My father turned 86 years old this month; he was married to my mother for 53 years.
My mother is an artist and understands colors better than anyone I know.
You might think these sentences are nonsequitors, but they’re not. My father had a few creeds he lived by, and an important one was his rule that brown and green go together. Period.
He was adamant about this, but my mother never pulled rank as the one person in our entire family with a grasp on color. Herein lies the secret of their marriage.
My dad, Paul DeWitt Kelly Jr., was continually in and out of the hospital for the past two years. He was on a slew of medications that needed monitoring and had a pacemaker that required surgery every so often. Every now and then he had trouble breathing, and had to adjust his medicine, which meant every single medication had to be recalculated and so he had to begin all over again.
These endless ordeals might defeat some folks. But not him. No matter how bad he felt, he was always up for another social engagement, be it with the hospital staff, the checkout lady at the grocery store or one of his neighbors. Katie bar the door if there was a party coming up.
My mother drove him crazy. Beside herself over his health, she hovered over him, protecting him. She prodded him to eat more dinner, and begged him to slow down some and take it easy. But as my husband says, “Paul is a hard dog to keep under the porch.”
I was with them when a doctor asked my father if he exercised. “Yes, I run,” my dad said. My mother and I looked shocked since he hasn’t run since college. “I run away from them!” my father exclaimed, pointing gleefully at the two of us.
We had what we referred to as ‘hospital fun’ when we were regulars at Memorial. Really, when my father was hospitalized, it was always a wonderful excuse for my family to hang out together, all scrunched up and practically on top of each other, in a tiny room. The last time we were all squeezed in one of the holding rooms in the ER, we had a lull in our conversation. So I demonstrated a dance I was learning, waltzing my mother around the tiny room. Across the hall, an injured and bewildered man peered around the doctor, trying to see exactly what was going on in exam room 3. Finally the doctor dramatically pulled the privacy curtain shut.
By the time we left the hospital, my father knew what county the nurse was raised in, what scholarships the janitor’s son had received and how we are related to the hospitalist. He took the time to find out these details, and enjoyed people more than anyone I’ve ever met. He was at ease with anyone and everyone, and never met a stranger.
This was amazing to me, and I always wanted to be like him. As a girl I was horribly shy, and Daddy coached me in socializing. He told me to just say something, anything, and a conversation would follow. But it didn’t, and it still doesn’t. I stood at the edge of a party and watched my father laugh and carry on. He didn’t talk about his failing heart. Or his tummy. Or any other ailment that tried to slow him down.
My father was too busy for that. He was brave. A warrior at age 86.
I never learned how to talk easily to strangers, but he taught me something else. I saw his excitement over the next family gathering, or party or get together.
He played a clever prank on my smitten middle son just before his visit to Charleston to see his girlfriend. With a straight face, Daddy asked if we'd read about the port cities being infested with an ocean borne bacteria, and we all fell for the city of Charleston shutting down. Daddy's eyes twinkled and his spirits were high. No matter that his body was not cooperating.
He was a prince. A sweetheart. A blessing to all of us. And brown and green don't look that bad together at all.
Paul DeWitt Kelly Jr. died on November 16, 2013. He took his last breath with his precious wife stroking his head and whispering to him softly. I believe he is tracing his ancestry with all the heavenly hosts, pranking George Clark and Cotty Kale, and being celebrated joyously.