by Joanie Butman
My father in law, Paul, passed away this week at the age of 98. Having spent his entire career in the military, he was affectionately known as “The Colonel.” He was one of a dying breed: a chauvinist who said whatever he thought without filter or apology. Some might be tempted to attribute that propensity to his advanced age, but he’d been doing it all his life. His political incorrectness knew no bounds, from asking every woman he met how much they weighed to creating his own vocabulary words such as lipshits (a disease manifested by chronic complaining). Clint Eastwood’s character in the movie Gran Torino is a perfect depiction of the Colonel.
Having vastly different beliefs in many areas, he and I engaged in many lively conversations. The longest one being our ongoing discussion about the existence of God. I’ve never had any desire to convert him. Quite the opposite, he seemed to have had a vested interest in convincing me how ridiculous it was to believe in God. Even so, for as long as I can remember, he claimed Tennyson’s Crossing the Bar as his favorite poem and one he wanted read at his funeral. It always puzzled me that a non-believer would choose this poem that is clearly referring to meeting God.
About five years ago my curiosity got the better of me, and I wrote him asking him to explain his fascination with the poem. He wrote back (from an ancient, manual typewriter) explaining his interpretation, to which I replied with another letter with my understanding of its meaning. At this point, he called Bob and instructed him, “Could you please let your wife know I don’t want to be her pen pal.” Classic Paul.
Yet underneath his often gruff exterior, he had a soft side that he went to great lengths to keep hidden, which is why the following story is so sweet. I’ve told it before but share it again in his memory.
On Mother's Day a few years ago, he called me and gave me a long preamble about how he was about to do something that he’s never done, something he’s not comfortable with, something that goes against all his military training, and many other caveats. Intrigued, I had no idea what to expect because you just never know what will come out of his mouth. If he had to prepare me for it, this was going to be a doozy! I prodded him, “What are you trying to tell me? Is Elinor (his wife) pregnant?” Not to be deterred, he responded brusquely, “I love you,” and promptly disconnected. Stunned, I turned to my husband and said, “I think your dad just hung up on me.” I immediately called him back, but he let it ring quite a few times before answering, even though I know the phone was still in his hand.
“Did you just hang up on me?” I inquired.
“I didn’t want to deal with the awkward silence at the other end of the line.”
I just had to laugh. I thanked him, responded in kind and said, “That wasn’t so bad, was it?” Of all the heartfelt declarations of love I’ve received in my life, this one may be the most valuable simply because of how difficult it was for him to offer it.
A few months later as I prepared to leave Rockport where we are summer neighbors, I felt compelled to let him know how much I cherished his desire to express his love despite his obvious discomfort. It was the best way I could say goodbye without actually using those words because he wouldn’t let me – a rule he instituted because he said it sounded too final.
I walked up for a visit during his daily noontime beer on the front porch. While we sat there enjoying the view and the warmth of the sun, I asked him if he remembered his Mother’s Day call. He laughed and admitted he couldn’t remember what happened yesterday never mind four months ago. I recapped our brief conversation, and though he claimed he couldn’t recall, I could tell by his sudden awkwardness that he knew exactly what I was talking about.
His response to my question about what prompted his uncharacteristic display of affection was reminiscent of a mischievous little boy caught in a lie. He couldn’t explain other than to say it must have been a letter or something I did. It doesn’t matter. The reason was unimportant. The fact that he understood my need to hear those words gave me a brief glimpse into his normally well-hidden sensitivity.
When I described how much it meant to me, he blushed. “Well, I guess I scored!” It went downhill from there into more familiar territory, with him pontificating about how men overuse the term “I love you” and throw it around carelessly as a “route to get into women’s pants.” He followed up with, “I’m beyond that capability now so no one can misconstrue my motives.” Here was the Paul I knew and loved. I quickly redirected the conversation to safer subjects like the lunch menu – food being the only neutral topic with him.
I’m happy to say that as he faded over the past six months, he had no problem expressing his love to everyone, and he even developed a faith, which he was glad to share with me. Nothing could have shocked or delighted me more. All those conversations and endless prayers for his heart to soften had finally been answered. You just never know the impact you might have by your choice to share “the reason for the hope that you have” – provided you do it with gentleness and respect.
During one of those many conversations where we once again reached a stalemate, I made a deal with Paul. Whoever died first was going to give the other a sign to settle the case once and for all. I believe I received mine the night he died. It’s too complicated to explain but it arrived with this audible message, “Look around you. We are not alone. This is what happens when God shows up.” As Paul’s sudden change of heart was nothing short of a miracle, I knew it was a result of divine intervention so the message made complete sense. He may have waited until the end of his life to let God in, but you’re never too late with God. Who knows? That might be the key to his longevity. God was just waiting for him to come around.
Tennyson’s poem concludes, “I hope to see my Pilot face to face when I have crossed the bar.” The day before he died I had my sister-in-law read him my goodbye because he could no longer talk on the phone. It said, “It’s finally time to meet your Pilot face to face Paul. You are going to be amazed. I’ll miss you but know I’ll see you on the other side. Love you.” I firmly believe Paul is with his Pilot getting all the answers he spent his lifetime searching for. Peaceful at last.
In Loving Memory
Colonel Paul M. Butman
1/21/1918 – 2/17/2016