Howard Wardell Wilkinson, August 17, 1934- March 16, 2017
This picture is one of my favorites, my mom and dad together at a happy time. They were on a cruise and having a wonderful time. My daddy was not a gregarious man. He, much like me, was quiet and not comfortable in crowds. While my mom was outgoing and always the life of the party. But, when you got to know my dad or talk to him one on one-he was a brilliant conversationalist. His mind held facts and figures like a computer, my husband often joked that he could calculate math problems faster in his head than the computer.
Daddy was born in Chicago, Illinois and lived most of his life there. It’s amazing how greatly times have changed just in his lifetime. His was a home birth. My grandmother was 28 when he was born, and her first child. Unusual in that day and age. My grandfather was 30.
As a child my father contracted rheumatic fever. You don’t hear about this anymore, but at the time they didn’t expect him to survive. They actually poisoned him to cure him- they fed him arsenic. The disease so debilitated him, his mother had to push him around in what he called a “baby carriage” for almost a year. I’m assuming we would call it a stroller. He was in middle school at the time and bullied horribly as you can imagine.
In the aftermath, he was left with nothing more than a small heart murmur, and went on to become a strapping man. Six-foot-two and two hundred pounds. A football player and wrestler. He joined ROTC and obtained a scholarship to Annapolis, one of only two offered each year. Unfortunately, he was unable to pass the physical. They determined he had mild scoliosis and failed him. Did this stop my determined father? No- he enlisted in the Navy and became a Warrant Officer on the aircraft carrier Lake Champlain as an electronics technician.
After leaving the service in 1958, daddy met my mother on a blind date set up by one of her sorority sisters. They were married in 1959. My father worked for Sola Electric, making electronic parts for…I couldn’t tell you what. It was a impressive job, with an impressive title, but he had a friend who owned a service station, Ray. A blue collar job, but Ray pulled in big bucks.
Horrifying his banker father, my dad risked it all and left his white collar job. He invested in an Shell service station with his friend Ray and became an auto mechanic. Throughout the next sixteen years he owned three service stations; snow plows, contracts with the city, tow trucks, and more tools than Mr. Goodwrench. I rarely saw him. Daddy worked seven days a week, sixteen to eighteen hours a day. He was gone before I got up in the morning, and not home until after I was asleep most nights. But that was the kind of man he was, he worked hard for his family. So, we would have a good life.
At age ten I had become involved in showing horses, Quarter horses. Not to toot my own horn, but I was quite good. I competed in the All American Quarter Horse Congress twice. I showed all over the mid-west and even traveled to Florida for the Gold-coast circuit. In 1979 we moved to Florida and bought a five acre property so we could finally keep our horses and not board them. My dad then went to work for a dealership as a mechanic.
The first year after we moved Hurricane David hit Martin County. While mom and I huddled together with the neighbors, my father stood in the barn, in the pounding rain and driving winds, and held the halters of my two frightened horses. Soothing them through the storm and making sure no harm came to them.
In 1981 I met the love of my life and we married in 1982. People often say you marry a man just like your father. In my case that was definitely not true. My husband is much more like my mother- outgoing, funny, never met a stranger, and very talkative. You’d think the two personalities would clash. But, I guess just as Daddy loved Momma, he and Michael formed an unbreakable bond.
In 1989 Michael and I opened our own business, a swimming pool maintenance and repair company, and Daddy came to work with us. He maintained all our trucks, took care of the warehouse, and was a general jack of all trades. Mom eventually came to work in the office with me too, and we ran a family business until 2004.
Hurricanes once again devastated our area. My husband and I lived on a five acre ranch with our horses at this time and we were without power for over a month. I said never again! Our family has always been close and where one goes we all go. So, my sister and her husband, my mom and dad, and our family all moved to Tennessee. The little town of McEwen got a huge influx of growth in one shot. LOL. The town is only 1700 people and we added 10!
Mom and Dad moved in with my sister and her husband on a 17 acre ranch and we bought 8 acres only a few miles away. Tennessee is beautiful and all was wonderful until 2009. Of all things, on my mother’s birthday, March 15, 2009 we were all supposed to go to brunch, but mom woke up not feeling well. Her speech was slurred and she had aphasia. We feared she’d had a stroke and took her to the hospital, only to discover that she had brain cancer. Non-Hogkins Central Nervous System Lymphoma. They gave her six months to live.
It was inoperable, but they treated her with an aggressive form of chemotherapy. She would be in the hospital for two weeks on chemo, than home a week and back to the hospital for two more weeks. We did this for six weeks. Then she developed blood clots, one had broken off and traveled to her lungs. She was in intensive care and we didn’t know if she would survive.
My sister and my dad were driving to the hospital and a semi truck crossed the center line on a the main two-lane highway in McEwen, Highway 70. He hit my sister’s car head on. She was killed instantly, and my dad suffered only a broken arm. You can’t imagine the pain this caused our family. Sissy was only 35 years old. My mom was in hospital, possibly dying. My dad had to deal with so much…
My mother wasn’t even able to leave the hospital for my sisters funeral. However, she did survive. She was even written up in medical journals as the only person to survive over three years after a diagnosis of her type of cancer. She survived five years and then started having symptoms again.
We went back to the hospital and the doctors said- “Oh it must be stroke, you are cancer free.” They were wrong. The cancer had re-occurred in a different part of her brain and this time we lost her within three months.
By this time, Mom and Dad were living with us and the hole in the house and my heart was huge. But as always, Daddy carried on.
We used to laugh about how good his health was. He took one pill a day for a-fib. While I take…well I won’t tell you how many (enough to choke a horse) Then in January he had a small TIA. He couldn’t even tell. I noticed he had slurred speech and a slight drooping on one side of his face. He didn’t notice it.
They ran a billion tests. Said his arteries weren’t blocked enough for need of by-pass. Put him on blood thinners and blood pressure medicine, and sent us home. All seemed fine. I cut salt and lowered the fat in all my cooking, made sure Daddy took his medicine and monitored his blood pressure, took him to all his scheduled doctors appointments. I didn’t think we had anything to worry about. Boy, was I wrong.
I woke on the morning of March 12th and wondered why dad wasn’t sitting in his chair watching TV. I went to the kitchen and the coffee wasn’t made. Where was daddy? The light wasn’t on in the bathroom, and then I heard a call from his bedroom. My heart in my throat, I opened the door to find him on the floor next to the bed.
I covered him with a blanket, because he was shivering, and raced for my phone to call 911. Praying this was only another TIA. But his time we weren’t as lucky, as the paramedics worked on him in my driveway they told me they might have to lifeflight him to Nashville, and the heart that was in my throat fell to my feet.
In the end they took him to the local hospital. It was determined he’d had at minimum three strokes in three different parts of his brain. He was paralyzed on his right side and could not swallow. At first he could speak a little, small words, yes, no, but not much more. That began to deteriorate as the day went on. By the second day he developed aspiration pneumonia from the inability to swallow his own saliva.
He refused to be intubated. I agreed with his wishes. I know he wouldn’t have wanted to live like that. But I can’t begin to tell you how hard it was to sit beside his bed and watch him struggle for every breath. He was medicated and I believe in a coma at the end, but it was still heart-wrenching.
I sat by his side for every moment. I talked to him. I played music, I played his favorite TV shows, I held his hand, and I tried not to cry. Daddy hated it when I cried. My oldest daughter and I were each holding his hand when he passed. My husband and son were in the room. I kissed his big, bald forehead, and laid my head on his chest. Then I let the tears fall.
Today is his memorial service, and each of us picked a song to be played. I think the choices sum up the kind of man my father was.
My eldest daughter, Mandy-
Middle daughter Cat
Goodbye, Daddy. I will always love you.