My father died on June 28.
I sit in my living room on a Sunday afternoon in July, nearly two weeks after getting the late-night call from my mother down in Arizona, telling me the not-unexpected news that Dad had passed away a few hours earlier. Honestly, I’d expected to get that call a lot sooner.
James J. Tindell was 87, and I last saw him down in Surprise at the end of January. Dad had been in poor health for the last few years. The main reason Mom initiated their move into an assisted living facility in the fall of 2020 was to ensure that Dad would get the daily care that he needed. That might have extended his life by a year or so, but in hindsight, those additional 21 months weren’t much in terms of quality of life for Dad, and not for Mom, either, except for the fact that she no longer had to cook any meals. (She told me that was one of the highlights of the deal for her.)
After my folks moved down to Arizona in 1984, my visits with them never totaled more than three in a year, frequently only one. Mom and Dad made their last visit up here in 2017. They used to enjoy coming to Wisconsin in the summer, giving themselves a week or two of respite from the brutally hot days in Arizona. For a few years they rented a cabin on a lake a few miles from our place and spent a month or so up here. Those were great days, when Sue and I could get together with them for dinner two or three times a week, and I went fishing with Dad. On those days out on the lake, we would often talk, sometimes of serious things, although I don’t remember any specific conversations. By that time of my life, I was in my fifties myself, and had pretty much figured things out, thanks to Dad. We just enjoyed spending time together.
I have to admit that I got a little frustrated with Dad in his later years. I believe he would’ve had a much better twilight had he gone to the gym regularly, to the pool, things he and I did together when I visited him at their home in Sun City West, only a mile from a fine recreation center. Dad would always tell me he felt good after those sessions, but when I went home, his old habits returned. His generation didn’t embrace regular fitness training like mine did, and even though Dad was a superb athlete as a teenager (sixteen varsity letters at Platteville High) and a young man (good enough at baseball to attract an offer from the Baltimore Orioles), like most men in those days he didn’t incorporate fitness into his daily routine. For guys like Dad, it was enough, they thought, to putter around in the yard on weekends, maybe play some golf or some rec league softball.
Dad’s physical decline seemed to accelerate after our daughter Kim’s wedding in September 2014. He and Mom made the cross-country flight to Boston for the nuptials, and the day before the ceremony we walked the Freedom Trail, including a tour of “Old Ironsides” and Bunker Hill. Dad danced with his granddaughter at the reception and enjoyed himself thoroughly. Earlier that summer he had read Scripture at the wedding of his oldest grandson, my brother Alan’s son Ian, at his wedding in Los Angeles. But after those two events, things seemed to go downhill, with orthopedic issues multiplying. And then there was the onset of dementia, which pretty much sealed the deal. When I saw him in May of 2021, the first words he said to me were, “I’m ready to go.
We don’t often get to choose how we go out. I’ve written in the past about the issue of suicide: “When, or if, to check out.” Would it have been so bad, I wondered, if Dad had been allowed to choose his method of departure from this world? A dignified, respectful ending? But that’s not how we do it in our society. Not yet, anyway. We go down fighting, every step of the way, to the last breath, even when the final score has long been determined. My dad was a fighter. Not once did he tell me that he wanted to get it over with any earlier than when the Lord wanted it to end.
At the end of 2008, I visited my folks over the New Year’s holiday, and we went to a movie. Clint Eastwood showed us how a man would want to go out in Gran Torino, in which a man who thought he had nothing left to live for discovers that he still does, that innocent people need his help, and he confronts evil and banishes it from their lives, at the cost of his own. As I sat in the theater that night with my folks, I thought, “This is how Dad would want to go out, as a hero, standing up for what’s right.”
My dad didn’t go out like Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski goes out in the movie, but he was a hero nonetheless. He was a hero to his sons, to his six grandkids. His great-grandkids, currently numbering three, will hear stories of him from their own grandparents and carry Dad’s legacy into the 22nd century. They will hear about a man who grew up in a big family in the midst of the Depression, saw his older brother off to World War II, became the first in his family to get a college degree and then worked 37 years in education to better the lives of countless children, a superstar athlete who gave up a chance at glory for his wife and infant child. He loved one woman for 68 years, and along the way he took the lessons of living a simple life of dignity and honor that he learned from his own parents and taught them to his children.
The other day, I got up in the morning and read an email from my youngest brother Brian, who lives an hour away from the folks–from Mom, now–in the Phoenix metro. He said that the funeral home had informed him that Dad’s body had been cremated that day. The news, certainly not unexpected, nevertheless hit me badly. Somehow that made it seem final, that he was really, truly gone. I thought about Dad a lot that day, but I’ve been thinking of him a lot every day since June 28.
My dad was my hero. He was there for me when I was a boy, teaching me how to play baseball, how to hunt and fish, how to work. He was there when I was a scared teenager of 17, writhing on a hospital table as a doctor poked and twisted my damaged knee. He was there during my first marriage, guiding me through the rough times, helping me out of jams, telling me that the most important thing I had to do was return to Christ. He was there when Sue and I were dating and about to go on our first trip together, and Dad purposely withheld from me the news that his mother, my paternal grandmother, had passed away in Platteville, knowing that I would back out of the trip in order to attend her funeral, and Dad knew that it was vitally important to me and my kids that Sue and I go on that trip and fall even deeper in love. It worked; 14 months later, Sue and I went to Arizona to help Dad celebrate his 60th birthday, and he and Mom were the first people we told about our engagement.
I’ve often had challenges in my life, and early on I would call Dad and ask for advice. He would willingly give it, and inevitably it was sound advice indeed. In the last couple decades, I didn’t have to ask Dad for advice, because all I had to do was ask myself, “What would Dad do about this? What would he say?” And it would come to me, and I would follow that advice, and things would work out.
Thanks, Dad. For everything.