This is a series of stories about Jack L Bähler, a man I am proud to call my father. He was a beacon of humanity for me. Kind, fair, brilliant, witty, a great story teller as well as a great trumpet player...um, did I mention perfect father? I can never write all that I learned from my dad, so I will share stories with you that abide so altogether alive within me.
I am calling this series "Lights Go On" for several reasons, not the least of which is that my father, who art in heaven, lives with me on a daily basis, even after his death on February 13, 1988. My brother John and I both said to each other after dad passed, "Dad moved in with me!"
So, today, I am beginning this series with dad's passing. That may seem a little odd, but we Bähler's are known for following our own paths. In fact, I remember dad saying to me when I was a "youngster" (to use his term), "If someone says, 'this is the way,' run the other way." Dad was full of those, and in my good opinion, he saved the best for last.
Here's the story:
Dad was a smoker. He was born in 1907 and by 1916 he was smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, as well as pipes and an occasional cigar. Today, we know of the hazards of smoking but in my early years, I remember ads that either inferred or outright claimed that smoking was good for your health. There was a Camels ad that read, "Nine Out of Ten Doctors Smoke Camels." And even when we began to understand the dangers of smoking, dad kept up his two pack a day habit. Oh, by the way, he smoked Camels.
When dad reached his 70s, he was diagnosed with Emphysema, now called COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. No matter what they called it and no matter what the symptoms, dad's years were being cut short because he smoked.
My brother John and I adored and revered our dad. So when we were faced with the realization that he was slowly killing himself, we asked him to stop. That didn't work. Now, John and I had both been smokers and believed that if we could quit, so could dad and we told him so. That didn't work either. Then we begged him to stop... Nope. Finally, John and I went together to his home in the Palm Springs area and performed a two-son intervention. Dad could see, by the tears welling in our eyes, that we were speaking from our hearts. It worked. Dad quit smoking and John and I breathed easier. (That is what my dad would call 2/3 of a pun "P-U.")
One year later, John and I received a call from dad asking us to come visit him. Upon our arrival, Dad gave us some unfortunate news. He explained the past year had been the most frustrating and unhappy year of his life; that he truly loved to smoke, that he missed it too many ways to count, that smoking had become a part of him. While he understood and apologized for leaving us earlier than we or he would've wished because of his smoking, he wanted to live his life to the story he'd written for it. He lit up a cigarette right there and inhaled with a smile of satisfaction on his face. John and I looked at each other, each of us in our early forties, and back to our Dad, approaching eighty years old, the man who had been there for both of us, all our lives. We understood what he meant to say, and he deserved this last decision for himself. We hugged him and never mentioned cigarettes again.
A couple of years later, dad's health had deteriorated quite a bit and we were called to rush out to the hospital in Palm Springs. The doctor who had sent the ambulance to dad's home didn't believe he'd make it through the night.
It was so hard to see dad, his eyes shut, his smile gone, his body asleep. We kept a vigil by his bedside until about 4:00 a.m. when the doctor sent us home as dad's vitals were improving and the doctor assured us that he would pull through for now.
After a few days, dad was feeling much stronger and when I visited him in the hospital, he was preparing to come home. His smile was back, his eyes were aglow and the minute I stepped into the room he told me this with laughter in his voice.
"Son, I know that you were all very concerned about me and I am so grateful that you dropped everything to be at my side. But, you want to know the funny part? As you were all standing around my bed, I could hear everything you were saying about me, even the doctor saying I wouldn't live through the night and you all beginning to speak about funeral plans, and inside, I was laughing and trying to tell you, 'I'm not dying, this doctors full of it. I don't know what's going on, but I know I'm not dying, I'll come through this.' And here I am."
As I was leaving the hospital, the doctor stopped me in the hall and told me that this was truly a close brush with death and that dad had but a year to live. I called dad twice a day from that day forward: a call in the morning on my way to my office, a call at night on my way home. Seven-hundred and thirty phone calls in total.
One morning dad and I had a very short conversation, and he explained he wasn't feeling well. That night when I called again, his nurse answered to tell me that dad was too weak to talk. I asked the nurse to put the phone up to dad's ear so I could talk to him and she agreed. As if he were just fine, I carried on telling dad about my day... finally, I heard a frail cough, and then, his voice. Although weakened, he was brimming with resolve.
"Son, thank you so much for calling, I have been looking forward to your call since this morning."
I knew I had made the right choice. We exchanged our love for each other. Then dad said the words:
"Son, I never knew it would be this apparent."
"That I'm going."
I swallowed hard, "Dad, you can tell that you're going?"
"Yes, Son, I can, and it's alright."
"How do you know? What does it feel like?"
"I wish that I could tell you, son, but I know."
"And you're alright?"
"Yes, Son, I am fine. I have been thinking about this all day. I have lived my life as I have wished and I have fathered two sons that are contributing to society. I have no regrets... well, I do have one regret. I won't be around to watch Heather and Quincy [my children] grow up."
"Well, dad, that is where you have the advantage, you'll be able to look down on us, we just won't be able to see you."
And this is what my father left me with. This beautiful man who's sense of humor and loving integrity shone as a beacon for all of us, said:
"Nah... if I look up, I'll get sweat in my eyes," and those were my dad's last words, followed by, "Son, I love you very much."