Did You Finish It?

Doyle, Dale, and William "Butter" Haren c. 1987
Doyle, Dale, and William “Butter” Haren c. 1987

I have about three other articles I really need to be writing at the moment. However, I couldn’t get my heart into it for some reason. Looking at the calendar, it finally dawned on me what has been floating around the edges of my consciousness since my eyes flew open pre-alarm…

I have never forgotten the extraordinary luck I had in having so many in my life that were supportive. I’m not sure exactly how many of them believed that I could accomplish my goals or dreams, but at least no one ever discouraged me from pursuing any particular path that suited my fancy. However, there was one who always seemed as invested in my future and my aspirations as much as I was myself.

My paternal grandfather and I had a very close relationship. It wasn’t that any of my other known forebears were less loving or that I loved them less; it was that for a good portion of my childhood, he and I spent most of the time together. Before and after school, summers, and when I was sick with chicken pox or other childhood ailments, my pappy was my companion. I have very strong memories of hearing my pappy sing to me. I think he actually knew more than one song, but the one he always sang to me was “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.” His voice was one of comfort. It was a baritone that sounds in my memory to this day much like Bing Crosby. Perhaps this is why I love those old songs so much. Pappy was a trickster. He liked playing jokes. He loved to laugh, even if he had no part in the cause. And he loved me… The only time I ever saw this man who retired after 30 years in the Navy cry was the day my parents took us across the seas to live for what came to be about 20 years. My pappy cried that day. I saw it when I turned for one last look before walking out on the tarmac. I remember being puzzled and frightened because I had never seen him shed a tear.

We made visits back to the U.S., at least once per year. Eventually, I moved back to the states permanently after the first Gulf War, before my folks retired, to complete school and start my own path. I lived in Atlanta for a while and would drive up to Tennessee for visits to all of my grandparents. Living in North Carolina, the trip to Northeast Tennessee to see my paternal grandparents was significantly shorter than the long drive to Southeast Tennessee to see my mother’s parents. I tried to make it back as often as possible to spend time with all of them. Pappy had some significant health issues, not the least of which was bone cancer. I never consciously thought about it, but perhaps living away from family so long made me realize that time is precious.

I moved back to Tennessee eventually to become a student once again and get a Master’s degree. I did well enough in school, but working multiple jobs and going to school full time wasn’t always without its bumps in the road. Nevertheless, my pappy was the person who was always my cheerleader on the sidelines. I never really knew why that degree seemed to mean so much to him. No one else in the family seemed to pay much attention to what was going on with my classes or progress, but my pappy would ask every so often, “How much more do you have?”

It became our own little game. Eventually, I was able to tell him that all my classes were over, and all I had to complete was the thesis. If going to classes and trying to work full time (plus some at times) was difficult, trying to conduct a research study and write it up in any resemblance to scholarly work was a bit of a nightmare. I admit, I became a crispy critter. I was burnt. I procrastinated. At one point, I considered just leaving it where it was. I had a full-time job by then working as system administration and technical management for an internet company. It wasn’t precisely what I had dreamed of doing, but it would pay the bills and put food in my mouth. I was tired of school, and I just didn’t care anymore. One voice kept me going. One simple question that I heard every day, “Did you finish it?”

Every day, I would go to see my pappy. We had a hospital bed in the den for him by then. The cancer than he fought off and on for years had gotten into his bones. We had home health nurses who came to take care of him. I always kept my appointments, though. I would go by after work or take a little detour if I had a meeting that took me closer to their house. Every day, he started the conversation with “Did you finish it?” And every day I would tell him, “Not yet, pap. Not quite yet.”

Eventually, something changed. Slow though it was, I started to see a light at the end of the tunnel. Some part of me saw it and started, like a long distance runner, to push a little harder in the last leg of the race. My committee chair saw it as well and scheduled my defense. I took the whole week off that week to finish up the final chapters and edits and prepare for the “grilling.” I saw my pappy the day before my defense, and he said, “Did you finish it?” To which I replied, “We’ll see…”

The following day, I’m still not sure how I got through. I think I threw up three times before going into the room before the committee to defend my work. As you have probably gathered, it was all right. They passed me. I was congratulated and moved into the less “nail-biting” but more frustrating portion of trying to get through the graduate school’s editing requirements. Regardless, I was DONE!

I drove, miraculously without breaking the sound barrier, to my grandparents’ house. I walked in, and heard the familiar question, “Did you finish it?” But that day, I said, “Yes, Pappy Dale. I did.” It took a moment to sink in, but then he laughed. It was the same laugh I had heard my whole life. It was a contagious, deep laugh. Then, I sat down and we watched some pre-season baseball and discussed what we thought would happen with the Braves pitching staff.

The next few days involved multiple trips to the graduate school offices and the stationery store to make sure I had the correct weight white paper. On the following Monday, I was back at work. I had a week of catching up to do. On Tuesday, close to quittin’ time, I got a call. They needed me at my grandparents’ house. They said my pappy would not make it through the night.

I don’t remember the drive over there. I remember a house full of people. I remember when we could no longer feel a pulse and my father and I performed CPR, though there was an order for “no heroic measures.” I remember my father and me, standing silently together and hearing the life leave my grandfather’s body. The rest of the evening was a blur. I was elected to break the news to my grandmother and Pappy’s sisters (who were at the house). My cousin and I managed to put dinner together… I think we made taco casserole. The rest was the usual ritual and responsibility of providing that last goodbye for one who has departed.

That was 16 years ago today. I don’t miss him any less. I think it was his voice in my head during the last difficult months of my doctoral dissertation. “Beth, did you finish it?” I think it was realizing that I had neither him nor my father with me this time when I finished my defense successfully that prompted the unexpected tears. I can imagine that he laughed and laughed, just as he did that day more than 16 years ago when I gave him the news. Other challenges have faced me: Personally, professionally… Each one that I faced and continue to face, I feel that part of me fights to overcome the obstacles because I still want to be able to say, “Yes, Pappy Dale. I finished it.”

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