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A love letter to my Father

Originally written February 12, 2022

Jefferson Michael Hanchey

8/8/44 - 2/12/22

My father died today.

It was not unexpected. He has been in end-stage dementia for a few years now, and has almost died on us several times before. Now it is real. He is really gone.

I am broken-hearted, and relieved. The man that was my father was smart and strong, kind and loving. Dementia took his voice, and it took his body, but he was still kind and loving, as best as he could be.

He was a wonderful father. My mom used to tell me when I was a newborn, first home from the hospital, he would elbow my mother out of the way to get to me when I cried. He changed diapers. He did it all.

Some of my greatest qualities are from him. He was smart, sharp, and really enjoyed laughter. Fortunately, he had two hilarious children who loved to make him laugh and were good at it. He worked really, really hard his whole life, and my brother and I have that same work ethic. Daddy went to Georgia Tech and spent summers in oil fields earning money to pay for college. He vowed his children wouldn’t have to do that, and he kept that promise. Neither Brian nor I had to pay for college or work for our tuition.

Of course, I got some of his not so wonderful qualities, which happens. He always had to be the smartest person in the room, and I can be smug about that as well. He had a slow burn temper like I do – when he got quiet, that was the time to run. He was a terrible football fan, yelling and screaming at the Cowboys most Sundays of my childhood. I do not watch football in public for that very reason. In fact, I stopped watching it at all.

For someone who didn’t have a father to speak of, he was an excellent Daddy. His own father left when Dad was just five or so and wasn’t much of a presence in his life. So it must be that Daddy was born to be a father. He was involved in all of our activities and showed a genuine interest in our interests. He even went so far as to ride horses with me any chance he got.

We got our love of cars from Dad. I think I hold the record for having a single car the longest – six years – my red Jeep Cherokee. Our average is about two-three years. When we were moving Dad and Marvis out of their apartment to memory care four years ago, we found a list Dad made of all his cars. He couldn’t remember words for things, but he remembered all the cars, from the MG he bought out of college to the Honda Fit he had just bought. Must have been 30, 35 cars on that list. Maybe more? Brian would know.

He liked working on cars and washing cars. He washed my car every time I drove home from college, or Atlanta. It was a ritual. As an engineer, he also liked fixing things, so when I knew he was coming to visit, I’d leave things broken, even if I could have fixed them myself (because he bought me my first tools and taught me how to fix things). He loved being helpful.

In the throes of his dementia, unable to speak, he would still try and “fix” the other residents’ wheelchairs. An engineer to the end.

Daddy never called us by our given names, unless we were in trouble. I was always Sugar Bear, and Brian was always BJ or Pal. Even as an adult, when I called, he’d say “Sugar Bear!!” no matter who else was in the room. I haven’t heard him call me that in maybe four or five years, and I’ve missed it.

When our mother died, Daddy made the trip from Waco to Dallas in about 45-50 minutes. For those not familiar with Texas geography, that should have been at least an hour and a half. He was there with us through the whole thing – staying with us in her apartment that first night, driving with us to Shreveport for the funeral, supporting us as our only remaining parent.

Being our only parent was tough. He had to step up in ways he hadn’t planned. He had to go with Brian to find a rehearsal dinner space, which is something my mom should have done. He had to dole out advice, which was not one of his strengths.

He had to come to Atlanta to help with two of my major surgeries. That was something a mom should do, but there he was, feeding me broth, helping me get up, rejoicing when I kept eggs down as my first food post-surgery. He walked Jake, cleaned the litter box, went to the grocery store, bought a giant box of cat litter, then cleaned it up after Jake tore the 30-pound box open and scattered cat litter all over the bathroom floor.

As fantastic a father as he was, he excelled at being a Granddaddy. I think it was what he was made to do, and I’m so sorry he didn’t have more years doing it. From the time Emma was born 18 years ago, he became the best Granddaddy that he could be. Emma had a play tent at Dad and Marvis’s house, and he would crawl on the floor to play in it with her. He “drove” Matchbox cars with John, around and around. He answered the doorbell a zillion times with Sarah Jane when they played with the little plastic house.

He loved them fiercely, but he had a special something with Matt. Maybe it was because by the time Matt was born, Daddy was starting his decline, although we didn’t really know it at the time. Matt was a real hugger, but especially with his Granddaddy. From a young age, Matt would just grab Daddy’s neck and not let go. Even after Dad was in memory care, and not very communicative, he would light up when Matt came in and hug him back. Matt was always so sweet with Dad, sitting with him in his wheelchair and telling him about his games, showing him videos, and just chatting away. Daddy didn’t have words, so Matt filled in the blanks.

The last time I saw my father was a Christmas. He was alert and chatty, though it was nonsense to us. To him, it was a full-blown conversation. I told him about my success as a freelancer, which made him shoot his eyebrows up in panic. Even with dementia, he was concerned that I didn’t have a regular full-time job. Always worrying about how we’d take care of ourselves, never wanting us to want for anything.

Well, now I want my Daddy back. I miss him. But in reality, I’ve missed him for years. He hasn’t been able to be himself, thanks to the aphasia from his dementia.

Emma is about to graduate from high school, and he’ll miss that. This weekend John played percussion in the TMEA All-State Orchestra, and he missed that. He’ll miss his graduation, and SJ’s, and Matt’s. He’ll miss their weddings. I’d say he’d miss mine too but the likelihood of me having one is pretty slim at this point. One time when I was probably 41, we were talking about me never getting married, and I said something like, “You’re lucky I didn’t get married while Mom was alive.”

He said, “I know, I’d still be paying for it.”

I will miss him forever. He was a great father, stepfather, and grandfather. He taught me to be strong, to be brave, and to check my tire pressure before a road trip. Before cars had computers, he had us checking our gas mileage every time we filled up. He taught me to look for fun numbers on the odometer. He was the first I called when a car rolled over to 100,000 or read 77,777.

He gave me a strong work ethic, and a strong moral compass. He taught me to drive, and drive well, and fast. He made me learn how to drive a manual transmission, then bought me three or four stick-shift cars in a row, until I bought my own. I didn’t have a car with a manual transmission for ten years. He also taught us how to cut donuts in a parking lot, do a handbrake turn, and to double-clutch to down shift faster. If I had to, I think I could drive a stick shift with both feet, though it’s been a long time.

Daddy taught us both how to ski, and we started with a slalom because in his words, “I don’t want to have to chase down that second ski when you drop it, so you’ll just learn how to slalom and be done with it.” To help, he engineered a ski rope with a deeper V, so we could stick the ski in it and help keep it steady when getting up. He also taught Brian and I how to pull a trailer, back it up down the boat ramp, get the boat off and tie it up, get back in the truck and park the trailer. He taught us how to drive a boat, and then how to put it safely back on the trailer (tilt the engine up, pull the drain plug AFTER it’s on the trailer).

I hope very much that he was greeted by our family dog Muffin, my dog Jake, and Brian’s dog Callie. They all loved him more than life. I hope he has all of his hair back, but not the beard he grew in the 70’s. That was awful.

I hope his mom, our Mourty, is fussing over him like she always did. I hope he and my mom are getting along, like they did toward the end of her life. I also hope that Mom’s friend Linda is giving him all kinds of crap, as she did in life. If his own father is in Heaven (the chances of which, according to my grandmother, were iffy), I hope they are reconciled.

Most of all, I hope he knows how fiercely he was loved, and how much he will be missed. He was a fantastic father, and I am lucky and privileged to have been his Sugar Bear.

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