Grief and Consolation
“All relationships in life end (physically) in death sooner or later. The only choice we have is to live our life out as fully as we can, which includes loving another human being while we still can.”
Yukio Ishizuka, MD, Founder of Lifetrack
When last you heard from me I was promising pictures from my Dad’s 90th birthday party, which took place June 25 in my hometown of Ft. Wayne, IN. (See photo section below.) The party was a huge success. 80 people attended, including friends and family from all over the country. The party had been planned by my Dad’s loving wife Shirley for months in advance and was by no means a surprise. What happened a little more than a week later was.
That is when I received a call from my Dad (in the hospital) telling me that he had suffered a heart attack. There was an operation planned for the following day. I had just recently returned back to LA from IN and then NY when I received that call and I had exactly 45 minutes to pack my bags and grab the only flight out that would get me to his hospital room by end of day.
The next 10 days are simultaneously a total blur and at the same time vivid imprints in my memory. The bottom line is that my Dad passed away on July 20.
That ‘s why I‘ve been missing in action for so long. I would apologize but I think that those of you what have travelled this road know that it has fits and starts and unforeseen stops. This road cannot be trusted to get one from Point A to Point B with any respect for “normal” time.
Dad underwent a “successful “ surgery and implantation of two stents. He was released from the hospital for a day, only to have complications and return to the hospital.
His wife Shirley, my brother Greg, my sister Shelby, his stepdaughter Lisa and I were with him constantly after the hospital return. We were there to support him through a recovery that would enable him to have another operation to fix the newly surfaced heart problems. I slept in a chair bedside and stayed with him day and night, taking a break only once to take a shower and change clothes.
I had promised Dad that I would be there with him if anything happened. And I was.
There is so much more to this story than I am able to relate now.
Dad was given a burial with full military honors on July 25. I have always been proud of him, but perhaps never more so than on that day. The burial was at Scipio Cemetery in Harlan, IN, the small town outside of Ft. Wayne that he grew up in and where his father was the beloved town veterinarian. He is buried next to his sister Jean’s memorial (a USO performer, she and her husband disappeared in a plane crash during WWII) as well as next to his son Billy’s memorial and that of his mother, father, grandparents and his family going even further back in time.
Donations in his honor continue to come in and a memorial to him is being created at the Hoosier Warbirds Aviation Museum in Auburn, IN. A humble guy, he would be both surprised and honored by this.
Here is what I, the family’s firstborn, had to say at his memorial service:
A page in our book of memories, Is gently turned today.
Everyone in this room is here for one simple reason: Because they loved my Dad, Bill Blackburn. And why would they not?
William Leroy Blackburn was a perfect storm of lovability: good looking, smart, tall and athletic. He was a country boy who grew up to serve his country in the military, travel the world, play more than a few poker games really well, and raise four children (three of whom are here today and one who is undoubtedly with him watching us right now).
He was blessed with a razor sharp mind and a rapier wit. When he allowed his impish, youthful, cat- that- swallowed- the- canary grin to surface—and it did a lot these past few weeks- it made him appear even decades younger than he already did. With one quick smile and a light in his laughing eyes, he could go from military man demeanor to little boy with a secret.
Let’s talk about that. My Dad, even as he advanced in years, had none of that “old guy” energy or looks. He loved to be stylish, with it, a bit edgy, even. Even during these last two weeks, in and out of Lutheran Hospital, the recurring comment from nurses, doctors and staff was, “I’m looking at your chart and it says you’re 90. That can’t be right.”
He fit in anywhere, whether it be a movie set with me on a remote hilltop in the 80’s in South Korea, to his country clubs both here and out west, to celebrity events in Hollywood, to hunkering up for some good grub at Coney Island or Powers.
I could go on and on about so many wonderful memories from the past. But the real hallmark of any man is who he is when the chips are down. Or, as Dad would say of people in these past weeks who stood by him and showed their love and concern, they show their TRUE COLORS.
My sister said at one point last week, “This is like watching a heroic movie with Gregory Peck starring in it. Dad is being amazing.” And he was.
If we adored this man before the events that began almost exactly two weeks ago to the day, we now REVERE him. He had not ONE negative, complaining moment. He cracked jokes when he was almost certainly at least a little frightened and unsure of what the next moment would bring. Even though he told me last week, “I’m not afraid of dying.”
He THANKED the nurses who came to give him shots here, there, everywhere, even in the stomach. “We’ve NEVER had someone thank us for giving them a shot,” they told us.
He made many of those sly wisecracks for which he is famous—he sang songs and reminisced. He handed out Lucky Bucks like a lottery winner gone mad. He remembered the name of each and every nurse- and there were many—and called them by name when they entered his room.
He was concerned that he was “wasting our time” and keeping us from more important matters—and of course we assured him that there was nothing more important then being with him at this time.
He trimmed his moustache, shaved and showered when lesser men would have been moping, whining and feeling sorry for themselves.
Who goes to a rock and roll concert the night of the day they are release from the hospital after suffering a heart attack? My Dad did. Layla’s band, serendipitously, was playing in Fort Wayne and there was no disabusing him of the notion of playing rock and roll fan for his beloved Granddaughter.
So let’s talk about that serendipity: Somehow, Dad managed to have that great 90thbirthday party June 25 with all of his friends and family in attendance to celebrate, managed to see his granddaughter perform for the first and as it turns out last time right in his hometown, and then managed to have all of his children-who live at distant ends of the country- holding his hand, side by side with his beloved wife Shirley, telling him they loved him as he made his transition. Serendipity? Or the final master plan of a guy who was nothing if not organized, deliberate, and in control of any situation.
We all learned so much about who William Blackburn REALLY was through this experience. He showed his true colors: he was a hero, he was an incredibly brave man, he was a sweet and loving man. As his doctor said toward the end: “I fell in love with this guy.” Welcome to the club, my friend.
Oh, please don’t feel guilty
It was just my time to go.
I see you are still feeling sad,
And the tears just seem to flow.
I don’t want you to keep crying
You are shedding so many tears.
I haven’t really left you
Even though it may seem so.
I have just gone to my heavenly home,
And I’m closer to you than you know.
Just believe that when you say
my name, I’m standing next to you,
I know you long to see me,
But there’s nothing I can do.
But I’ll still send you messages
And hope you understand,
That when your time comes to
“cross over,” I’ll be there
to take your hand.
When Greg and Shelby and I went to get some lunch after a meeting with Lisa and Shirley to plan Dad’s service the day after he passed, the cashier rang up our food and turned to us. “That’s 19.21,” she said. Our Dad was born on June 24, 1921. She said, “I don’t know why, but I just got chills.” So did we. Thanks, Dad.
Final quote from an unknown author:
There is a link death cannot sever,
Love and remembrance last forever.by