During the last year of my father's life, he used to doze on the couch in his kitchen after breakfast and when I rode my bike over to see him--this is before he was in nursing care--and I walked in the back door, he would look up from his snooze and sing "Hail, Hail, The Gang's All Here, here comes Robin Chapman, here comes Robin Chapman ..." What a funny, sweet, and joyous time that was.
Now the gang is all gathering to bid him farewell and I can still hear his happy song, faintly, in the background.
After he went up into nursing care he pretty much stopped singing when I appeared. But not entirely. The last time he ate breakfast in the dining room, where we always ate in the morning together, he spotted me in the doorway and broke into song. The denizens were mostly deaf, but the staff gave him a round of applause. After that he was too ill to get up for breakfast, but on that morning he gave no hint of how fragile he was, and chatted away, as he did, about his family in Birmingham and how we should go down the road and visit his Uncle Ashley in Goodwater.
Anyway, now the gang is all here for his funeral, and soon we will have a house full of nieces and nephews, grandchildren and great grandchildren here to see him off on the next part of his journey. I wish they had been here during the last two, tough weeks of Dad's life. Those were the worst for him I think. And I know they were the worst for me. Going through that alone was the hardest thing I did.
But, of course, I survived, and am now planning which tunes we shall have the bagpipes play at his graveside service. His mother's mother came from Edinburgh and was a McHuchison--a lowland Scot--so that's why I decided on the haunting music of the pipes. I was hoping the piper would play "Dixie," but he was very dubious when I suggested it and offered the more mundane "Scotland the Brave." I countered with "Minstrel Boy" and "Will Ye No Come Back Again" and I think we will compromise there. But I did like the idea of ending the service with "Dixie." Even though my father was an American patriot, he was proud of being from Alabama. Playing "Dixie," while the color guard of the U.S. Army marched away at the end of his military honors, would have had just the right sense of irony for my father.
The Army will pay for his headstone, and other than the usual things one puts on a headstone, there is a space for something personal such as Beloved Father, or Auburn '41. I looked for the motto of the Corps of Engineers but it was "Essayus" (We will try) and that not only did not trip lightly off the tongue, it seemed a little tentative for an engineer of his determination. We will try? Not exactly the Nike motto.
The Auburn motto, "For the Advancement of Science and The Arts" clearly wouldn't work. I have a friend who is the former president of Rollins College and that school's motto, "Fiat Lux," "Let there be light," is not only a wonderful phrase of both biblical and intellectual proportions, it is just the right size to fit on my friend's license plate. That's what I was looking for.
My Dad's final unit in the Reserves was the 351st Civil Affairs Command, so I Googled around for their motto. It is "Born of Freedom." And my sister and I have settled on that. The motto obtains to both Dad's unit and his life, and though it is not nearly as cool as Fiat Lux, it will suit my father fine.
It will take a while for me to lose the picture of him in his last two weeks, dying and in a coma. I am so thankful for that one day he was able to awaken for thirty minutes or so and have a sweet, final conversation with me. But the rest of the picture is very hard to bear. That was heartbreaking and with heartbreak, I have learned, you just have to wait for the wound to heal over. And then you go on.
He was a very funny person, and my friend Lisa has told me to think of him standing with me during all of this. So that is what I am doing. He is being his usual cynical, smarty-pants self, and his observations of this whole funeral process are helping me get by. "Scotland the Brave" indeed. Whatsamatter? Doesn't the guy know "Hail, Hail, the Gang's All Here"?