Friday, March 02, 2007

Home again

Yesterday at 11 a.m. I topped a rise as I turned down the road that takes me home. Below in the distance Pikes Peak's snowy head was caught in the clouds and I knew I was home. At that same moment, back in Ohio, my dad, Jim Cornwell, slipped the bonds holding him to this earth and to his body. He had seen me safely home again after a long and difficult journey.

I didn't get home until noon. I called Beanie to let her know I had finally arrived safely home. She told me Dad died an hour before. She didn't get there in time to be with him when he died. She had been at work. Dad had been home from the hospital less than a week but at least he died with most of his family around him and he didn't have to linger through bed sores and morphine-laced consciousness.

As I called some of my friends and my father's friends, with whom I still keep in contact, many of them shared their memories of Dad. They were all similar to the ones I carefully fingered in my mind. In all the pictures and movie film we have of Dad, he is either smiling or laughing. Carmen Kennon, whose family lived above ours when we were stationed together in Panama, said that most of all she remembers Dad's laugh. "It was a soul deep kind of laugh," she said. "Whenever any of us were feeling bad or things weren't working out real good," she said, "Jim made us laugh. He was so friendly and open and likable. You're just like him," she said.

Dad never knew a stranger. People came up to him and talked and he talked to everyone he met, making them smile and laugh even through their tears, even when they were having a bad day. In movie films of Dad marching in formation he had a discreet smile on his face and his blue eyes twinkled with laughter. He didn't know how to fake smile. He smiled with his whole heart and his body. He had a wicked (some would say sick) sense of humor and he saw joy everywhere. He could pick a leaf from a tree or a flower and stick it into the ground and it would blossom into abundant and glorious growth. He talked to his plants and he was convinced they talked to him. Anyone who has seen his gardens and the plants in his house can tell he had magic in his touch. Dad was quiet in his own way and he didn't read much but you always knew when he was home. Everything seemed and felt more alive.

He had a passion for animals and he loved chickens, the chickens he gave away to one of my brother's friends last Sunday because he knew he'd never be able to feed them or nurse their eggs to hatching. Animals responded to him the way plants did, with love, giving him their best. Dad had so much love and respect for nature and he shared a special affinity with the natural world. Now he's a part of nature once more and safely home again.

James Cary Cornwell
Born: September 2, 1927
Died: March 1, 2007

Monday, February 26, 2007

The times of my life

The past couple of weeks have been difficult at best, not the least because my father is dying. This is not a good time to have a birthday and mine came and went with little or no comment. I don't mind because most of my birthdays have come and gone without much comment from most of my family; that is nothing new.

I have been away from Ohio most of the past eight years and the only time I saw my father in a hospital bed was when his heart valve was replaced eight years ago, but it's the only time I remember seeing him in the hospital. Mom is a different story for a different time. She has been in and out of the hospital most of my life but she still keeps perking along, diminished in body but not in whatever essence keeps her alive. Dad looked better when he had his heart valve replaced, but then he still had enough essence and fight to keep going--and he did. Such is not the case now.

Dad was in the hospital for exactly one week during which I asked lots of questions of nurses and doctors (after my father assured them he wanted them to tell me what I wanted to know) and the news kept getting worse and worse. Heart failure, kidney failure, fluid in his lungs, pneumonia, cancer spread to his lungs and organ-system failure down the line. Dad could barely swallow water without too much pain at first and that got worse. He wanted to go home. The doctors couldn't do any more for him so they sent him home to die. It's just a matter of time now and not much time at that.

I am not writing this now to garner sympathy but as a true record of what is happening, something that will last when my father is gone. I don't need anyone's sympathy because my father has lived a good life and I have done my crying over his death. I have seen enough of people demanding attention for their grief and their needs when all attention should be focused on Dad at this of all times. His last days on earth should not be colored or defined by anyone else's histrionics and selfish upstaging because it's not about them. They aren't dying. They aren't faced with their own mortality and staring into the void. Such melodramatic displays are self serving and selfish.

My father has led a good and interesting life and when he is gone the world will be a little less bright and cheerful.

Dad was born in a cornfield, delivered by his own father who cut the umbilical cord with a corn scythe. He lived most of his young life in a real log cabin, sharing the loft with eight other children briefly and then seven siblings when Doral died a few weeks after he was born, following his mother who died at the age of 31 worn out from work and bearing children. Dad said he was a real backwoods hick who was backward and didn't even have shoes to wear when he began attending school. His father and some friends made and sold moonshine until the revenuers caught up with his father and sent him to prison for two years. Grandpa could have had company but he refused to give up his friends. The eight children fended for themselves since social services wasn't around then. Stories about Dad's sister Evelyn scalding her arm with hot grease when she made donuts and another one of Dad's sisters jumping from the second floor window to the ground and breaking a leg were the stuff of family legend. There were the strange jobs Dad had, washing elephants in a circus (they smelled really bad) when he and his brother Don ran away to the circus (that didn't last long) and getting booze for the johns who visited the prostitutes in the hotel where Dad worked as a page at the ripe old age of 12 added to the legends of a more adventurous time.

My father has always been a quiet man when it came to his own emotions whose clear blue eyes fill with joy and mirth when he laughs, and he laughs a lot. He is friendly and talkative whether he knows you or not and always holds out the open hand of friendship. He is intelligent and curious and an endless source of amazement. He cooks and sews and he knows how to curl and braid little girls' hair. He is endlessly patient and a genuinely good man who constantly sees the funny side of life. He is doggedly loyal and he knows how to make purses out of banana leaves. He is the glue that holds our family together when others would have torn us apart long ago. He is simply the best man I have ever known and the ruler by which I measure every man I meet. He is a hard act to follow.