My dad passed away September 1 at the age of 91. I have been dealing with a number of issues since then, and haven’t taken the time to write about it until now.
Dad and I had our share of issues that kept us from bonding very well. He was gone a lot when I was growing up. He was in the life insurance business from the 1950s to the 1970s, and spent a lot of time in Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Florida. As a result I developed different interests and opinions on life from his because his influence on me was minimal.
I moved away from home when I was 20, and ironically spent most of my adulthood in Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Florida, so I wasn’t around him much as an adult. It was our version of Cats in the Cradle. When he was admitted to the hospital with a urinary tract infection at the age of 89, I realized that he probably wasn’t going to be around much longer and I started spending more time with him. Over the past year or so we probably spent more time together than we did in the rest of my adult life combined. I’m glad for that now, because it gave us a chance to make up for lost time.
Dad was a marine for about five years, and he always displayed the USMC emblem on his car, address book, and just about anything else that provided such an opportunity. After he went through basic training several young men he trained with were sent to a base in the Seattle area, but they never arrived. Their plane crashed at the top of Mt. Rainier and all aboard were lost. He told me once that he wondered why he lived and they died. I like to think it was so I could be born, but it’s really one of those questions in life that we can’t really answer. We buried Dad in his uniform, which fit him again at the time of his passing due to his weight loss in recent years.
His name was Rodney Preston Saunders, and he was my namesake, although he went by “Pete” and I go by “Rod”. I’m told that he was going to name me after his father Rodney Anderson Saunders, but my mom beat him to the paperwork and made me Junior instead.
When I was about 6 years old Dad bought me a baseball glove with Willie Mays’ signature (factory, not a real autograph) on it. At the time I didn’t know who Willie Mays was, but I was interested in who this guy was with his name in my glove, and I started following his career. Over time he became my sports hero. Later on I became a big fan of Roger Staubach, and being as how we lived just two hours from Dallas Dad and I watched countless Cowboys games together.
When I was about the same age we went to the stock car races one night. Walking back to Dad’s Jeep afterward there was a lot of traffic on the main road. I saw the Jeep and started running toward it without looking at the traffic. Dad quickly grabbed my arm and yanked me back from the road, probably saving my life. He then gave me a royal butt chewing which I certainly deserved.
When I was 12 I took up golf, and Dad got me a set of golf clubs. He wasn’t very good at the game, but he enjoyed playing. Some of my best memories of Dad were from the time we spent on golf courses. Once we were riding a cart together on a hilly course and hit a patch of mud that sent us sliding down a hill out of control. As we reached the bottom of the hill the cart started tipping over on Dad’s side. I thought we were gonna die, but he just stuck his foot out and steadied the cart and we were fine. We both ended up laughing about it because we realized that it’s almost impossible to die in a golf cart, although we sure gave it a try. As an adult though, I lost interest in golf and football. My views on religion and politics changed, and we didn’t really have much in common. He was a product of the Great Depression era and WWII, and I was a product of Vietnam, Watergate, and the Doobie Brothers.
Mom passed away unexpectedly in 1982, and Dad never remarried. He lived alone with a series of dogs until the last one died in 2015. By that time Dad was too frail to take on the responsibility of caring for another dog, and the focus was more on my sister and I caring for Dad.
Throughout this ordeal I have learned a lot about the elderly. I now realize the difference between regular dementia (which everybody has to some extent at the age of 90) and Alzheimer’s. Dad’s short term memory was poor, and his cognitive skills were fading, but he never got to the point where he didn’t know where he was or who I am or how to feed and bathe himself. His basic personality was still intact, which made it difficult at times to grasp the extent to which his dementia had progressed. Add to that his stubborn, independent ways and things got difficult at times when you tried to help him.
Losing a parent is a painful experience. Once you’ve lost both of them you feel a certain disconnect with the past. Everybody who is responsible for me being here is gone. It’s a strange realization. I now face my golden years with a sense of mortality and fragility that I didn’t have when I was younger. I realize how important it is to take care of myself, exercise, keep my weight down, keep my mind active … etc. I also have a new appreciation for life. We only have a few years here, and we need to make the most of them.
So this is my tribute to Dad. He was part of the Greatest Generation. He served his country and raised a family in pursuit of the American dream. He was born before television and commercial aviation and lived to enjoy flat screen digital television and the internet. The world he departed bore little resemblance to the world he entered. He leaves behind me and my two sisters, two grandchildren and three great-grandchildren who loved him and miss him. RIP Sarge.