In Memoriam: Dean L. Minton Sr.
Methinks I See My Father
My father died yesterday. Now, my brothers and I are orphans.
My first tribute to the man comes from the man himself. Two weeks after his stroke and brain surgery six years and one month ago—he was still in intensive care and only just starting preliminary speech and mobility rehabilitation—dad asked me, "How did I get such wonderful sons?" I looked at him with a "Duh!" expression, which he must have mistook for not understanding the question, so he repeated it: "How did I get such wonderful sons?"
I replied with what I thought was obvious: "Because you raised us."
In the six years since, whenever I visited my dad in his assisted living facility I heard often that my brothers and I were such wonderful sons. Well, we learned from wonderful parents.
Mom and dad raised us to be caring, hard-working, adventurous, and gracious. Watching them interact with the world, we learned to be respectful and tolerant. From my parents I learned about Martin Luther King Jr. From my parents I learned how to give of myself, not just money, to community causes. From my parents I learned about social justice and enfranchisement. My dad, an ordained Southern Baptist minister who became an Air Force chaplain, retiring as a lieutenant colonel, began advocating for gay and lesbian rights in the military back in 1967. From my parents I learned courage.
As a boy, dad wanted to be a preacher, a doctor, and a pilot: he became an Air Force chaplain and, upon his retirement, went to medical school to launch a second career as a physician assistant in a psychiatric practice. From my parents I learned what achievement truly means. When in my senior year in high school I got a D in biology, dad suggested I curtail my work on the school and local newspapers. I replied that through both I was working toward my vocation, and though I needed to buckle down in biology, the journalism experience was more important in the long run. He listened, he nodded, he said, "OK." From my parents I learned trust. Mom died eight years ago after an eight-year contention with colon cancer. At her memorial service a neighbor described how she "showed us all how to die with grace." After dad's debilitating stroke at age 82, I watched his mighty effort to rehabilitate, clawing back from many setbacks along the way. From my parents I learned resilience.
Music was a mainstay in our household. Mom and dad loved opera and ballet. They dug popular music; I'll take mom's monotone, off-beat rendition of "Hungry Heart" after she attended a Springsteen concert with me over Bruce's version any time (I have no choice: it's an eternal earworm). If you think advocating for gay rights back in 1967 was daring, it paled to what dad did five years later: at Advanced Chaplains School when it was his turn to lead the morning devotional, he started it with Jethro Tull's "My God." From my parents I learned to appreciate culture. And baseball—ah, baseball: we followed the '68 World Series together, went to Tigers and Phillies games together, explored Minor League circuits together. Mom collected autographs and became a player favorite; dad became a Charlotte Knights chaplain and befriended homesick players. They attended Major League players' weddings, and upon mom's passing dad got messages from players and mascots alike.
I learned how to cook directly from my dad. I learned how to organize and design directly from my mom. I didn't learn Shakespeare from them. I came at that of my own volition, unaware until I did so that they were fans, too. However, through their taking me to Stratford-upon-Avon and live theater in London, Cambridge, Norwich, and Bury St. Edmunds while dad was stationed in England and I was in college, from my parents I learned Shakespeareances.
My first memories of dad was running with my brothers in circles around him while he, being the monster, reached out and grabbed us and tried to eat us. Our squeals of laughter still ring in my ears. When my brother John was in high school, he commented that all his friends would talk about conflicts with their parents; John couldn't engage in these conversations because he always had a good time with his parents. When I was in therapy for depression, the therapist delved into my childhood to find root causes; all she found there was happiness. Even during our last FaceTime visit with dad this past Sunday—which I sensed might be our final conversation—he said he didn't feel good but he still had that look of joy and wonder that always defined his expression, to his last minutes of life and even after, according to reports from the staff who cared for him: death being integral to life, dad seems to have seen joy and wonder in that, too, when he was ready.
When I arrived at his retirement center in Charlotte yesterday, the first of the family to get here after a seven-hour drive from my home, I was met with hugs, red eyes, and newly flowing tears. Dad knew every staff member's name—no exaggeration, he knew them all, even after just one meeting—and everybody described him as the sweetest man ever. "He's left a big hole here," one nurse assistant said.
I didn't shed any tears yesterday. In fact, I laughed as much as I have on most days, even in my conversations with my brothers, my sons, and my uncle (dad's brother). That's just us; we laugh a lot because we were raised that way. Mom's funeral ended with the church rising to sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," per her wishes. The pastor still hasn't gotten over that.
Yes, we saw dad's death coming. Yes, we feel he was ready to go, as various systems in his body had been breaking down the past year though his mental acuity remained as sharp as ever (several people reported their sense that he had been saying goodbye to them the last couple of days). Perhaps selfishly, in my role as dad's health care manager, financial manager, logistician, and IT support, I'm more overwhelmed by the estate settlement task ahead than I am by the loss that just passed. Some would contend, too, given the increased workload I've had with dad the past year, my visits every six weeks becoming four visits out of every six weeks (making that 14-hour round-trip drive every time), that I might be feeling a sense of relief—and that it's OK if I do. But I'm not. I did everything willingly (I'm his son, remember; that's how I was raised).
My reality is that I've been mourning for a long time now. The past three months when a bout of pneumonia left him too weak to move around much and the cycle of deterioration began. The past year when his body finally started rebelling against the workarounds he had learned in rehab after his stroke. Six years ago, when he had the stroke and I witnessed things in intensive care and did things for him in the rehab center that no son should ever experience, all while becoming fully aware that he would not resume his active lifestyle.
In fact, my mourning began at least 50 years ago, when I was 7. I had a bunch of plush toys including a Bugs Bunny and a Larry Lion that talked (pull the cord for a dozen different recordings like, respectively, "What's up, Doc?" and "Roar!"). Dad and I had a nightly bedtime routine as he pulled the cord on each one until Bugs Bunny said "I'm sleepy," and Larry Lion said "I'll protect you." Some nights dad would be pulling those cords for 15 minutes or more. A six-week duty assignment for dad coincided with a maturity spurt for me. I outgrew Bugs and Larry while he was gone. Dad didn't know that, and in a letter home, he wrote about how much he looked forward to helping Bugs and Larry put me to bed. When he came home, though, I just went to bed without asking to do the routine, and it never came up.
For me, even at that young age, I mourned that first experience with the aging process. "And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe, and then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot," Touchstone says in William Shakespeare's As You Like It. That's a truth especially pronounced when it comes to your relationship with your parents. Friends come and go and time passes in a series of events, many connected in a continuum of experiences. But with parents, we move from one stage of life to the next—yours and theirs—leaving each stage inexorably behind though the parents themselves continue to be integral in your life until they are gone. Forever.
My memories of Bugs and Larry came back to me two weeks ago when I moved dad into his new room necessitated by his need for more attendant care. Transitioning from a walk-in closet to a closet one-tenth the size left no room for his suits. Dad loved his suits. Even after he could no longer get down to church services, he'd dress up in a suit and tie Sunday mornings, wearing them through lunchtime and our FaceTime visits. I asked him what we should do about his suits, and he shrugged. "Give them away," he said, and I saw and heard great loss in the way he said it. Like our nightly bedtime routine 50 years ago, another important part of his life had been overtaken by aging. The pace of such passages had been increasing exponentially over the past six years, and with it the degree of mourning, his probably, mine certainly.
And now there is that big hole. Whether our parents die when we are 7 or 57, the loss leaves a breach that cannot be completely closed. We move on, yes, but 10 years after my mom passed away, I still have musical moments I want to share with her, and I miss the jokes we played on each other. I began missing those moments as she grew sicker and then entered hospice, where she remained another 10 months before she died (did I mention resiliency?). Similarly, with dad I've long missed our heart-to-heart talks and sharing with him new traveling and cultural experiences: the stroke cut off his outings and contravened his ability to hear and speak well. I'll always have memories, yes, but, let's be real: memories don't fill the hole. In fact, they emphasize the hole that's there.
From the day I launched Shakespeareances.com, I dedicated it "to my father, Dean Minton, and to the memory of my mother, Patsy Ruth Hawkins Minton. My parents instilled in me a sense of justice and respect for all people, supported and encouraged me in my pursuit of a journalism career, introduced me to great theater, and enjoyed an ongoing passion for Shakespeare. Their spirit and accumulative impact on me is bound up in this website." You can see this dedication (along with one of my mom's teddy bears we got for her in Stratford, Canada) on the About page. I'm now going to have to change the opening line to read "to the memory of my father."
This morning, here in the guest room at dad's retirement center, I woke up, got in the shower, and started mentally mapping out my day: I would write a bit, go down to breakfast, then head up to assisted living to see dad…no, wait: there is no dad. In so many ways he lives on; but, still, he's gone. And mom, too.
March 24, 2016