Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Dear John

Your daughter Jenny called me yesterday. Memories and anticipation rode shotgun as she drove to the airport a day earlier than planned. After nearly two weeks in the hospital, the doctors are sending you home to end your eight year battle with Alzheimer's. In the arms of a remarkable and loving family, you are quietly slipping away as you say goodbye. I am brought to tears.

Imposing and brusque, you scared the hell out of me as a kid. Your wife Donna once described you as "a complicated man."; I accepted that explanation and played by its rules. Your opinions were iron-clad and your respect was hard won. You weren't easy.

I grew up alongside Jenny and, over time, became a member of your extended family. During your oldest daughter Holly's graduation party in the backyard, a contingency of underaged revelers sampled some Sloe Gin on the front porch. Bounding down the steps to dispose of the evidence, I found myself locked in combat with the fire of your steel blue eyes.  I don't remember the exchange of words as you took the bottle out of my hands; for that matter, I don't recall any major repercussions resulting from our antics. I do remember, however, looking for toilet paper in your bathroom many years later. As I searched through the cabinet under the sink, I found the empty bottle of Sloe Gin. Why you kept it, I'll never know, but I felt an odd sense of honor wash over me that day.

You walked your daughter Holly down a lovely makeshift aisle as she was married in your backyard. The spirit and warmth of that day so impressed me that I could think of no other place to have my own wedding. My own parents were surprised and somewhat concerned by my decision and didn't know you all that well at the time. Who in their right mind would want to host someone else's daughter's wedding? What will our friends think? Well, their friends wound up having such a wonderful time that they asked my folks if they had another daughter to marry off the next weekend. Your hard work and generosity resulted in one hell of a party and the beginning of a wonderful relationship with my parents. They loved you and made several trips to visit you when you moved south of Pittsburgh, to your beautiful "Booth Hill" in 1991. I have heard many fond recountings and will always be grateful that they were treated to the luxury of your friendship.

A farmer at heart, you approached life with a no-nonsense attitude. After giving many years of compassionate and intelligent service to the Pennsylvania State Game Commission, the farmboy from Mansfield, Pennsylvania has come full circle. "Booth Hill" fits you like a glove; you've taken good care of each other. I carry with me the memories of my own visits and a lifetime of love from you and Donna.

I texted Jenny today, asking for an update on your condition. She answered, "I am not gonna lie...this is rough, but there is a strange beauty to it..." Less than a year after my own father's death, it is not surprising that I should remember the nights I spent by his bed, with Gracie asleep at my feet. I watched as he stirred and sputtered in his sleep, his hands at times reaching in the air to capture morphine-induced hallucinations. There was a great deal of sadness among the suspense, yet I felt a singular sense of purpose and peace. All I had to do was be by my father's side; nothing else mattered. Nothing else was needed.

You are now surrounded by your family as they do their best to let you go. You won't be forgotten; your hand has touched them in ways that they have only begun to know. If there is an afterlife, I'd like to imagine it as a large sun-drenched porch complete with bottomless glasses of mint-laced iced tea. You are needling my mother as she bursts into one of her trademark giggles; my father and you enter into a lengthy mechanical conversation about tractors. Please tell them that I said hello and that I love them.


Photo:  John Booth  at "Booth Hill". Unidentified cat and  faithful pickup "Roger" are in the background.

John Ainsworth Booth, September 1, 1929 - September 1, 2010.