Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Heart of a Lion

My dad's name was Leon, but to his friends he was "Lee."  And to his "grandthings" he was "BIGFOOT." Always.  He insisted on that.  (If you were lucky enough to know my father, you know that he was a character.)

Dad passed away on November 25, 2016, one day shy of his 82nd birthday and about five months after celebrating his 60th wedding anniversary with the love of his life.
Mom and Dad on one of their early dates at the Naval Academy in 1955.
The end seemed to come quickly and suddenly, and it took our breath away.  But Dad's death was not really unexpected; just a month and a half before, we had gotten the tragic news that after years of blood disorders, frequent trips to the hematologist, and regular transfusions at the cancer center, he had full-blown leukemia.  Without treatment, he had maybe 3-6 months to live; but there was a slim chance that chemotherapy might buy him a year or two.  He chose the chemotherapy route, because as hard as his life had become over the past few years, dealing with so much pain and illness, he had one goal and one goal only: to stay alive as long as possible so that he could take care of my mother.  That was what he prayed for daily.  That was what he was living for.

We had known for some time that Dad was failing.  His family care doctor had told my sister this quite a while ago, and advised us not to nag him about things like his nightly vodka tonics or his excessive salt intake.  We knew that he felt lousy most of the time, but we didn't know this because he complained about it. Trying to find out what was going on with him health-wise was like pulling teeth.  He was almost heroically stoic when it came to his own aches and pains.  (Poor circulation ultimately led to multiple surgeries and the amputation of eight of his ten toes, but he never once felt sorry for himself or asked, "Why me?") And he wanted to be independent.  Thinking about him now, I believe he would have died much, much sooner if he hadn't been so stubborn and loved my mother so much.

To say that my dad loved my mother fiercely is an understatement.  They met when they were kids (she was 19, he was 20) and were married within a year of their first date, a blind date arranged by a buddy at the Naval Academy.  He knew she was the one for him almost from the very beginning and never had eyes for anyone else.  Right from the start, he told her he wanted to be a dad (and by age 28, he was the father of five).  It was the only role he ever wanted to have, our mother has told us; he lost his father to suicide when he was six, and he spent the rest of his life making sure his own children had what he didn't.

About a year before he died, my four siblings and I staged an intervention.  Mom had fallen and broken a hip already.  Dad was getting increasingly feeble, and it had become the norm for him to call his children in the middle of the night because she'd fallen out of bed (yet again!) and he couldn't lift her.  It wasn't safe at home anymore, we said; it was time for an assisted living situation.  But my dad dug his heels in and said they were staying in their house.  Period.  He agreed to a couple of hours of daily in-home aid, but otherwise he insisted that he would take care of Mom himself.
Dad visiting Mom at the rehab center last year, sporting a Band-Aid on his
forehead...because he had started to fall occasionally, too.
So he did, by golly; he did.  He did all the grocery shopping.  He brought her breakfast and lunch to her on a tray every day, and he heated up frozen dinners for the two of them every night.  He sat with his best girl after dinner and watched "NCIS" or "Blue Bloods" or "The O'Reilly Factor," and then he followed her back to their room and made sure that she got safely tucked into bed.  He took her to her appointments when we didn't even think he should be driving anymore.  I should have known the end was near in October, when he let me drive him to the hospital every day for his first (and ultimately, last) round of chemo treatments.  It was so unlike Dad to relinquish control like that.  After he died, I was so thankful that he was spared the indignity of having his driver's license taken away from him; for Dad, that would have been the last straw, the final assault on his manhood.  Because even though he was failing, and he knew it, he had the heart of a lion and he still wanted to roar. 

So often I am reminded of Dad, by little things that happen in the course of an average day.  Like today, for instance.  You see, it's garbage day here in our new VA hometown.  And garbage day makes me remember Dad with a fondness that, unfortunately, I didn't always feel back when he was alive.  (If any of my siblings are reading this post, you probably know where I'm going with this!)

Dad absolutely loved his job with the NY State Lottery, and if health issues hadn't forced his "early" retirement at 74, he would have happily worked until he was on his deathbed.  So after he no longer had the stimulation provided by work, I think he just needed to have other jobs to do around the house, jobs that only HE could perform properly.  (We're pretty sure he had OCD, although it was never diagnosed.  But that's a subject for another time.)  And garbage, for some bizarre reason, was of monumental importance to him.  He had specific methods for tying the plastic bags, loading them into the big cans, placing the cans just so at the curb--and in spite of the fact that all of his past-middle-aged children had been successfully disposing of garbage at our own homes for decades, none of us could be trusted to do it right.  We used to joke that of course we couldn't help, because we didn't have our PhD's in garbage.

Even when the end was near for Dad, trying to get him to let you help with the garbage was brutal.  He would follow you around, barking instructions, inching painfully along with his walker while holding a tall kitchen garbage bag into which you were supposed to empty each of the small trash cans located throughout the house.  Trying to convince him that you could take care of this task on your own was futile.  I remember saying, "Dad, please sit and rest and let me do this for you. And even if I do the unthinkable and miss one can this time, it's no big deal.  The garbage man comes every week!"  He could really frustrate you with his inability to give up control.

Now I see that my father was just trying to do what he could still do, for as long as he could do it, when so much of his strength and vitality had been cruelly stolen from him.  Now when I remember his stubborn refusal to let me take out the trash by myself, without him supervising me every step of the way (to the point of even watching from the door to make sure that I parked the cans in exactly the right spot at the end of the driveway), I realize that I shouldn't have gotten so annoyed with him.  I should have been proud that he still wanted to roar a bit, that his lion's heart had not been completely beaten down by illness.

Knowing that I enjoyed doing artwork and creating homemade gifts, Dad once asked me to paint something special for him.  An incurable Anglophile, he wanted me to make a coat of arms and incorporate a picture of a lion's head and the words "Coeur de Leon." The phrase "Coeur de Lion" is often associated with Richard I of England, the 12th-Century Crusader-King who is known as "Richard Couer de Lion" or "Richard the Lionhearted."  In French, "Coeur de Lion" means "heart of a lion," and the way the French word "lion" is pronounced sounds very similar to my dad's name.  So...get it?   Dad was always a sucker for a good pun (the cornier, the better).

So here's what I made for him, as a gift for Christmas 2002.  It's mine now and hangs on the wall of one of the guest bedrooms in our new house.
My father was a complicated man, flawed--as we all are--and sometimes hard to understand.  He was even hurtful at times, without meaning to be; but at heart he was as good and strong and moral and brave and loving as they come.  And never in his life did he demonstrate just how incredible he really was until his final days, about which I must write when I can bring myself to do it.

When I look at this painting, I think of my lionhearted dad and the way he roared through life for as long as he could...but then when he knew his death was imminent, gave himself over to God with the meekness and gentleness of a lamb. Even though it meant he had to do the unthinkable and leave my mother.

It is my fervent prayer that I've inherited even the tiniest piece of the heart of Leon, my father.


  1. Well I am crying. What a loving tribute to your lion-hearted father. What a legacy he has left and what a legend he will be remembered as. I mean, his grandchildren apparently called him Bigfoot which is legendary all by itself. This is just beautifully written.

    1. Madeline, I am touched that you cried for my dad. He really was one of a kind. I hope that I can write about his last week soon, before I forget the details. It was really the most beautiful death you could ever imagine. Most people, if they could script their end, would want to go exactly as he did.

      His nickname was Bigfoot, given to him by friends before he became a grandfather; and once he had grandkids, he refused to let them call him anything else. No ho-hum "Grandpa" for him! He wanted to be remembered, I think. And he will be, that's for sure.

  2. Your father lived a great life in little, hidden ways that today's world might not value as much as it should. In everything you have written about him, in every instance, he chose Life - often, fiercely. As I write this, I am coming from a night where precious hours have been wasted in longing for an old way of life I am not likely to ever have. And in my longing, I've let slip the chance to live those hours the way your father might have - stoic and firm and bold - like a lion.

    I guess it's time to walk the Lion's route!


    1. Caitlynne, thank you for stopping by and leaving this beautiful comment! And for being inspired by my dad's life.

      You're right, he was stoic and firm and bold. Too firm, we often thought. We were a bit exasperated with him when he refused to consider leaving their house; we were so worried about their safety, but somehow he made it work. Then when he couldn't make it work anymore, God called him home.

      He had a tough life in many ways, and he bore up bravely, never complaining. I think God gave him his reward with the most peaceful and holy death imaginable.

      (I just visited your blog, BTW, and you write so beautifully!)

  3. Thank you, Laura.

    I'm one of those who hope you will write on how your dad passed on. I think we don't hear enough about good people, and we need it a lot now. I've just begun reading some posts here. Do write about your new home whenever it feels like the right thing to do. But I loved your old home - it is like something out of a storybook. A house nestled in the woods is what I am yearning for!

    But that's whimsical, impractical me speaking!


    1. Oh, Caitlynne...if I write about my old home too often, my heart will break. We are so happy that we moved, because we had no family in NH anymore and now we're located close to several of our kids and grandkids; but this house will never be the same to us. Our NH house was a magical place, but not just because it was nestled in the woods (which I did love!); it's because it was where we raised our boys. I am working really hard to make this new house have the same feeling of warmth and comfort, and it's a very nice house. But--not to be overly dramatic or anything--I sometimes wonder if I'll be mumbling on my deathbed about going home, and that's the house I'll be talking about.

  4. Laura, you made me cry, then laugh, then cry again! I love how you write! By the way, dad's name "Bigfoot" was actually his chief's name at Silver Lake. When he got his original chief name it was Chief Crooked Sight (because it took him 8 shots to shoot a porcupine). He didn't like that name, obviously, so he requested they call him Chief Bigfoot, for the size of his feet and they agreed. So that is where the name came from and he was very proud of it. Love this and love reading your blog!!

    1. I had forgotten the details--thanks for clearing that up! Leave it to Dad to give himself the name HE wanted! The name makes him like a legend. :)

  5. Laura
    A true tribute to your Dad, I could just feel how he didn't want to leave your Mum and how he was independent to the last. Saying some prayers for him and for you and your sibs and the love of your Dad's life, your Mum.
    PS, who is caring for your Mum now?

    1. Thanks for the prayers!

      Mom wanted to have her "own" place, rather than move in with one of her kids. So she has a room in a beautiful old Victorian brick mansion that is an assisted living home--and out her window, she has a view of the house where she raised her family. My two sisters live nearby and visit frequently. That's the hard thing about our move--I'm so far away now, instead of a few hours' drive. But our plan is to spend most of the summer up there every year, taking care of our Oyster Haven property. So I'll get to spend lots of time with her then.

  6. Loved reading about your dad, a quiet man I did not know well growing up. Kudos to your mom and her strength to want to maintain her independence by how she had chosen to live now. It allows her to keep the same relationship with all of you - living with one is very different and changes the roles at our ages now.