy. In the final months of life, his rapid weight loss shocked us all.
Dad would die only nine days after he witnessed Mom die on the same hospice program that kept them both comfortable in their home. Five adult children, grandkids and extended family would have the privilege of being by their side.
By all medical accounts, Dad was going to die first. However, no doctor can estimate the power of devotion. Dad’s physical condition should have prevented him from attending mom’s funeral, but Dad had a different plan. He declared for himself one final mission as he called forth eighty years of grit, determination and mental focus to demonstrate “you can do anything that you put your mind to.”
We five kids had been taking turns staying with our parents through the night. My rotation landed on what would be the night before mom’s funeral. At three in the morning Dad called my name with a quality of inner strength that was at the heart of all his commands. I found him sitting up and with his feet over the side of the bed as he stretched his frail voice to say, “Pat, get me a cracker with some peanut butter on it.” When I told my brother about his middle of the night request for a cracker, he said, “Oh, he was carb-loading.”
As we approached time for mom’s funeral the following morning, he focused all of our efforts on one final work project: he would be attending mom’s funeral as her loving and devoted husband.
SHARING ALL FOUR GIFTS
It’s taken me four years to see more clearly the emotional inheritance of these moments sitting by Dad’s side. While I may not have always appreciated them at the time, I treasure these gifts today.
Sitting by Dad’s side as he ate that cracker, I witnessed him marshaling all of his strength to show up for one final mission that demonstrated to us all, “you can do anything that you put your mind to.”
This experience of caring for them continues to shape us all even after we placed their bodies side by side in a grave that marks their shared years of birth and death, 1932-2011.
Today, I imagine that whenever we put our minds to sharing moments of hope, respect, humility and grace with one another that dad is proud. These are, after all, four gifts that grow the more they’re shared.
By your side,
Patrick Davis, MA, PCC
Patrick Davis, MA, PCC is an executive coach, mentor and educator at www.patrickbymyside.com