Robert Lloyd Darrall died last Wednesday, June 11. He was Husband to Bernice, Father to Mark, Roberta, and Steven, Father-in-Law to Linda, Grandfather to Jonathon, Kevin, and Emily. He was Son to Lloyd and Collette, Brother to Dolores and William. He was the Mechanic to hundreds of truckers, train engineers, boaters, generator operators and more. He was Staff Sergeant Darrall to the Army. He was Bob to the dozens of co-workers he mentored and partnered with at Cummins Diesel. He was Mr. Darrall, then Dad, to the many friends of his children and grandchildren.
He was so much more than that.
He was the strongest man I ever knew. His strength had nothing to do with how much he could lift, though at 78, he was still stronger than most. His strength came from three places: his mind, his will, and his family. As I think about it, though, I really believe that those three sources were actually all connected in him.
My father graduated from a Technical High School- something akin to a Vo-Tech school today. He never went to college, never took any higher level classes. And yet, he was one of the smartest men I've ever known. And yes, that is saying something. He loved learning. It didn't matter what the subject seemed to be, he knew something about it, and he was almost always right. If colleges had degrees for "Jacks of All Trades", my father would have taught the class. If something needed done and he didn't already know how to do it, he would teach himself. He just loved to know things.
Dad was not a fighter. He wasn't interested in guns or violence or anything like that. But when the Korean conflict escalated into war, Dad joined the Army. He served three years and one day (they had to hold him an extra day to process his paperwork, I believe), and in that time, he served his country without question, and without fail. Korea is where he really took to working on giant machines- making things work came naturally to him, and he enjoyed it immensely. He told me how often, after working his time in the motor pool or out in the field repairing the vehicles, he would go back to his tent and read up on the technical manuals. Like I said, he loved to know things. During his time in Korea, he was promoted from private up to Corporal, and ultimately to Staff Sergeant, a difficult feat to accomplish in any era. For the longest time, Dad didn't want to talk much about his time in Korea. I often thought it was because of bad memories of his time there. However, as the years have passed, and I've talked with him more about it, I've come to believe that it wasn't bad experiences that kept him quiet; I believe he just didn't think it was that big of a deal, and there were more important things to think of. That was Dad.
Coming back from Korea, he soon found himself working for Cummins Diesel, traveling all over working as a mechanic, repairing all manner of engines in all weather, sweating, freezing, and loving every minute of it. He worked for Cummins for 50 years, longer than anyone else in the company. Though he started as a mechanic, he eventually was forced to come off the road in 1974 or '75 (my memory's a little fuzzy there) after his first heart attack. He went to work as a manager in the Monroeville shop, and later worked in their Murrysville and Harmarville branches. He became an "Applications Engineer"- by this time, Cummins realized they had a resource at hand who had built, fixed, or improved the vast majority of engines they'd made in the past 70 years, and so formally had Dad step in to help solve problems. Whether it was designing an all new system from the ground up, or repairing one of a handful of working 70-year-old Cummins train engines, they would ask him how to do it. That was Dad.
Somehow, in all that time working, he managed to meet and fall in love with my Mom. They married in 1957, and a little over a year later, had my brother, Mark. Not long after, my sister Bobbi came along. I arrived somewhat unexpectedly fifteen years later. Mom and Dad did the best they could raising us- and they did a pretty amazing job, considering how we all turned out. One of the greatest things they did for us was in fact what they didn't do- they never told us what to do with our lives. Our parents never said "you must go to college" or "you must work at the shop" or whatever. Our parents said "do you want to do this?" or "do you want to try that?" Our parents never gave us ultimatums; they gave us opportunities. When we succeeded, they were there to share our joy. When we failed, they were there to help us back on our feet. It was never "what did you do wrong?" it was always "what can we do to help make it right?". Those are my parents.
If you've been reading the blog for a while, you might recall my post a while back about the pictures I made for my dad back in the hospital. I talked about how strong he was... well, this is all relevant to the topic at hand, so I'll repeat myself here. My dad had the strongest will of anyone I've ever known. He had at least five heart attacks. The first one he had? He drove himself to the doctor's office. My father drank pretty heavily- not as much as his father and brother did, but he drank plenty. One day, he put down the drink, got up from the bar, and walked away. Dad smoked for nearly 40 years. When the doctors finally told him the smoking was really going to kill him, he stopped cold. No patch, no gum, no "just one after meals", he just stopped. Mom kids about it being the "Stubborn German" in him that let him do such things, but I think he used something else to give him that kind of strength of will- his family. He loved us all so much, and he had seen what those things had done to other people, that he would not let the same thing happen to us. No, he would stop it, whatever it took. That was my Dad.
He'd been living with emphysema for at least 25 years. Many people tend to give up and become more and more insular as the disease progresses. Not Dad. When he learned he had this fatal disease, he did the only thing he knew how to do. He fought. He fought like hell, and he did not give up. He went to the doctor's all the time- not to complain about his condition, or to whine about how unfair it was, but to plan his attack. He worked with the doctors to figure out the best way to combat this unbeatable disease. He went to physical therapy three times a week for many, many years- to build up his muscles and his lungs to fight against the onslaught. When new drugs would become available to possibly treat the disease, he would be taking them. He did everything in his power to fight as hard as he could against this. He put his mind into action, as I saw for myself. When he was in the hospital back in April, he kept meticulous records of his medications, breathing treatments, and exercise. Then, when the doctors came around, he would pull them out and go over his findings with them, so they could come up with another tactic. When I talked to him, he told me he and his doctors were working on "plans" for how to deal with what the disease was throwing at him. He would not give up. That was my father.
However, let me be perfectly clear on this, and read my words very carefully. He was not "beaten by this disease". He did not "lose a long battle against a terrible illness". I believe with my entire heart and soul, with every fiber of my being, that he knew exactly what was going to happen, and he chose to die in the exact way he chose to live: on his terms. From talking to my mom, and looking through all of his belongings, I truly do believe he was preparing for this, and decided that last Wednesday was time to finally let go.
First, some time ago, most of the family got together to have "the talk". What would happen when Dad finally died. We went over all the things we could think of, and left with two main items in place: one, Mom and Dad would go to an attorney to update their arrangements; and two, I would be the executor, due to an insignificant amount of legal experience I had from dealing with Pennsylvania Real Estate and estates. At the time of this conversation, I was living in Maryland, and expected to do so for years to come.
And yet, on May 9th, I moved back to Pennsylvania. I went from being almost four hours away from my folks to being forty minutes away.
Second, Dad had been in the hospital recently, for a very scary few days. He had made it out, but was left weaker than ever. He needed to be helped throughout the house, often relying on my mom and niece to get around. Except for those last few days. He was getting around pretty well on his own.
Wednesday morning, when my mom went to help dad get out of bed, she found him already up and on his way to the dinner table. His appetite had been a shell of its former self. That morning, he asked for one of his favorites, a Belgian waffle. He and Mom sat at the table and he ate the whole thing. After that, he walked over to his favorite chair, sat down, and reminded my mom of his cup of tea, one of his morning rituals. She brought it to him, he drank some of it, and set it down. He asked my Mom to go turn down his oxygen (part of his regimen, he regulated his oxygen throughout the day). When she came back, he was gone. Nothing traumatic, he just went. He had one of the best mornings he had in a long time, after feeling as good as he had in months, and he went as peacefully as anyone could imagine.
My sister called me. Half an hour later, I was at the hospital. It was too late, of course. Too late to say goodbye, too late to say all those things I thought I needed to say, too late for so much. But I wasn't too late for everyone else. I cried- I cried so hard- and then my mom was there, or my sister, or my niece. And I was there when they cried. I was there when we said our "see you later"s to him- he wasn't leaving us yet. I was there when we got to the house, there when we had to make the funeral arrangements, there when I had to make calls. I was there when Mom told me she was going to rely on me because Dad knew I could help, because Dad had faith in me. I was there because, five days before my father died, I moved back home.
I tried my best to handle all the details. Between Bobbi, Mark, and me, we all made short work of it. But I noticed, whenever I needed to find one particular bit of information, I would come across a piece of paper- written in Dad's hand- with just what I needed. When Bobbi went online to see if she needed to transfer some funds around to cover expenses, she found that Dad had already done it, a few days before.
His hand was in everything.
Even in death, even beyond death, Dad was making sure everything was okay for his family. There was never anything we had to worry about- no real worries other than what worries we made for ourselves. But he made everything okay.
That was my Dad.
Before the funeral began, some of the kids and grandkids spoke. I read a poem (I'll post it later this week), my sister read a great short work about how we should always be aware of how precious our time here on earth is, my niece and sister-in-law said a few words that cut right to the heart of what kind of man he was. But the words that stick with me the most are those spoken my my elder nephew, Jon, and by his father. Jon spoke beautifully about how to sum up my father in one word: "Dedicated". As Jon put it, "Dedicated to his Country, Dedicated to his Job, Dedicated to his Wife, Dedicated to his Children, and Dedicated to his Grandchildren" - and if that wasn't my Dad, then I never knew him. And my brother spoke about a sign he'd seen that said something akin to "Into all your work, put love". He spoke about how Dad truly put love into everything he did- as a husband, father, grandfather, mechanic- everything he did, he did with love. Mark spoke about taking Dad's example and following it, and re-dedicating himself to all he does. That struck me deeply, because for so long now, I've felt like I've let my parents down. I never lived the life I imagine they wanted for me- I've made so many mistakes, and so many bad choices- and I always thought they were somewhat disappointed in me. But talking with Dad, and especially with Mom, I realize the only things they ever felt about me, and all their children, were love and pride. And so I've tried to take my nephew's words, and my brother's words, and my parents' words and actions, to heart. My mantra, my prayer, my poem, my dedication and supplication to my father, is at the end.
My father lived on this world 78 years. He will live on in us always. We, his family, have so much to be grateful for. To have known a man as loving, as smart, as supportive. To have seen such strength and will in action, and to know that that is within each of us. To have been able to call such a man "Dad" or "Father" or "Grandpap" or "Pap Pap". And to know we have a mother just like our father.
Help me, Father, to be more than I thought I could be
Be my hands to help me hold fast
Be my feet to help me stand firm
Be my eyes to help me see clearly
Be my lips to help me speak truly
Be my heart to help me love fully
Help me, Father, to be the man you always knew me to be