Chuck Oates


Norman, Oklahoma, USA

Lemons and Lemonade

Many years ago, I shuddered when my wife, Sue, appeared at the classroom door in the middle of one of my classes at O.U.  She beckoned, and from her expression, I knew the news was not good.  My grandad (and adoptive dad) had had a stroke.  His recovery was uncertain at best.

Over the next several weeks, I spent every weekend in Amarillo at the hospital and then at Dad's home as he made a partial recovery.  He was partially paralyzed on one side.  His formerly clear and capable mind was a hodgepodge of his old self and a different and strange person.  He was unable to identify which room of the house he was in, but able to give me driving directions around town in Amarillo.  He could not distinguish night from day, though his vision was quite good, and he would often rise at 2 a.m. and attempt to drive his car to a nearby coffee shop, with near-catastrophic results on one occasion.  His condition varied from day to day.  Some days he was almost his old self; others, he was helpless and almost completely confused about virtually everything.  Over time, the latter became more and more common.

I watched as my dad declined for the next seven years, losing first one ability and then another, until we finally exchanged roles as father and son. He spent his last 18 months here in Norman in a nursing home. I used to take him to visit our family farm in Texas west of Woodward, Oklahoma because, though he had difficulty knowing where he was or what time of day it was, he could fairly consistently remember the part of his life he had spent as a child and young man in Shattuck, OK and Higgins, TX. I learned a great deal about early-1900s western Oklahoma and about his parents and siblings that I would never have known otherwise. I also cleaned up a lot of BIG messes.

When he died, I was devastated. He had been my granddad, my dad, and in some senses my brother and at the very last, my child. I thought the moon and stars might well come crashing down from the sky. I took some comfort in the fact that part of him--me--was still very much here, alive and well. For a long time afterward, and particularly while I was acting in his stead as the executor of his estate, I signed my name with my full middle name, "Lee," in his honor (he was Lee G. Oates) and in recognition of the fact that I was, in a number of ways, operating for both of us.

Like many bitter events, this one had a sweet antithesis that wasn't long in revealing itself. Within a month after Dad's death on Christmas Day 1980, Sue was pregnant with our one and only, Carri. She was born the following October. The wonder of that event can't be put into a few words, but one thing was soon very clear. I saw in everything Carri learned, in every new skill she acquired, all the things I had had to watch my dad slowly lose. The joy of seeing those abilities arise in dad's (great-)granddaughter are beyond measure or description; my appreciation of their appearance, though, was exponentially increased by the terrible experience of having to watch their disappearance in my dad. That effect was anything but anticipated during Dad's decline, but most welcome during Carri's childhood. 

There are several potential lessons here.  The most obvious is that, operating without knowledge of the future, we are very often unable to appreciate the full significance of the current events in our lives.  The saying, "Life must be lived forward, but can only be understood backward, if at all," captures this idea well.  Another is that the aphorism, "When life hands you lemons, make lemonade," can leave us without any reasonable idea about how to make lemonade out of what's available. Yet another theme is that life, though finite for each of us as individuals, goes on through our offspring, and part of making the most of our very finite lives should be to ensure that the generation(s) that succeed us get a good start and have an environment, both locally and globally, that will permit them to flourish ... And on a much more practical level, the lesson is that baby diapers are absolutely no trouble at all if you've dealt with the adult variety, or the lack thereof!   :^)

Make it a good day,