I wrote the italicized part of this on Wednesday, Nov. 20 for the Bryan County News, the other newspaper I work for. The rest was written Thursday, Nov. 21, the day the Nov. 27 Coastal Courier went to press.
I got the phone call about 9 a.m. Wednesday.
“The doctor wants you to be here at 4,” my mother said. “Your dad has leukemia. The doctor’s already told him. He wants all of us to meet with him at 4.”
I said I’d be there and went to work. I do not know much about leukemia, or about anything that matters, really. I do know that there’s an internet full of experts out there who’ll tell you this and that. And I know at least one fellow - Bishop Jim McIntosh of the Liberty Regional Homeless Coalition - who has the disease and continues to be an active fly in many people’s ointment in his work on behalf of the area’s homeless. That gives me hope.
But Dad’s 80 and he has lived a sometimes wild and sometimes wooly life that’s taken him from the red clay of Upstate South Carolina to the war in Vietnam to Georgia and a lot of places in between.
He worked hard and played hard as a career Army NCO who grew up in the South Carolina foothills, first on a dirt farm and then on the mill hill and joined the military to get out of South Carolina and “see what’s over the next hill,” as he put it, and for much of his adult life it seemed he was looking for those figurative hills to climb, then attacking them with every bit of energy he had.
And now I don’t know what the next hill will bring, but if anybody’s a fighter, Eugene Whitten is. And if anybody can have a sense of humor about what’s happening to him now, it’s my father, who told me the other day the reason the South Carolina Gamecocks were having to play so many night games this year is because “they’re so bad they make them play in the dark.”
OK, so maybe you have to hear it from him.
Dad’s spent most of the past few months dealing with ailments, including pneumonia that hospitalized him for two weeks. That was followed by other issues, including the puzzling inability of his body to manufacture the blood it needed.
He’s been weakened and rallied and he’s fallen back and rallied again - but truth is Dad hasn’t been able to drive his pickup or cut his own grass or go for walks with Mom for a couple months now. He’s fighting, though.
My mother, Sandra, the strength of our family in so many ways, has been all over the world with my father during almost 60 years of marriage. She’s there with him in the room in the Brunswick hospital now as I write this at 11 a.m. Wednesday, all of us waiting to see what’s over that next hill for my father.
The next hill, it turns out, is hospice care for my father, the finest man I have ever known. He never took anything that didn’t belong to him, is without pretension and always tried to teach me right from wrong.
Even now, ever the provider and protector, he’s making lists of what needs to happen to make sure Mom’s taken care of. That’s what men do, you see.
We’re going to spend as much time as we have left with him, my mother, my sister, my wife, and me, as we can. We’ll be with him until he crosses that last hill, whether it’s a week or a month from now. And he’ll always be with us.
Whitten is editor of the Courier and Bryan County News.