(Music: “Going Home”, Annie in Wonderland, Annie Haslam)
Scouting tradition uses a circled point, the trail marker for “returned home”, as a sigil for when one has passed away. It is on the gravestone of Robert Lord Baden-Powell, founder of the Scout Movement, and no doubt countless other scouts in the century since. If there is any movement that can be said to be my family’s core faith, it is Scouting; if there is any symbol that best fits us, it is the fleur-de-lis, and the circled point.
On 2019 January 11, at 17:40 EST, my father passed away.
I’d been preparing for this for a long time, and when it happened, I think it hurt less than it would have otherwise.
I talked about his first two cancer diagnoses in the AHCA article. I don’t particularly plan to rehash those. Sixteen years, though, we’ve had this in the back of our minds.
When my brother and I were in high school and/or college (I didn’t take notes; it was probably around 2012 or so) and Dad felt less required to maintain the illusion, he told us that when he was in the hospital in 2002 and uncertain of his future he pleaded with God, saying he wasn’t ready to die — not for his own life, but as a father — and asked to survive and recover, so he could keep being our dad until we were men in our own right.
At the time, the milestone he used was teaching us to drive.
On May 25th, 2018, my brother graduated from the United States Naval Academy, commissioned as an ensign, and received his transfer orders for flight school.
On May 28th, dad failed to see the bottom stair of the staircase and fell. We didn’t think anything of it.
Dad was diagnosed with glioblastoma in July. I got the call on July 12th. I was in the car in Albuquerque, looking for dinner. I remember after the call ended, realizing that this was probably going to be the one, and that while we hoped for another few years or so I should probably start getting used to the idea of his death. I remember feeling false confidence, that surely this would be difficult and painful and ultimately survivable. He was 66. It wasn’t time yet. I remember having to tell myself and my mom and everyone that it would be fine, that we’d faced this before and come out on top. I remember trying to make myself believe that.
Dad had a primary mass removed, and underwent chemotherapy and radiation. After radiation concluded, he continued to decline; scans indicated that while the primary mass remained absent, scatterings of cancerous matter remained, and were likely to recur.
I spent May through November traveling back and forth between Logan, UT where I lived, and Albuquerque, NM, where I was working more and more. I didn’t really have time to go home, and both of my parents said not to worry about it.
Frozen Moments in Time
There was both too much, and nowhere near enough, time between when we were told of the end’s coming, and when it arrived. I didn’t see much of it, but I remember vivid snapshots of that summer and fall, burned into my mind. I want to talk about these snapshots first.
I remember in late August, Dad called me. He was a few weeks out of the second surgery. He was euphoric. He felt he was going to live for another twenty years, that he knew exactly what was wrong with him and how he would overcome it.
I didn’t know what the cause of his euphoria was, but I knew it was probably dangerous to entertain. I aimed for happy optimism, guarded in the caution that hope was a virtue and we should hope for the best, but not to the point of ignoring the worst. He was disappointed I didn’t share his enthusiastic confidence in his immortality.
After this call, dad started undergoing oral chemotherapy and cranial radiation.
On September 14th, I flew from Albuquerque to Kalamazoo, MI, to work at my former Scout camp. My old camp director asked me to come volunteer for a day to teach the Swimming and Lifesaving merit badges. These are my two most favorite things to teach, and he didn’t have anyone else to teach them, and I love being at my camp, so of course I went.
I told my mom I would be in Kalamazoo for the day, and that if she and Dad felt up to it, they should come out.
Dad couldn’t walk across the forest ground unaided anymore. He had lost some vision in July, and had gained some of it back, but not all. He couldn’t balance with his eyes closed.
He sat at the beach and watched me teach about twenty Scouts — some of whom remembered me from 2015!! — how to be more useful in the water.
Mom took my brother and I to swimming lessons when we were kids. I remember that we were probably … seven and five? She wanted us to start together. I remember Dad taking my brother and I to “the clayhole” — an open pit clay mine in the nearby town, that had long ago become a large pond or small lake — to swim. We went all the time.
I remember him swimming with us every day of my first ever Boy Scout camp, in 2005 at Camp Many Point. I remember even in early August, the water was brutally cold, to me (though, I was 11 years old and sixty pounds, so, there wasn’t much chance of me perceiving it otherwise). I remember him teaching me to water-ski. I remember when he looked at me one day in high school and said, “hey, let’s learn to SCUBA dive”, and we did.
Dad was always so proud of my brother and I for being as capable in the water as we were.
He was so happy, September 15th, watching me teach other boys to follow me. He held that memory for the rest of his life.
The Rust Belt Rust conference was held in Ann Arbor, MI, in 2018. We live an hour east of it. I flew home, and my parents met me in the airport. I remember walking down the stairs into luggage claim. I remember looking around, and then seeing my mom, and then, my dad.
I don’t know how to properly describe this moment.
I remember Mom telling me ahead of time that the chemotherapy and radiation had affected him. I remember she told me he had been put on steroids to reduce intra-cranial swelling. I remember she told me his emotions were aggravated, that he was losing his ability to maintain control.
I don’t know how to convey the shock of seeing a month’s encroachment all at once, and I won’t repeat to you how seeing me hit him. That memory is for us.
We drove home. The next day, I drove to Ann Arbor, for the conference.
The second day, my mom called. Dad, she said, had had a mood swing; he’d felt so determined to show he was recovering that when she took him walking, he decided to try to run.
He took one step, stepped very wrongly — as his doctors, his wife, his sons, everyone, had told him he would — and put all 6’3” of height into rotating his body and head directly into the ground.
Conveniently, my dad was getting all his treatment at the University of Michigan hospital, a crisp eight minutes away from the conference, so I said my goodbyes and went to go meet my parents.
Dad was bruised, shaken, and appeared to have really accepted that he needed to stop listening to his own mind’s ideas of how to act.
My brother and I came home for Thanksgiving.
The visual difference between September and October was not that much. Dad had put on some water weight from the steroids, mostly in his neck.
October to November, however, had been withering. He lost a lot of weight in his legs. He could stand, but not for long. He was using a walker now, rather than just holding someone’s elbow. It hadn’t hit his upper body yet.
He was still awake. He was still his own person, even as his body began to aggressively fail.
He and my brother took pictures in their flight jumpsuits. He could fit in his again.
On Wednesday, a physical therapist came by. Dad stood up for him, walked around a bit, demonstrated what he could still do with his legs. It was just my brother and I with him for this, because Mom was having surgery to remove a mass.
Wednesday, November 21st, was the last time my dad ever stood up.
It was the last day he ate with us.
Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, he slept through the whole day. We set a plate for him.
I don’t think he’d ever missed a Thanksgiving before that.
I packed up my apartment and moved to Albuquerque. In May and June, Dad and I had talked about making this move together, like how he drove me to Utah. Like he drove my brother to Florida. I chose the house I did because I wanted a room for my parents, plural, to visit. I wanted him to have a view of the mountains.
I flew to Nashville. My brother drove to Nashville and picked me up, and then we drove to Michigan. We arrived at about 6:30, December 22nd.
His upper body had by now vanished with his legs. Mom had put him in a hospice bed. He steadily increased how much time per day he spent asleep. He mostly talked to ghosts. He only stopped talking when he slept. He could usually notice us, but if we didn’t hold his attention, he’d retreat to his own world.
To me, my dad died in 2018.
His last useful words were on New Year’s Eve. My brother and I drove back to Nashville on New Year’s Day, and I flew back to Albuquerque. As we were leaving, he began complaining of pressure on his neck and upper spine. Before we left, we helped Mom begin administering morphine.
I flew to Albuquerque. I didn’t unpack. I tried to work for two days, and then Mom called, and I flew right back to Michigan.
Hospice is supposed to take six weeks. “Active dying”, the final denouement, the marked and accelerated loss of life, the no-more-miracles slide down the event horizon, is supposed to take five days.
Eight weeks. Eight days, six hours. He was declared in active dying early January 3rd, and was declared dead late January 11th.
The last week of his life was without doubt the most ruthlessly devastating I had ever known.
He began the death rattle — fluid buildup in the lungs — on his last morning. The apnea had begun a day or so before, and steadily increased.
Mom called us — her mom, me, their two oldest friends from aviation — into the bedroom. I held dad’s hand, instinctively putting my fingers on the pulse in his wrist. I’ve been a lifeguard for ten years; I can’t not observe pulse and breath and activity. I felt his heart racing. I heard him breathe in.
I saw him breathe out.
And then he didn’t breathe in.
And then I lost his pulse.
I can’t begin to imagine what my mom went through, being with him every moment she was permitted to be, for six months less one day. July 12th to January 11th, no time off.
I don’t want to remember the last two months, or two weeks, or two days.
I want to remember my dad. I want to remember my very earliest memory, stumbling through our house always one step away from falling down. I want to remember the way my mom’s voice sounded behind me, though in this memory I don’t speak English yet and have no idea what she said. I want to remember the way the sunlight played through the kitchen windows. I want to remember crashing into his hands as he swept me into the air, because I’m almost three years old.
I want to remember the man who taught me arithmetic before I started kindergarten, who watched in delight as my mom read to me and I recited the sounds back to her because even though I didn’t have language yet I could keep time and mimic sound, and turn pages uncomprehendingly. I want to remember the man who sat me on the counter in his workshop as he made my brother’s bed, who leaned a stepladder against the apple tree and said “go for it”, who pushed my bike and ran behind me and then stopped running. Who took me camping and swimming and taught me to drive when I was ten.
I want to remember the way my dad and my brother and I built our playhouse, and our barn, and rebuilt the cabin next to the main house on our plot. I want to remember planting trees and building wood kilns and building bonfires and awkwardly asking the fire department if they wanted any lemonade.
I want to remember the countless camping trips, the rain and sleet and non-stop inclement weather, the hikes and songs and skits and competitions and events.
I want to remember driving to Michigan with him as we searched for a new house, and getting entry into the school for which we were moving. I want to remember him taking me everywhere I needed to go as I worked through my Eagle Scout project, and taking me home from my attempt at boarding school, and going diving with me, and dropping me off at college, and teaching me how to drive a stick-shift.
I want to remember all the unpleasant memories, too, because all families have those, but they don’t need to be enumerated here.
I want to remember him driving me to Utah. The way he hugged me goodbye, and then immediately turned around so we wouldn’t see each other cry as he left. I want to remember climbing the mountain behind my office with him, even though he was healing his foot, because neither of my parents are hindered by the abstract concept of infirmity. I want to remember Father’s Day 2017, when my brother played distraction and got my parents to Ann Arbor so I could surprise him with my having flown home. I want to remember Thanksgiving 2017, when my family crowded into my tiny apartment. Christmas. My brother’s graduation and commissioning.
And I don’t want to remember anything after that.
I don’t want to remember the way he refused to consider that the diagnosis was anything more than yet another obstacle to overcome.
I don’t want to remember the fear when he realized, with four months to go, that he didn’t have any more choices. That he was out of second chances and miracles and luck.
I don’t want to remember him struggling to remain himself as his brain slipped away from him. I don’t want to remember the moments when he knew what he was becoming, and I certainly don’t want to remember the moments when he didn’t.
I don’t want to remember the last time my dad stood up.
I don’t want to remember the last time my dad called my name.
I don’t want to remember the last beat of his heart against my fingers.
But I will.
Dad passed on January 11th. January is a stupid month for a funeral. So we didn’t.
Dad was cremated, as he wished, and we waited for a moment he would’ve wanted, to do the remembrance he would’ve loved.
On May 26th, we’re going back home. Home home, to Minnesota, to the ten acre plot of land he forested and the farmhouse he bought and rebuilt with his wife and children.
We’re going to go hang out in the field past the barn, and we’re going to plant a tree next to the grave of the cat who graciously allowed four humans to rent from him, and we’re going to nestle most of him in the roots of that tree. Mom and Klaus and I will keep a small part with us.
And then we’re going to eat Mexican food, and have a big fire, and drink shitty beer, and tell ridiculously exaggerated stories.
He was an exaggerated man. He threw himself into his life, powerfully and unrelentingly, and he strove to bring everyone else along with him. As he never missed an opportunity to tell us, we were all incredibly blessed to know him, and we would be disappointing him by anything less.
George was born on 1952 February 21, in Great Lakes, Illinois, to Philip P. and Beulah J. Myers Payne.
He graduated from Ottumwa High School in 1970 and earned a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics from Iowa State University in 1974. He commissioned as an officer in the United States Navy, and served as a carrier combat aviator from 1974 to 1986. He subsequently began his commercial aviation career as a pilot with Northwest Airlines. After he retired as a 767 Captain, he served as an Aviation Safety Inspector for the Federal Aviation Administration.
George loved the outdoors, both soaring above as a pilot and firmly on the ground as a passionate arborist, woodworker, and BSA volunteer. He especially enjoyed his involvement with Troop 174 of Hillsdale, MI. George was an ardent lifelong learner, but treasured time with family above all.
George leaves behind his wife, Beatrice M. Diehl, and his sons, Alexander P. Payne (Albuquerque, NM) and Nicholas F. Payne (Pensacola, FL). He is also survived by siblings Sam (Mary) Payne, Bill (Carol) Payne, Frank (Cheri) Payne, Connie (Dan) Cavanaugh, Mary Ann (Rick) Southworth; step-mother Franrica Payne, step-brothers Martin Simonson and Danny (Melissa) Simonson; and many nieces and nephews.
He was preceded in death by his parents, Phil and Beulah, and sisters, Rose and Marcia Payne.
His body has been cremated, and scattered over the farm he tended in Minnesota.