It is odd how sometimes the weather outside mimics events happening in the rest of your life. An unnaturally early spring, that lead to a yard full of blooming daffodils in February and newly sprouting green shoots on the trees is now suddenly about to be covered with snow. T.S. Eliot claimed April was the cruelest month, but, the truth is, March has a much better claim on such a title. Winter, long in hiding and fooling us all into thinking he has left for the season, has returned with a bitter vengeance. And like the weather outside, sadly, a little bit of winter has come to my family this past weekend. On Saturday, March 11th, at approximately 2:30 PM, my Father-in-law, Jim Barron, passed away of a sudden heart attack.
When a loved one dies, especially unexpectedly, a great debate always arises among the surviving family. “If only I had known, I would have…” says one, or, “I wish I had said…” says another. This is to be expected and is a normal human response. Death, especially when it comes without warning, is disorienting. We are wired for things to be as they are, and as living creatures, and especially in a modern culture that keeps death hidden away like some dirty secret or soiled laundry, we feel as if something strange or unnatural has just happened. It is like traveling in a car and then suddenly slamming on the brakes. Momentum forces you forward after the vehicle has stopped and a few seconds pass before the seatbelt yanks you back into reality. That yank is jarring. This sharp blow to our fantasy world hurts, but, the reality is, death is the most natural event of all, and comes to all men. And despite our wishing otherwise, foreknowledge of a loved one’s passing is more of a curse than a blessing. The dread of an event inevitably taints the experience. I have waited for death for several close relatives in the past, and I do not care to repeat the experience. The inevitable drip drip drip as life and vitality seep away is agonizing. This is often far worse than the actual passing itself.
Luckily, and I do mean luckily, this was not the case with Jim. There was no prolonged sickness, with tubes and wires and constant questions and probes by strangers invading his privacy and stripping away his dignity. All at an enormous cost he would have railed against. He would have hated that. His passing was very fast, and I take great comfort in knowing that he died exactly as he would have wished, just going about his business on a run of the mill Saturday, driving to the store. This was something he loved to do, his independence being cherished. No doubt if he were alive now, and I could quiz him on this subject, going out the way he did would have been a close second in his list of preferred demises. The first would have probably been keeling over while working in his yard.
I also think it is a testament to the great character of the man that, as his final act, he was able to steer his car over to the side of the road and not cause an accident. Having lost his leg to a reckless driver back in the 50’s, he knew more than most the dangers of driving. Despite his age, 87, he was an excellent driver, and very careful. I am not shocked at all to learn that in his last moments on earth, as his long overworked and tired heart gave out, he thought first of the safety of others. For anyone who knew Jim, this should come as no surprise.
I have been very fortunate to know many people in my life. Some good people, some not so good. But of all of the people I have known, few have ever been more eager to help others than my father-in-law, Jim. His last actions are but a punctuation mark on the long sentence he had written.
Over the past two days my mind has reeled with the flood of memories of him flowing into my mind. Death is very clarifying that way and definitely intensifies the neural synapses. I smile at the memories of all of the times he “dog sat” for Tassi in the past. He loved that dog so much, and was always willing to keep her when Mary and I went out of town. I can’t help but grin now thinking of them both reunited in the afterlife, her tail wagging ferociously as he gives her pieces of baked chicken.
Warmth washes over me as I recount numerous, anonymous and interchangeable Sunday dinners with Jim at our house. He loved crock pot Sundays as much as I did. Coupled with the various holiday get-togethers over the decades (Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter), it is quite a tapestry. None leap out in specific details, all of them melting into one golden hazy memory, but all are ones I will cherish.
But a relatively recent event does rise up in clarity and sharp focus, and best illustrates Jim’s character. When Mary and I moved our company to Henrico, we chose to locate it in an industrial park near Jim’s house. Thinking it would be nice to have the office close by to her Dad, it really has turned out to be the perfect location. Several times over the past couple of years, I would hear a knock on the door and find Jim standing outside on the stoop. He often stopped by as he was off on his way somewhere — getting his “steps” in, off to BJ’s or yet another doctor’s appointment at the VA. Jim liked to be busy.
We would sometimes have a cup of coffee together, or I would give him a water, and he was rarely here more than thirty minutes or so. The visits were short, but pleasant, and It was always nice to see him. He always ended by asking me if we needed help with anything. Normally, there wasn’t anything I needed, but, a few weeks ago, his eyes lit up when Mary told him I needed to go to the “dump”. He was as delighted as a 6-year-old boy on Christmas morning by this revelation.
Only those who knew Jim well can fully appreciate the excitement he had over this seemingly nasty task. Being a “dump virgin” myself, I was oddly curious, but filled with low expectations. This was a dump after all, and as the name would indicate, I expected the day to be dumpish at best. But, despite my basement-like expectations, I had a surprisingly good time with my father-in-law that day. He helped me deposit all of the trash boxes I had accumulated into the landfill and then proceeded to take me on the grand tour of the wonders of the Henrico County Springfield Location landfill. It was quite an experience.
Like an experienced tour guide in one of Europe’s finest museums, Jim drove me all over the complex pointing out the various sights. He showed me the weighing station, and the methane gas collection plant, and the recycling center, all with no less pride than any tweedy docent at the Louvre showing a DaVinci masterpiece. He gave me the full history of the upgrades the dump had undergone over the years, and I was impressed by the depth of his knowledge. Who knew?
Near the end of our tour, we stopped and marveled at the “grab and go” station where, “valuables” (the quotes are intentional) were left for scavengers. I jokingly told him that he was violating the “five-minute looking” rule as I watched him salivate over some old rusty tools. He laughed and nodded before proceeding to drive me up on top of the manmade mountain of trash. Due to the lack of other vehicles around us, it was immediately apparent to me we were on a road off limits to the public. That did not matter to Jim. He was on a mission, and he was in full rebel mode! He was going to show me the full scale of the place, come hell or high water, and I cannot remember him seeming happier. He was ecstatic at not only showing me the dump, but more, that he was helping Mary and I. This was the type of guy he was.
Jim was not an affectionate or overtly emotionally demonstrative man. In fact, I am sure if you were to look up “the silent generation” in an encyclopedia, you could quite easily use his picture as exhibit A. He would be the perfect representative of his demographic group. As a quick aside, I remember seeing the excellent Clint Eastwood movie, “Gran Torino”, a few years ago and being blown away. Mary did not go see it with me, but, I said at the time, and I repeat now, this movie could have easily been titled “The Jim Barron” story. It was like seeing him up on the big screen. One day, once some time has passed, I will ask her to watch it with me. My movie reference to her Dad is a huge compliment.
His was the generation of men and women who worked hard, kept quiet and uncomplainingly went about their business. They were the generation who built the foundations of the modern world we live in now, silently and stoically. They may not have expressed their feelings directly, but, they still expressed them, albeit in other ways. For Jim, and his kind, helping jumpstart your car, or loaning you a generator during a hurricane was his way of saying he loved you. This silent generation is now sadly passing away and civilization is worse off for their departure.
I was also recently blessed with one final visit from Jim to my office, just me and him. I didn’t know it would be the last, and I am glad I didn’t. It would not have been the same. Although it was only last week, it seems like a lifetime ago now. Too much has happened too fast.
I didn’t know what was going to happen on Saturday, and I am sure Jim didn’t either, but, life can be mysterious sometimes. Although no man can foresee his own future, often one can see signs. Like that first reddening of the trees in early October, although it still feels like summer outside when the A/C is still on full blast, you know Fall, and inevitably, Winter is near. I think Jim knew winter was approaching, sooner rather than later.
Now, at 87, Jim was no fool. He knew it wasn’t spring anymore. It wasn’t even fall. It was winter, and quickly getting to be late winter. I am sure that as the years passed by, and all of his old friends died, it weighed heavily on him. How could it not. But most of all, I know that he terribly missed his wife, Helen. I never knew her, since she passed away in 1975, but his love for her was deep. Through Mary, I feel as if I have come to know her. But Forty-two years is a long time to be alone, and she was on his mind.
We had a long visit last week, and a surprisingly deep chat about faith, life, his late wife, and his final plans. I was, and am, very honored that he chose to speak to me on such personal subjects. Jim and I are an odd pair to have such a conversation. We are both naturally indisposed and ill at ease talking about such intimate topics. It is like two frogs discussing the intricacies of bird flight, both of us were way out of our natural wheelhouses. But, perhaps that is why he chose to talk to me. In many ways, especially in this way, we were alike.
When my late mother was having so many problems, Jim understood, having had similar issues years ago with his own ailing parents. Perhaps both being “refugees” from West Virginia, he Clarksburg in the 50s, me Bluefield in the 80s, who came to Richmond for better prospects, he recognized an understanding soul that trod a familiar path. I certainly recognized it in him.
To me, I can think of no better man than Jim to emulate in many ways. If they were assigning awards on how to age with grace, he would have been a world champion. Enormously curious and highly adaptive, he was the most technically and intellectually savvy 80-year-old I know. In fact, I think the age break here is irrelevant. He wanted to know how things worked, and his quick mind never faltered, something I know worried him. His life is a testament to the adage that perpetual growth and constant learning is the secret to successful aging.
Of the many things, I am going to miss about Jim, it is his curiosity about things, and, our shared love of history that I may miss most. It will be a hard habit to break to not send him a link to an interesting documentary I just watched on YouTube. He loved them, and we both enjoyed discussing the latest “How Things Work” episode or “World War II” doc I sent. Now, I will have to watch them alone, and that realization is bittersweet.
He also has left an amazing legacy. Not in riches, though, but in each and every one of his children and grandchildren. He was immensely proud of all of them and loved each one deeply. From the steely and determined oldest daughter, Ann, who alone raised two wonderful children, Jessica and Matthew. She got her spine and her street smarts from her Dad, and I know he was very proud of and loved her.
To his oldest son David, and his wife Jerilynn, he had nothing but affection and admiration. They too raised amazing children; Isaac, Benjamin and Isabel that Jim was proud of and loved.
Jim’s youngest son, Michael, and his wife Mui were also deeply loved and admired by him, and I know he was proud of them both, as well as their amazing children Andrew and Zachary. He has left a rich legacy indeed, and, one can tell a lot about a tree by the fruit that it bears. The harvest from the Barron tree has flourished greatly.
And lastly, but not least of course, Jim loved, respected and was immensely proud of his youngest daughter, my wife, Mary. He always would call her for advice on some subject, and though he did not always take her wise council, he knew she had his best interests at heart and was probably right. I chuckle at the numerous debates on “why it is not a good idea to have Gypsies pave your driveway” they had. Mary always “won” the argument, but, sadly, Jim would agree and then go his own way and do what he wanted to do, despite her wishes. The rebel heart is untamable.
But of all of them, it is perhaps to me, his son-in-law to get the best legacy of all. Years ago Jim told me how much Mary reminded him of Helen, and I know that is a high compliment. He told me how he was a very fortunate man to have found a big eyed, pretty, smart and warm hearted girl to fall in love with back in the mid-twentieth century. To my eternal gratitude, he and that woman, Helen, created Mary, and I fell in love with and married her myself. For that, I will always be thankful.
Lastly, although Jim will be missed terribly, I am not sad. His separation from us is temporary. We will all see him again. Although he did not wear his faith on his sleeve, I know he died in Christ, and has now joined his wife in heaven as they anticipate the final resurrection that awaits us all.
At times like this, my mind often drifts back to that tiny church in Bluefield where I served as an Altar boy with the late “Father Vick”. When I would be pulled out of school to serve a funeral, (a nice perk back then) he always ended the service with a very touching prayer that I still remember clearly to this day, forty years later.
“Oh lord support us all the day long of this troublesome life, until the shadows lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over and our work is done. Then in thy great mercy, grant us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at last, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.”
I can think of no better prayer for Jim. Evening has come. The busy world has been hushed, and his fevered life is done. Now he has entered into a holy rest and peace at the last. As an alternative ending to this prayer, personalized just for Jim, I need to add the phrase that he said to me every time we parted. He never said “good bye”, but always “See you later, Pal”. Nothing could be more fitting. See you later, Pal. You did a good job and we will see you again!
***The picture I used for Jim was one of my favorites of him, and shows his true personality. When we got our new puppy Truffle, he was quick to drop to the ground and let her climb up his shirt.