Editor’s note: Co-founder Jeannie Ralston wrote this assessment of her father’s legacy six years ago when she found out that he had severely clogged arteries. He died just four months later from a fall while raking leaves in his favorite part of his property. Jeannie ended up reading a modified version of this article at her father’s memorial service.
When I got the news that three of my father’s arteries were severely clogged, my immediate response was, “Surgery can fix that.” That’s what my five siblings thought, too. But that’s not what my father thought. He’s 88, and, except for this diagnosis, he’s been living a good life. Riding his bike. Weeding his garden. He categorically refused to have open-heart surgery that would have bypassed the congestion and possibly extended his life. At his age, the risk of stroke—which could leave him as a vegetable, his worst fear—is substantial. Plus, the recovery time would be long and arduous.
He has always put a premium on the immeasurables—love, family, fun—over the quantifiable.
I was in tears. I couldn’t imagine life without my father, and I couldn’t believe he wouldn’t do everything to stay with us (as if it was all about me). But then, on the one night he had to spend in the hospital to have a defibrillator installed, he got in trouble. A nurse had awoken him at 2:30 a.m. to weigh him to determine if there was fluid build up. He got royally pissed and began yelling at her, which led her to call security.
“The funny thing is the guy was about my age,” my father told me over the phone the next day. “I could have taken him out. Except he had a gun.” Yeah, maybe Dad is right, I thought. Maybe he’s not suited for an extended stay in the hospital. “If I go, I go,” he said later in our call. “I have peace with that.”
This happened a few weeks ago, and my dad is still puttering around, doing crazy things like getting on a ladder to cut a limb with a chainsaw. No one can say when his heart will give out or if it will be something else that ultimately takes him.
I’ve had some time to think, and I realize my father is choosing quality of life over quantity (any working mother of a certain age understands that quality-versus-quantity argument). But this choice isn’t anything new. Even though he can be crusty at times, he has always put a premium on the immeasurables—love, family, fun—over the quantifiable, such as money. That’s what has made him such a powerful example of how to live life. Quality life.
Here are some of my father’s firm values. (I should say that my mother is a gem, too, and integral to all my father does.)
Never pass up an excuse for a party.
My dad is half Irish and half Swedish, but it’s the Irish part that holds sway. No event or achievement is too small for a round of merry-making. A good report card? Let’s celebrate. One of us home from college? A dinner out. The leaves are all raked for the season? Yahoo! One of his grandchildren took a first step? Chin-chin. Got through a colonoscopy? Double shots, maybe triple.
If something’s worth doing, the doing of it is worth celebrating.
He sure knows how to do the big events right too. At our Christmas dinner growing up, after the food was cleared, we’d play a game called Thumper, with him leading the table banging and the goofy gestures that were part of the rowdy affair. At all of his children’s weddings (six), it became a tradition—of his own design—that Dad would get thrown in a pool. Strangely enough, one was always nearby. There’s a metaphor in that somewhere but I haven’t figured it out.
I’ve certainly inherited this propensity, which is often at odds with my husband’s more reserved nature. Let’s just say that two days before my huge 50th birthday blowout (mariachi band, taco truck at our house), I was already talking about what I was going to do for my 60th—no, really! I believe if something’s worth doing, the doing of it is worth celebrating.
Make the effort to stay connected.
After all six kids left the house and started our lives, my parents knew if they wanted us to get together, they had to make it attractive. They realized our hometown in East Tennessee wouldn’t be a big draw, even though it is in a gorgeous stretch of mountains. For years, they rented a beach house in North Carolina the same week each summer, and there was an open invitation to attend.
My father would always spend mornings in the waves for some inner-tube bobbing and body surfing—even into his 80s. He showed all of us how important doing things together is, rather than just sitting around, disconnected. My sons loved hanging with him in the water, looking for the next big wave, talking about the clouds, the current, school, girls, whatever.
My parents have used the carrot approach, luring us to gather around them in a fabulous setting to create memories.
I sure appreciate that my parents have never beat us over the head with the guilt-stick to get us to come see them. They have always used the carrot approach, luring us to gather around them in a fabulous setting and creating memories with their children, grandchildren, and now great-grandchildren. I, of course, am determined to offer this for my own kids and their families, and we’ve begun some traditions of our own, such as a regular trip to a favorite beach after Christmas.
My dad keeps the clan close in other ways. He is the ringleader for our extended family’s NCAA March Madness bracket competition. We all love the chance to compete with cousins and aunts and uncles, and the trash-talking that comes along with it is hilarious. It has become such a fun, highly anticipated event that my father has devised a contest for college football bowl games and now even the NFL playoffs. The World Series is next, I’m sure.
We did not grow up rich by any means. Every penny went to raising six kids and putting them through college. Still, I remember my father always having something to give. What sticks out in my mind is a dinner when I was in high school. There were four of us still at home, and my dad asked for the bowl of mashed potatoes to get a second spoonful. When he saw there was only one serving left, he said, “Oh, you kids have this.”
When my brother and I had paper routes, my father was up with us (very early) every weekend morning to drive us through the neighborhood in the darkness. He never complained and was always cheerful and helpful. I think now he might have liked the time alone with us. These are such small things to remember, but they are perfect illustrations of his big heart.
After all the kids left the house and my parents had more freedom with money, my mom and dad were able to be more generous financially. At Christmas, they send checks for $50 to their grandkids. The “To” section is left blank so each grandchild can fill in the charity of their choice. They want to instill in them the importance of giving back. My mother says that when you give money, it comes back to you threefold. That kind of spirit makes it hard to object when my parents pay for a house at the beach or treat a big group to dinner or help fund my brother’s nonprofit for kids with cancer and say, “It’s alright. We’re just spending your inheritance.”
Dance. Even when you can barely move.
One of the constants in my life is that whenever I am together with my father, we dance. My parents are great dancers—more than once they have beaten out much younger couples in dance competitions—and my dad loves the jitterbug. I’ve jitterbugged with my father since I can remember and have learned to follow his light, commanding touch—even though for years he complained I kept trying to lead. “Feminism,” he’d say with exasperation. For us, dancing is a way to focus on each other, to tune everything else out, to simply enjoy the moment together.
He was dancing with a replaced hip and two replaced knees, and we had no idea how clogged his arteries were at the time.
But it’s not all jitterbugging. At my nephew’s wedding three years ago, I noticed that he was shuffling onto the dance floor, as if picking up his feet hurt. But still, we swirled and dipped. Then when the throbbing base of a techno-pop song blasted through the room, everyone started jumping up and down in a wild frenzy. I looked over at my dad and he was jumping too, but he couldn’t raise his hands over his head like everyone else. His hands were at shoulder level. It occurred to me that maybe his joints were hurting. Nevertheless, he was not going to miss being in the thick of the excitement.
Last year, when my youngest graduated from high school, we danced at an after-party to “Shout.” Along with all the others, my dad—87 at the time—bent lower and lower as the line, “A little bit softer now” repeated. He was dancing with a replaced hip and two replaced knees, and we had no idea how clogged his arteries were at the time. He could’ve just keeled over right there and then. And you know, I’m sure he couldn’t think of a better way to go.