When my cell phone rang on June 6, my dad’s smiling face showed on the caller ID.
He would rarely answer if I called because Alzheimer’s disease made it difficult for him to comprehend a ring tone, but his phone was set up with pictures next to our numbers so he could still call us when he remembered.
I smiled and answered the way I always did. “Hey, Daddy.”
Those two affectionate words would echo in my head a million times the following week.
The family man
Ron Jackson grew up in terrible poverty, caring for a younger brother and his terminally ill mother while dodging a father mired in alcoholism from his World War II service.
Daddy reclaimed that missing childhood with us. He let us cover him with sand and helped us build castles at the beach. He was the guy in the pool with three or four laughing kids hanging onto him.
He never made enough money to give us material things, but he gave us family camping trips, one-on-one talks in the front porch swing, silly one-liners to lift our spirits and lots of hugs. When he presented Mama a big box of candy every Valentine’s Day, he handed each of us four children our own small heart-shaped box of candy.
Your birthday was never complete until Daddy called and sang that song, ad libbing the last line to say: “Your Daddy loves you!”
While others expected the best from you, Daddy always believed the best of you. Some people thought him gullible because of that. But when he believed, so did we. It helped us grow into confident, productive adults.
I never met a single person who didn’t love him. I never knew him to hold a grudge or voice a vindictive thought. He loved all animals and growing things.
He wasn’t perfect.
Mama began working when we were teens, so Daddy took over breakfast duty to help out. I blame his favorite menu – cheese toast, cheese grits and cheese eggs all in one meal – for my high cholesterol. He also woke us each day loudly singing “good morning to you,” oblivious to our grumpy protests.
But then, I fell asleep every night to the sound of him quietly checking that the doors were locked and looking in on each of us to be sure all was well with his family.
A living example
One of my earliest memories is of Daddy sitting at a desk after dinner and studying from a small blue book to earn his high school diploma. Then he began taking college courses, one at a time, when I was in the third grade. He wasn’t brilliant, but he was determined. He earned his bachelor’s degree a year after I earned mine, and later added a master’s degree to begin his second career.
He loved his first career at Georgia Power Company, but raised his hand when they were downsizing and offering early retirement packages so that he could follow his heart into the ministry. Brother Ron, as he came to be known, wasn’t a great orator in the pulpit, but he was an exceptional minister of people. He relished the job most preachers find uncomfortable, visiting the sick and shut-ins.
Even though he was ordained Southern Baptist, Daddy was one of the few who filtered past the religious dogma and truly understood the message of love. After I admitted to my parents I was same-sex oriented, Mama called for an appointment with a therapist but Daddy just hugged me. “You’re the same daughter I’ve always loved,” he said.
His unconditional love, his respect and caring for others, and his strong work ethic were the sermon he quietly preached every day.
His last gift
The funny thing about Alzheimer’s is that until the end stages, the victim can bounce between moments of near clarity and complete confusion, much like a cancer patient might have good days and bad days.
His June 6 phone call was a clear moment.
I had good news to share. I’d be coming to see him in two weeks for Father’s Day. As was typical, he latched onto the fact that I was coming to visit, but couldn’t retain when. I patiently repeated two weeks – “not this coming weekend, but the next” – three or four more times during our 30-minute conversation, and promised to have one of my sisters mark it on the whiteboard calendar in his room.
“I’ll look forward it,” he said each time.
The rest of our conversation went the same as always. He missed Mama, who had passed away three years ago. He was feeling fine, except for that creaky knee. The folks at the assisted living center were nice and brought him anything he needed. But, he would repeat wistfully, he sure missed Mama.
“I love you, Daddy,” I told him before he hung up. We all took advantage of his slow decline to make sure he knew he’d been the best father and grandfather ever.
That last phone call, and the chance to tell him again was a gift. The following Monday, Daddy had a fatal stroke.
I’m not a religious person, but I’d swear angels were singing in my head as we stood at his bedside and he drew his last earthly breath before going into the waiting arms of Mama and Jesus, most likely in that order because Mama never played second fiddle to anyone. And, because he sure missed her.
Happy Father’s Day, Daddy.
Deborah Jackson is night metro editor of The News & Observer.
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