Making plans with other moms these days is somewhat of an exercise similar to that three-mile run I force myself to do after a two week . . . or six month . . . hiatus from running. It is sweaty, it is a brutal uphill challenge, but when you come out the other end and finish that run–or find that one perfect day where your schedules match up–it feels like the best, inconsequential accomplishment ever. There are nap schedules, there are doctors’ appointments, there is gymnastics and T-ball, there are work schedules, that day your friend is watching her sister’s kids, your child’s preschool friend’s birthday party . . . I’m not even sure how it all piles up, but there are piles, and piles of commitments to navigate. But that is life, and it is rich, and it is wonderful, and it was worth all the hectic mayhem. We are so lucky to have the ability to participate in all these amazing things. This is what makes a family full and alive.
But as we age, there is something else presenting itself and glaring us in the face. It is the aging of our parents. It is their doctor’s appointments, their unexpected emergency department visits. It may be a fall. It may be weakness. It may be feeling dizzy. It may be feeling short of breath. We find ourselves sitting in hospital rooms with our lifelong caretakers. In our visions for our futures, with our homes, with our careers, with our families, we never envisioned this. This is all very unexpected.
I met my father-in-law 14 Thanksgivings ago. I was so nervous to meet my boyfriend’s parents. I had no idea what to expect and even less of a clue how to act. I battled my nerves the whole three-hour drive from our little bubble of a world on our college campus to my boyfriend’s little hometown in Michigan. He told me not to be nervous, “there is nothing to be nervous about! They will love you!” Ah yes. What mother doesn’t love the girl her son brings home? Of course she will think I am good enough . . .
I remember pulling up to their home. I remember finding my now father-in-law in the midst of making lunch for us. I remember that big, hearty hug he gave me, and that gentle pat on the back with those kind eyes. I remember feeling welcome.
I learned in the years to come more and more about my father-in-law. I learned that he worked hard hours, never complained, and put his head and hands to his work to provide for his family. He was always a do-it-yourself, fix-it-yourself man. He worked with his hands. He built the kitchen in their home. He built their deck. He fixed the plumbing. He fixed the car. He built an extra bathroom. Sometimes by trial and error, but he got it done. He was a man of not too many words, but he showed his love and affection through his work. He was the builder, the fixer, the caretaker for his family, for his neighbors, for his friends. When we moved into our new home and the basement flooded, we waited patiently for my father-in-law to visit so he could teach my husband how to replace the base molding that was now water-logged and rotted. After I gave birth to the twins and was in a complete state of sleep deprivation and disarray, it was my father-in-law that, night after night, cooked us dinner without which, I am at a loss to know how we would have eaten or if we would even have remembered. This is how he provided. He was the strength, producing for his family.
As the years have passed, I know it has been a struggle for him. It has been a struggle for him because often times, the walk up those 8 steps leading from our garage to our home is a daunting challenge. It sometimes takes all he has to make it up those steps, feeling winded, feeling light-headed, feeling bewildered, trying to remember when his physical strength had been hijacked. It breaks my heart to imagine what this must be like. To be the strength, and now to find your body unable to keep up with your will and desires to provide as you have lived your lifetime doing.
I can’t imagine, but I want him to imagine what it is like for us. For us, it has never been about what he built, it has never been what he could fix, it has always been about his intentions, the vast amount of love and steadfast committment that went into every project. It has been his effort, it has been his heart.
It is his heart. Oh, it has always, always been his heart that is his greatest strength. It is those words he says when I’ve been working tirelessly all weekend, feeling so incredibly worn, those words of acknowledgement, “you must be tired.” This is the strength that we see in those kind, always welcoming eyes that I met those 14 Thanksgivings ago. It is that heart that my five-year-olds so affectionately call Grampy and my two-year-old calls Babba.
So, today, on my father-in-law’s birthday, I just want him to know, we see him for who he is. He may not say much, but we hear every word. Don’t let his sometimes gruff demeanor fool you. He is full teddy bear. He is full of heart, he is full of love, he is full of strength.
On your 78th Birthday, we love you Grampy, Babba, Byron. Happy, happy birthday.