Our daddy was a gambler, a cutup, a former baseball star with the familiar shoulder slump of an accomplished third baseman. He was a country boy who couldn't wait to make it to the big city and stay there. He was restless, intoxicated with the road, the weather, with movement. He was, and still is, a traveling salesman whose left arm is permanently tanned and weathered from hanging out the driver's side window.
Our daddy's a kidder, an entertainer -- one of those guys always ready with a joke, a story, a swagger and a big laugh. His most familiar habit is dabbing the tears from his eyes -- tears of laughter. He loves telling us stories about how bad he was when he was young, how he and his friends took apart a plow, reassmbled it on top of the neighbor's barn and almost got shot in the process.
I think I've spent about half my life being mad at my daddy because he refused to take anything seriously -- or so it seemed. Now, I can finally see where that quality has brought him and how it will serve him in the months to come. And, admittedly, I can see what it has brought to me.
At Thanksgiving, our daddy, age 74, was diagnosed with lung cancer. Because he has already had one kidney removed after a tumor was found 10 years ago, he cannot sustain chemotherapy. So shunning major surgery, my daddy decided to "roll the dice." He will receive only maintenance doses of radiation and will see what happens.
Throughout late November and early December, I called a couple times a week to see how he was doing, what were the results of the biopsy, what he'd decided to do. He answered my questions unflinchingly, then launched into a discussion of the presidential election.
"Our old boy Al just might pull it off!" he bellowed, stifling a wet cough, when the votes were still being counted. A middle Tennessean, Daddy's a yellow-dog Democrat who loves nothing better than talking politics with people who agree with him.
Last Saturday I called to see how the radiation treatments were going. "Great," he said, "just great. I go down to Vanderbilt and they shoot me up for about 45 minutes, then I go to work." When I asked him why he had decided against the surgery which had been recommended by a young surgeon he liked, he told me he had deferred to the advice of his internist, a doctor who has been taking care of him for a decade.
"I told Dr. Nadot that old boy really wanted to operate," said Daddy. "Dr. Nadot said, 'Well, if you went to a barber shop, don't you reckon that barber'd tell you you needed a haircut?" He laughed uproariously at this.
Wondering if my daddy will make it through the winter, I remember how much he loves golf courses and cooking out on the grill, springtime at the race track up the road in Franklin, Ky., where he's still determined Lady Luck will eventually turn his way. If he makes it, I've promised him and myself that I'll go with him to the family reunion up in Trigg County the first week in August. He'll want to drive but I'll insist he let me.
When I think of my daddy, I imagine how he looked when he was young, chewing on a wad of Juicy Fruit, tapping the fingers of his right hand on the steering wheel to the tempo of a country song as he drove the back highways of Tennessee and Kentucky to grocery stores in towns with names like Horse Cave, Oak Grove, Eighty Eight and Summer Shade. His tanned left arm propped out the driver's side window, the road is a beacon to him. Wherever he stops, he picks up a good story, throws back his head and laughs, then stops to dab the tears from his eyes.