When I was growing up, there was a really popular television show called Father Knows Best. The Father not only had answers to all the questions. He called his children by really cute nicknames like “Princess”. Is this how I remember my own Dad?
My memories of my Dad have been vague until recently. He died in 1996. But because of the cruel thief known as Alzheimer’s disease, his quick, inquisitive mind left us about 10 to 15 years before his death. It took some time after his death for me to be able to remember anything other than the image of the bedridden shell of my Dad in a nursing home. But I have started to remember how dedicated and outgoing he was, and I can identify and value the gifts and wisdom he gave me throughout his life.
I know it may seem strange, but I think having to learn how to manage my heart failure has made me reflect more on my own life. I often look back on my career, and the memories help remind me that I am strong enough to manage this chronic illness. But I also remember the people and factors that influenced the path that I took. (You may recall that I wrote a post about the positive example provide by my Mom several weeks ago). As a result, I have gained a number of insights regarding the character, talents and intellect of my Dad. He may have left this world with a mind ravaged by disease. But that man was clever and driven, and just like me, a bit intense.
My Dad came from a large family. I always have to stop and call the roll of siblings to figure out how many there were. I believe he had ten brothers and sisters. One would think that it was a rollicking, happy family life, like something you would see in one of those 1930s movies like “Cheaper by the Dozen.” As far as I can tell, it was more like a war zone. From all the stories I heard, his parents did not get along - yeah, I know, they had ten kids, so it is a mystery to me. Sometimes I think that having children was their way of breeding armies to deploy against one another. Why do I think this? Because in all the stories I heard from my aunts and uncles, the recurring theme is that each child sided with one parent over the other. Where did my Dad fall when it came to the family armies? Well, my Grandpa Stinnett was an avid farmer. My Dad hated farming and also was favored his mother.
To illustrate just how frigid the relationship was between my Dad and Grandpa Stinnett, we can just examine World War II and my Dad’s service. As I understand it, male sons were called up to service in order of birth. I had an uncle who was a year or two older than my Dad and was next in line to be called up. Also as I understand it, farming families could have an exemption, so that one son could stay home and help run the farm. I suspect that my Grandpa Stinnett figured that my Dad hated farming and therefore was useless to him. Grandpa Stinnett went to the office that did the drafted soldiers. He told them that he wanted my uncle to be the exempt son and to call my father up next. Whatever love there was between my Dad and Grandpa Stinnett was pretty much dashed at that point.
I will also tell you that in a strange way, I think my Dad and I understand that although it was a cold, callous thing to do, my Grandpa Stinnett probably did my Dad a favor. Dad wanted to get away from the farm and go out and see the world. Well, that’s exactly what he did during World War II. He was overseas in Europe. He was exposed to a more diverse population than what he saw in Missouri. I remember him telling me that he fought with people of other races, and that he learned to value them and understand that no matter the color or ethnic group, people bled the same red blood that he bled.
It seems like the apple never falls far from the tree, and in some respects my Dad was like Grandpa Stinnett. I cannot recall that he ever used fond nicknames for his children like “Princess”. That just wasn’t his style. At times, my Dad could seem to be very critical of his children. But he loved his children. I do not think that he was disappointed in us. In fact, I think he was very proud of our accomplishments as we moved through college and into our professional lives. I also think that because of the environment he was raised in, the ability to express his feelings directly to his children could be stifled. But I remember the times he expressed to me how proud he was of me and my three siblings.
As I learn each day to manage the impact of heart failure and the things I was forced to leave behind, I also have learned to value and honor the bond that I share with my father. Both my father and I devoted our lives to public service, with significant portions of our careers spent in the field of law enforcement. My father served as a special agent of an agency of the Department of the Interior. I served as a lawyer, and later career executive, to a law enforcement agency of the Department of Justice. I may not have carried a gun and badge, but after 30 years in a law enforcement agency, I very much respected the agents I worked with. I knew they would make sacrifices that most of us cannot begin to understand in order to enforce the laws of this nation. I was proud to work by their sides and proud of my Dad’s service.
I wish I knew more about my Dad’s work in law enforcement. When I was a teenager, I just knew that my Dad drove a carpool of colleagues to work every day, and he seemed to work incredibly long hours. I knew that his job had something to do with the enforcement of the Endangered Species Act, something which he seemed very passionate about. (Given that the current administration is destroying that act, I’m sure my Dad is turning over in his grave). I think both of us also share the sad fact that we were forced by health circumstances to leave the world of government service sooner than we had planned.
I have been thinking a lot about my Dad in the five years or so before he was admitted to the nursing home. He was of course retired by then, and was seeing a lot of doctors about a lot of health issues. What stands out in my mind is that even though his health was failing, I remember how much he enjoyed being around people. Specifically, I remember he was in and out of the hospital a number of times to have various surgical procedures. My Dad was an extrovert, and would find someone on the floor who was having a procedure that he had already experienced. He would talk to the person and comfort him or her with the knowledge that they would be okay, and that there was nothing to be concerned about. And I think he also loved to hear about these people, where they were from and what their passions were.
So it seems to me that my love of mentoring was most likely born as I watched my father shepherding those who were about to walk down a scary road that he had already begun to travel. It would only be a few short years later and my father would not even be able to hold a rational conversation with anyone, much less mentor and guide and socialize with them. But it is the memories of the sociable, helpful, outgoing father that kept me sane when I would visit my father in the nursing home. And it is these same memories that make me proud that just like my father, I have life lessons that I can pass on to young and gifted people who soon will be leading us forward. Like my Dad, I also have lessons of my medical condition that I can share with others who are just beginning to travel down the road of chronic illness.
Thanks Dad for showing me the way to be a compassionate and enthusiastic mentor. If I keep in my hand the compass you left for me to use, I know that the path I take forward will always lead me to someone who needs my help and counsel. Equally important, the compass will lead me to more memories of you, memories that will inform and guide me as I continue to figure out how to manage my heart failure.
Melanie discovered that she had heart failure in 2013. She spent the next 7 years learning how to live with the condition, and how to achieve balance and personal growth. Then in October 2020, she received a heart transplant. This blog is about her journey of the heart.