A lesson from G.’s dad: Cutting down a tree says I love you

G.’s dad was a simple man. He spent years working at a General Motors locomotive plant in suburban Chicago, and then after he got laid off in the 1980s, he retired early and built a life centered around G. and fishing.

G. remembers having his freezer packed with stacks of fish his father caught. His cooking skills are pretty much limited to pouring cereal and milk in a bowl, but G. says his dad made excellent fried pan fish. G.’s mother would cook it too. They divorced when G. was in elementary school, but once G.’s dad retired and moved back to Wisconsin, they kind of united around their kids. G’s dad came to Sunday dinner at his mom’s house every week until he moved into assisted living last summer.

He died today, this morning at 11:15 to be precise. He had stopped eating in recent months and just kind of wasted away. Looking back, I think he made the decision to die last summer. He told G. and everyone else then that he had lived too long.

I think his death surprised me more than G., who has seemed prepared for it for several weeks. G., with his need to build things with his hands, understands his dad’s decision. If he couldn’t be useful, he said, he would walk out on to the ice like an Eskimo and let the polar bears get him. Trapped in assisted living, his father couldn’t get out onto the ice, so he just stopped eating.

A few years ago, G. and I read The 5 Love Languages, which talks about the different ways people express love. G. does it with acts of service. He plows the garden for me, hangs pictures, takes care of Biggie B. and carries my stuff. His father was the same way.

By the time I met G.’s dad, his fishing days were largely over. He would get up in the morning and run by McDonald’s for coffee. The best Christmas present I ever got him was a booklet of McDonald’s coupons that he could use for senior coffees. Then, he would head to Woodman’s grocery store and shop the sales. He’d show up at G.’s house with cans of peanuts, granola bars and Hostess cupcakes. This used to seem like an odd obsession, but G. took me to Woodman’s for the first time last summer, and it’s fabulous. It’s employee owned and huge and has everything you could want, from Demerara sugar to corn husks and brick cheese. I am obsessed with it now. G. and I go there on dates.

At G.’s house, his dad would mow the lawn and burn brush. When G. tore his house down,  his dad burned all the debris that was legal so G. wouldn’t have to pay a dump fee for it. Together, they cut down trees and planted new ones. G. said that when he went hunting, he’d bring the meat home, and his dad would butcher it for him while he was at work. G. shot a moose in Alaska, and his dad spent hours cutting it into usable chunks.

G.’s dad slowed down after he had surgery for diverticulitis in the summer of 2009. He was diagnosed with dementia then too, and he knew that he was starting to forget things. He got winded more easily, but he kept working. He had lawn chairs scattered around the yard so he could sit down whenever he got tired. When G. and I were working in the garden, his dad would sit under a nearby tree with Biggie B. next to him. I would look at them and think, “There they are, two guys being old together.”

G.’s dad loved Biggie B. That was our first bond. His dad would buy Biggie B. treats, and when Biggie B. lost the last of his front teeth, G.’s dad broke the treats into tiny pieces so Biggie B. could crush them with his few remaining molars.

G.’s dad also loved the garden, which was a blessing to me because he wasn’t much of a talker and I can be shy, so for a long time we didn’t have much to say to each other. But once G. and I planted the garden, his dad and I always had something to talk about. He’d ask me what we were planting, picking or harvesting. We’d talk about the progress of the tomatoes and the beans. The first year, G. and I were away when the tomatoes hit their peak, and G.’s dad picked buckets of them and had them waiting for me to process when we came home. G.’s dad preferred the cherry tomatoes, and even this fall, when he wasn’t eating much else, he would munch down the pints G. took to the assisted living home.

G.’s dad taught us both that sometimes you show love just by being there. G. is good at being there. He has been best friends with his best friend for 30 years. They used to hunt and fish and do martial arts together. Now, his friend is sick with ALS, and G. goes over every week, usually on Mondays, just to hang out. He’s there, and that’s one of the things that I love about him because I know that if I ever need him, he will be there for me.

And, I think it’s something he learned from his dad, who was there, every day, for him. G. talks about how when he got divorced and wanted to go back to college, his dad helped him out with his mortgage. He remembers his dad helping tear down some old sheds on the property. But I think, really, it wasn’t so much what his dad did _ although that was helpful _ but the fact that he was there doing it. G. was never alone, and even when they were just working silently side-by-side, he knew he was loved.

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