Cynthia’s column, Feb. 2006
I want to take this opportunity to tell you all about my father who died on October 19 after a short hard battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 78. He and my mother were married for 56 years. She died a year ago.
When we were on our way to the church for Mom’s service, Dad said to me, “I can’t imagine anything anyone could say about Susanne that would be too good to be true.” And I feel that way about Dad. Without him, the world is not as good a place.
He was a rare combination. How does it happen that a man could be boyishly charming and warm hearted and still have rock solid dependability, honesty and integrity and a whole other dimension of spiritual depth. Be a serious contender on the tennis court and still be generous and kind. Maybe it had something to do with being a middle child of five, not having to be the big brother with the responsibilities that entails, or the baby brother either. And something to do with being a child of the Depression, which put material things in perspective. A child of the church, which kept him thinking, exploring the spirit and living in prayer and faith his whole life. A child of loving parents. A rare recipe for a very unusual man. Hard to duplicate.
When he was a little boy, each of the five kids in his family learned to play an instrument. The instrument Dad chose, and played with great enthusiasm and skill, was the basketball.
In college he was just a little too young for the draft in WWII, and being a young jock of sound mind and body in a small college with insufficient males, Dad was delighted to pick up the slack and played on his college teams in football, softball, tennis, track and of course basketball. He was a star on his college basketball team all four years and later played on alumni and faculty teams. When the college created its Athlete’s Hall of Fame, Dad was in the first group they initiated.
When we were kids, Mom and Dad set up a system to insure that they’d have one-on-one time with each of their four kids every week. It was called Mommy-Laurie time. Or Daddy-Jonny time. And we’d go with Dad to the grocery store or the hardware store, and get to spend time alone with each parent. This was always a treat. When we were very small, he’d let us sit on his lap and pretend to steer the car while he’d steer it with his knee. I know it sounds crazy now, but this was before seatbelts. And he’d pretend to believe our acting when we’d pretend to be asleep so he’d carry us in from the car.
When I was six, we saw a scary Disney movie on T.V. called Darby O’Gill and the Little People. It had banshees that scared us too much to sleep. So Dad brought a kitchen chair into the bedroom and parked it between our twin beds and read a book while Wendy and I each hugged one of his big old feet until we fell asleep.
I never heard my parents yell. I was shocked the first time I heard other kids’ parents yell at them or each other. We didn’t have that. If things got tense at our house, a humorous side to the situation was usually found to defuse the tension.
When I started high school I sat down with my parents and told them that I had gotten straight A’s through Junior High and didn’t want to do that in High School. I wanted my high school life to be about the drama department. I wanted to go to rehearsals instead of doing homework. I might get Cs and Ds but it was what I wanted to do. They took a deep breath and said to their fifteen-year-old daughter, “You might not get into college without the grades.” I said, “I will go to college. I promise.” And they looked at each other and said, “It’s your decision.” That took more courage than I realized at the time. When I got my first report card I went back to them and reminded them of our agreement. Then pulled out the report card. Cs and Ds. And they looked at it and said, “It’s your decision.” What I learned in high school, reading hundreds of plays and obsessed with our drama department, turned out to be incredibly important to my future life as a screenwriter. And what I learned from my parents was invaluable to me as a parent. About faith in people we love. And about respecting others regardless of age or experience.
I got into UCLA on my test scores and went on to graduate magna cum laude from their film school, where a few years later I was teaching at the Masters level. So their wisdom bore fruit.
After college they let me come home for nearly three years and live with them while writing full time. I don’t know if I could have broken into the highly competitive field of screenwriting without the active faith and love of my parents backing me up. Their support was always absolute and non-judgmental. They never said, “Get a day job.” Or “What’s your backup plan?” They believed in me and in all their kids.
When my kids, Nick and Molly, were 8 and 5, we flew into Fresno on the afternoon of Christmas Day and Dad (who has had white hair and a full white beard for years) picked us up wearing his Santa Claus suit. Nick and Molly walked through that little airport terminal each holding one of his hands, beaming at all the other kids. Yes, this is Santa. And yes, he’s ours.
When I asked Dad and Mom to move up to Oregon and we bought our house together it was without reservation. I knew that it would be a wonderful experience and it has been. You couldn’t ask for better company than Dave Whitcomb.
His care of Mom during her long decline with Alzheimer’s was of a quality I’ve never seen in a man. He took it seriously. He held caretaking as his job and was proud that he could do it well. His patience and love through the hard work that it was to lift her in and out of the wheelchair, dress her, feed her and comfort her was deeply inspiring.
After Mom died, the five of us took a trip to Italy, a place none of us had been. It was a beautiful and remarkable time in a magical place. We needed some R&R after the years taking care of Mom, but it was a sweet and beautiful time and I am so grateful now that we took that leap and went for it. To paraphrase Casablanca, “We will always have Venice.”
A few months after Mom died, Dad found a friendship with the woman who co-led a bereavement support group with him. And as that friendship began to grow into love, Dad said to me, “I know what Susanne would say. She’d say ‘Follow your heart.’” And that’s exactly what she would say. And it’s what Dad did. Before I met Lois Ann, I thought Dad should remarry because he was a great husband and that’s a rare and valuable resource in the world and shouldn’t be wasted. And Dad was always at his best in partnership. Then when I met Lois Ann, I recognized her as a kindred spirit. One of the family. She made Dad’s last few months so much richer and sweeter for the romance and partnership she brought into his life.
It was shocking how fast Dad left us. He was fully alive and vigorous one day, then diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and forty-nine days later, gone. We’re still in shock. But you know he wouldn’t have wanted to linger. He didn’t choose that path. This was a physical challenge and he was up for it. And he did a great job. After he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, he played one last match of tennis and won. He went out at the top of his game. And short of dropping dead on a tennis court, this is the way he would have wanted to go.
A few days before he died, he said, “I’m practicing dying.” I said, “Really? How do you practice that?” He said, “I just relax and breathe slowly and then stop breathing. I think I can do it.”
I asked him what music he wanted at his service. He was kind of stoned on morphine by then and he started singing “Love, love, love…” I said, “Dad, I don’t think that’s a hymn. I think that’s a Beatles’ song.” He laughed and said, “Well, it may be too secular for a church service.” But I got his point. “All you need is love. Love is all you need.”
Ten days before he died, his siblings came up and spent time with him and he was able to talk and laugh with them. A few days before he died, all his children and grandchildren came to see him for the weekend and he was able to enjoy being with them as well. The last of them left on Tuesday evening. And the next afternoon, with Lois Ann holding one of his hands and me holding the other, he very quietly and gently stopped breathing. Just like he had practiced.
The last words he said to me were, “I’m okay.”
Two days after he died, each of his kids got a beautiful flowering plant with a card from him that said, “Don’t grieve for me. I am with you always as I have been from the beginning. Love and live life to the fullest as I have. Love, Dad.”