It’s my birthday too! Funny how the older we get the faster these birthdays sneak up on us. I love birthdays, I’ve always loved birthdays. I love birthdays so much I don’t even lie about my age. Today, I’m the big 3-0! (Plus 6). If I can, I will mark your day with some kind of fanfare, whether it be Birthday Pancakes or Birthday Dinner or a special cake or a fantastic party, I’ll do my best to make sure your day is celebrated in some way and if I can manage a surprise, well, surprises are my favorite part! Those Christmas Eve jitters every kid goes to bed with on December 24th always hit me as I closed my eyes on April the 8th because I just couldn’t wait for our special day.
April the 9th, 1976 – Retired Lt. Col Wesley Pyle was celebrating his 40th birthday in Hawaii when his very first granddaughter decided to make her debut into this world a month early. I’d like to tell you I did that on purpose. I knew he would need a special bond with me, and that I would need him even more. Don’t ask me how I knew this in utero, but I did. And for 27 years, we shared our birthday in fantastic ways.
Every now and then our birthday falls on Easter or Easter Weekend, and as a kid we spent these birthdays in Port Bolivar, digging up seashells and crabbing off the jetty’s. On my 16th birthday, he took me to take my driver’s test, and then I drove us to James Coney Island for lunch. We shared a many a birthdays over enchiladas at his favorite restaurant, Loma Linda’s in Houston.
But as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. And on July 1, 2003, our days together did just that. I called him on the phone, and said “you’ve made my life so very special” and moments later he was gone. I was told that my name was the last thing he said before asking the angels to hurry up and take him, and to this day that breaks my heart with such a mixture of joy and pain that its completely indescribable. I guess the pain is partly because he is gone, and mostly because I couldn’t be there to hear those last words in person. I live about 3 hours away from Houston, and I was on bed-rest with preeclampsia when his final day commenced. I will forever regret that my hand was not holding his at that very moment. The words of James Taylor fill my heart. “I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain, I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end, I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend, But I always thought that I’d see you again…”
That whole year was so bittersweet. I decided to surprise him for our birthday, and so I arranged to meet him at Loma Linda’s for dinner. He thought it was just going to be him, my sister, and his close friend Carolyn dining that night, but instead my husband and I took Blondie and Dyl Pickles on a little road trip to Houston. I had an ache in my soul telling me our birthdays together were coming to an end, so even though I was having a tough time with my pregnancy, I knew I had to be there. Of course, I was never able to muster the one gift he always asked for, which was a big buck-some Blonde and a sack full of dollar bills, so instead I grabbed a Barbie and some Monopoly money and stuffed them in a paper bag as a token of my appreciation for his sense of humor.
Over dinner, I noticed he wasn’t feeling well. I could see it on his face. When I asked him about it, he told us “I wanna thank you all for praying for me lately. But I need to make a request. Please be more specific in your prayers. I know I needed to lose weight and get more exercise, but these stomach problems aren’t exactly my idea of a fun time. Its true, all the trips to the restroom have given me some exercise, and the diarrhea has taken off a good ten pounds, but in the future, please be much more careful in your prayer requests.” Of course, he wouldn’t miss an opportunity to entertain us, but I new at the bottom of the jokes there was painful honesty in his words; he wasn’t doing well.
A few short months later I got the call that he was in the intensive care unit at the hospital. I ran to Houston, knowing I needed to see him one more time. Now, I’m typically the girl who looks for the silver linings. I will tell you the glass is half full when clearly its almost empty. But this time, tears flooded my eyes all the way there because I knew I was going to tell him goodbye. My husband tried to convince me that he would bounce back, as he had done many times before, but I knew… I just knew.
I walked into the cold sterile room and I was taken aback at just how thin he was. I tried to choke the tears down, but the lump in my throat wouldn’t subside and the tears poured down like rain- more like a thunderstorm. I told myself I would be brave, but bravery somehow escaped my demeanor. He held out his hand and I laid mine on top of it.
“Don’t cry.” He tried to reassure me, but the tears wouldn’t stop. Even now, as I think of that day, they are free falling!
“I don’t want you to go anywhere just yet.” But I had no right to beg him to stay on this earth, with all he had been through. When I was a kid he had one of the first triple bi-pass surgeries ever performed. He had double bi-pass, triple bi-pass, and even quadruple bi-pass surgeries. He had heart disease, kidney disease, diabetes. It’s a miracle he made it through the many years he lived, and yet he was so young when he died. He retired from both the Army and Armco Steal. He raised a middle class family of two boys and two girls and saw them through the many endeavors of their lives. He bought the first color TV on his block. He was a founding member of the Upper Room, and really special Sunday School class at Park Place United Methodist Church in Houston. But those are the boring tidbits. Really, he was a magician. A real magician. Pulling off his finger and producing a quarter form my ear were his standard warm-up tricks, but he had a treasure chest full of real magic. Houdini magic. He made the best Haunted House in the neighborhood.
He was an adventure. When I was 8 years old I flew to Houston to spend a week with him, and everything was a field trip. We went to put things in his safety deposit box at the bank, we chauffeured my Uncle Kollen to and from driver’s ed, and we snuck into my Robbie Doll’s apple pies (she was baking 200 apple pies that week, for her catering business, and we were snatching them right and left). But the absolute most important event of the week happened when I found some kind of mischief to get into. He tried to be cross with me, to give me a “talking-to” but he couldn’t wipe the grin off his face, and so I called him Softy.
The year before he passed away, he told me I had changed who he was. I looked at him with a quizzical expression, and he told me “I was Dad, Sir, Colonel, Mr. Pyle, or Wesley. Then you called me Softy, and that’s who I have been every since, to every one!” Later, he became Softy, the Mayor of Sillyville because his antics were one of a kind.
We played this game, all the time. A mind game of sorts. He would say “Have you ever seen Butter Fly?” And I would be challenged to answer his riddle with “No, but I’ve seen a Frito Lay, Have you ever seen water drop?” Funny, that game still challenges me! He forever tried to confuse me with his riddles, but I’m proud to say I solved all of them, except for one, I’m still trying to figure this one out. Q: “What’s the difference AND / OR a motorcycle?” A: “Oranges, because fences don’t have sleeves!” If you understand it, please explain!
So we sat there in that hospital room, knowing it was the last time we would see each other this side of heaven, and he talked about my baby and the blessings he would bring. He promised to visit me in dreams (which he has done) and he left me with these words: “I don’t want to go yet either, but it may just be my time. Remember, I’ve had a good life. I have great Kids! I have great Grand-kids! I even have great Great-grand-kids! I’ve been through a lot in my time. I’ve had heart disease, diabetes, chicken pox, bypass surgeries, mononucleosis, hiccups, and dandruff! I’ve known love, heartache, and indigestion. But I’m like an old worn-out car. I keep breaking down and the replacement parts are getting hard to find, but it’s gonna be okay, you know why? Because I LOVE YOU!”
As we drove home I wrote those words down, knowing they were the last words I would ever get to hear him say in person. He gave me so many gifts in my life: A hand me down refrigerator when he worried that my baby’s milk would not be cold enough, and his old pick-up when he got a new one. My home is filled with treasures he passed on to me, like the painting above my couch or the old Coca-Cola bottle holder and The Diary of Anne Frank (one of my favorite books). The list of gifts he gave me goes on and on, but most importantly he taught me the Golden Rule: Parents are not allowed to say No in the presence of grandparents. He put this theory into practice when he negotiated my 10:30 bedtime or my phone usage extensions (oh the days before cell phones!).
In the summers, he often took me to Bolivar for a week alone with him! We made pizzas on English muffins. We planted these little miniature cacti in seashells. We made crafts out of the many shells we gathered on the beach and those weeks live forever in my heart. They are part of the most important lesson he ever taught me. He told me, point blank, “Don’t ever fight over THINGS when I am gone. Things are just that! It’s STUFF and stuff is never important. Cherish the things I have given you in life, and never let yourself get caught up in arguing over stuff once I am gone.”
He was wise, and I have done my best to live by his advice. I still find my eyes full of tears when I think of him. My heart is still tender from this loss. He died 41 days before my son Tucker was born. I still hear his words, see his face, and think of him when songs play on the radio. He still brings me laughter and tears, he still brings me joy and comforts my fears.
This week, I am dedicating my blogs to my many memories of Softy. Happy Birthday! Until we meet again…
“Old ones die and new are born, life is changed- disassembled, rearranged…” (Alan Jackson)